Some Final Thoughts, and Thanks

I will be flying back to Chicago tonight so am frantically packing my things. But in light of the busyness of this last week, I wanted to wrap up this blog with a post that reviews some of what I found during the last few months and thanks everyone who helped along the way.

I flew to India more than ten months ago under the impression that my research would be primarily focused on sampling methods. This is in part because over the previous three years I spent a lot of time sitting in meetings and holding discussions about the challenges of acquiring representative samples, whether sample demographics matched the population’s demographics, how to improve sampling methods, etc.

What became clear to me over the first few weeks and months of my research is that this is a problem that many people have already thought extensively about. When it comes to making sure the demographics of one’s sample matches those of the population one is sampling, survey research organizations have some tried and true methods of trying to reach those harder-to-reach populations. They have good data on the demographics of the population they are working with, with the noteworthy exception of caste. When sample demographics don’t match those of the population, as will happen inevitably with some variables, they weight the data.

Furthermore, one can make generalizations about the challenges of sampling a particular population only insofar as that population has some amount of uniformity. The challenge of speaking about India is that it is a teeming multitude of populations. With 1.3 billion people spread out across 29 states and 7 union territories speaking 22 official languages (and hundreds of unofficial ones), India is more than just a country. It is a subcontinent that is home to one sixth of humanity, the most radical democratic experiment in history.

So the notion that there are certain challenges to polling India is useful only up until the point where one comes into contact with India’s variegated realities. I had the good fortune of coming into contact with just a few of these realities in my ten months here: different neighborhoods in downtown Patnaa Bodo village on the outskirts of Guwahatia working class neighborhood in west Delhi, a mid-sized town and its surrounding villages in Tamil Nadua Muslim village on the outskirts of a major city in West Bengal, a comfortable suburb on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, among others. These environments all had their own unique challenges for the field researchers who were sent to question designated respondents. Their knowledge of that environment and ability to navigate it proved critical in their ability to complete interviews successfully.

Here are some examples of how field researchers dealt with (or were unable to deal with) such challenges:

1. Gender

In both West Guwahati assembly constituency of Assam and Bolpur constitutency of West Bengal, female respondents were rarely interviewed in isolation. Their husbands or fathers frequently observed the interviews and would often start answering the questions for their wives/daughters. Field investigators would try to direct questions back to the respondent, but the respondent would often defer towards her husband or father, especially for questions related to abstract issues, such as ideology, or current affairs.

2. Caste

In the villages around Usilampatti, where intercaste violence between backwards castes and Dalits has been frequent, field investigators must know which villages have been flashpoints of such violence. In such villages, it is not safe for field researchers to even ask about the caste of respondents, as it may threaten their safety to raise the topic. Caste is a standard demographic variable included in all surveys, and so field investigators need to exercise a great deal of judgment about when and where to ask about it.

3. Language / ethnicity

Visiting a village on the outskirts of Guwahati that is home to Bodos and Rabhas, field investigators who spoke Assamese and Bengali were only able to interview the residents of the village who spoke Assamese. For the remainder of the village’s residents who spoke only Bodo and Rabha, the investigators were not able to complete interviews. Most of the selected respondents from the village could thus not be interviewed. Field investigators did not feel safe in the village and continued to the next polling station in the constituency.

4. Religion

In Ruppur, a village around Bolpur in West Bengal, residents in the Muslim section of the village expressed a great deal of hesitation and skepticism about participating in the survey. “Rajniti [politics],” one resident said, with disdain. Field investigators had to diligently explain that the surveys they were conducting were confidential and not for any political party or group. After the first few interviews, village residents became more comfortable with the interviews. This initial hesitation and skepticism was not encountered in the Hindu section of the village.

This experience was very different from field researchers conducting interviews in the Muslim section of Palikkal, a village about 50 km from Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram. Though many residents were not home, those who were welcomed the field investigators to the house and did not show much initial hesitance to answering questions about the upcoming elections.

5. Urban and rural settings

In neighborhoods of cities and larger towns, whether they were Delhi, Guwahati, Bolpur, or Nemom, many selected respondents were not home at the time of the field investigators’ visit because they were at their jobs in different parts of the city. If someone else was at the home, field investigators would try to set up a time to return and complete the interview. But the limited amount of time they had — somewhere between two to four days to complete all their interviews — meant that field investigators often had to make judgment calls about whether or not to return to the household and re-attempt the interview.

Furthermore, navigating urban neighborhoods to find the households of selected respondents nearly always proved to be challenging. Field investigators would ask other respondents, shopkeepers, and neighborhood residents about the addresses and names of those who were selected for interview, but people often did not know so well the names of all people in their neighborhood. This was especially the case in Bolpur and Nemom; in Usilampatti, respondents were more likely to identify names and addresses in their neighborhood. Field investigators had to make a judgment about how much effort to expend locating households in one particular neighborhood before moving onto the next neighborhood.

In small villages, such as Ruppur or the Bodo village on the outskirts of Guwahati, respondents were much more likely to know the names and locations of selected respondents. In the case of Ruppur, a group of young men led the field investigators around the village to each listed respondent. On the other hand, in Palikkal (also a small village) field investigators struggled to complete many interviews since village residents were less familiar with the names and addresses of selected respondents in the area.

Transportation to villages often proved a logistical obstacle to completing more interviews. An expensive rickshaw ride was required to go from Bolpur to Ruppur, for example (the rickshaw driver looked with puzzlement at the field investigators when they said this was where they wanted to go). Work had to be cut short earlier in the afternoon in order to catch the last bus back to Bolpur. Field investigators had to be familiar with bus schedules to ensure that they could arrive in the village and return to their home or hostel before dark.

6. Class

In one village outside of Usilampatti, many of the village’s residents were unemployed agricultural workers who earned a living from the MGNREGA scheme. Field investigators went to the field where the villagers were working and started completing interviews, but were disrupted by a panchayat (local government) clerk who told the villagers not to answer any questions. One field investigator talked to the clerk, explaining why the survey was being conducted and presenting him with the official letter from CSDS, but the clerk insisted that the field investigators leave.

Many of the selected respondents in villages around Usilampatti had left to work in larger towns and cities around Tamil Nadu. In Nemom, it was also the case that several selected respondents had left their homes and were presently working jobs in the Middle East. Field investigators were not able to interview any of these selected respondents.

7. Education

Respondents with lower levels of education often struggled to comprehend many of the questions in the questionnaire, especially those related to current events. However, some could hardly understand any of the questions beyond which party they had supported or would be supporting in the election. Some respondents in Bolpur and Ruppur who were supporters of Trinamool Congress merely answered, “Trinamool,” for all questions, even those for which “Trinamool” was not an option or for which the response “Trinamool” would convey something negative about the party. Field investigators had to make a judgment about whether respondents really meant to convey a negative impression about Trinamool or simply did not understand the question. This was a challenge encountered by field investigators working in the villages around Usilampatti as well. Many of the selected respondents simply did not understand the content of questions. One old woman asked, “Who is Modi?” for one of the questions about the central government’s welfare schemes. Field investigators therefore had to make decisions about whether it made sense to ask all questions in the questionnaire, when it was clear from the initial section of the interview that the respondent hardly understood the content of questions.


As has become clear from interviews with researchers, there are national level trends when it comes to challenges of survey research in India, and the practitioners of surveys who have been conducting them for decades (VB Singh, Yogendra Yadav, Sanjay Kumar, Yashwant Deshmukh, and Dhananjai Joshi) are well familiar with them: lower response rates among Dalits, Muslims, and tribal populations; challenges in reaching female respondents, particularly Muslim female respondents; and lower response rates in urban neighborhoods. As Yogendra Yadav succinctly explained: 

Random sample with a reasonably large size gets you everything. But anything other than random sample almost invariably oversamples again the more articulate, the more well-to-do, men, urban. The slope of privileges is such that sampling tends to flow in the direction of socioeconomically more powerful groups: rich, men, urban, upper caste, media-exposed, educated. And since all of these, except the gender, has a significant correlation with each other upon another, there is a very substantial overrepresentation of one section of society.

My point in explicating the examples above is to illustrate how the challenges of conducting survey research in India are not limited to these general trends. They are the beginning rather than the end of obstacles faced by those conducting surveys in India (I did not even touch on the all-important issue of funding, nor the issue of pressures that comes from media and other clients), and the examples above hopefully illustrate how obstacles are highly localized and unique to each and every environment. In order to navigate them, field investigators must be conscious of the challenges in their assigned environments and capable of navigating them competently. Retention of experienced field staff who are passionate about the work they are doing is therefore a must.

In light of the highly localized challenges of conducting survey research in India, researchers might want to think about how the design of questionnaires can be done in a way that integrates local knowledge more extensively. I don’t mean that questionnaires should be put to a vote and of course understand the precious value of real estate on questionnaires. But perhaps the mechanisms by which local knowledge flows up to those designing the questionnaire at the highest levels can be re-examined. This might be especially helpful in the case of states that tend to be more outside the expertise of north Indian researchers. From my viewpoint in Delhi, where all of my three research affiliates were based, it was the South and Northeast where more inputs from people in the states might have expanded our ability to understand the results of the Assam, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu elections. The questions we ask are, after all, the ones that define our analysis.


This research would not have been possible without the support, encouragement, and contributions of so many people.

From my old employer D3 Systems, thanks to David Jodice, Matthew Warshaw, Sandra Newman, and David Peng for their encouragement towards pursuing this project and their recommendations. I am also grateful to my former professor and thesis supervisor, Samer Shehata, for his recommendation.

From the United States-India Educational Foundation, thanks to Adam Grotsky, Neeraj Goswami, Priyanjana Ghosh, Pavitra Soram, and Kalden Shringla for their guidance and support.

Thank you to everyone who sat down for an interview: Rajdeep Sardesai, Rukmini S, Dhananjai JoshiRajeeva KarandikarYashwant DeshmukhPraveen Rai, Yogendra YadavVB Singh, Sanjay Kumar, and Mukulika Banerjee.

From Impetus Research, thanks to Ankur Aggarwal, Raghavendra Srivastava, Anil Kumar Jha, Rajni Singh, and Krishna Shahi.

From CVoter, thank you very much to Shalinder Mahjan, Shaleja, SK, Abdul Menon, Ajit Shukla, and everyone else at the Noida office. Thanks especially to Yashwant Deshmukh, who was generous with his time and allowed me to peer inside the guts of his organization in a way that commercial pollsters rarely allow.

From the CSDS-Lokniti network around the country, thanks to Dhruba Pratim Sharma, Meenakshi, Vashwati Das, Jyoti Prasad Chatterjee, Suprio Basu, Biswajit Prasad, Shaw Chandan, KM Sajad Ibrahim, Sandeep Shastri, Rajeena Aysha, Anuja, Arya, Sukanya, P. Rama Jayam, Ranith, Thanalakshmi, Pechi, and Kajinder for help with logistics and letting me follow your work.

Most of all, thank you to everyone at the Lokniti office in Delhi: Asmita Aasaavari, Dhananjay Kumar Singh, Vibha Attri, Jyoti Mishra, Shreyas Sardesai, Nitin Mehta, Arushi Gupta, Himanshu Bhattacharya, Pranav Gupta, Rahul Verma, and of course Sanjay Kumar. These people are truly at the forefront of thinking about Indian politics, and I have learned more from them in ten months than I ever could have expected.

Thank you, reader, for taking an interest in this research.

I will be back. Until next time, this is Polling One Billion, signing off.

Lokniti

Lokniti-CSDS

Cvoter

Team CVoter

 

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Analysis of CSDS Assam post-poll in Indian Express

Today’s Indian Express has the Lokniti-CSDS analysis of the post-poll conducted in Assam. The headline article by Sanjay Kumar, Suhas Palshikar, and Sandeep Shastri reviews the meaning of all four election results for national politics. Here’s the key takeaway:

…these election outcomes yet again underscore the importance of state-level political configurations. Not just the fact that in almost each of these four states, state level players made all the difference, but also the nature of competition, its impact on various players, filtering of the national appeals and images, and the social bases that allowed victories and produces losses, are all state-specific. This is what the BJP ignored in case of Bihar and made amends this time around. As we move away from the Modi magic of 2014, this crucial reality would be a major factor in shaping the electoral arena. More importantly, this means that challenge to the BJP can arise mainly from state-based parties — something that ties up with the inevitability of coalitions.

…in spite of its limited success in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, this round of Assembly elections further underscores the rise of BJP as the only truly all-India party. Already in 2014, it had nearly achieved that status, but a robust performance in East and South further strengthens this feature. It took a long time for any party to finally emerge as an all-India party in the wake of the decline of Congress that began in 1989.

…this outcome will be remembered for probably the last leg in the downhill journey of the Congress party. In 2014, it was felt that that was the lowest that the party can stumble. But past two years have shown the depths of its downfall. Both in Assam and in Kerala, it is not extra-ordinary that it lost; but the scale of loss and, more than that, the style in which it lost — bickering, aimless and isolated — makes this outcome another important milestone in the irresistible decline of the Congress party.

Links to all articles on Assam below:

On the unprecedented level of Hindu consolidation for the BJP by Shreyas Sardesai and Dhruba Pratim Sharma

On the BJP’s alliances with regional parties by Sam Solomon

On the BJP’s success among Scheduled Tribe voters by Shreyas Sardesai

On Congress’ decision to not align with the AIUDF by Sanjeer Alam

Counting Day

Election results for Assam, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal were all announced today. You can follow the results as they are tallied here or here (with maps!).

In Assam, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) snagged an 86-seat majority through its alliance with the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) and Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). This is the election that attracted the most attention in north Indian media because 1) the BJP had the greatest chance of winning compared to the other state elections and 2) it was the only state in which Congress and the BJP were the principal competitors. Congress won a measly 26 seats, retiring it from its fifteen years in government, while the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) won 13 seats. This result is not surprising, though the magnitude of the BJP’s victory is quite impressive. At sixty seats, the BJP nearly won a majority all on its own. In West Gauhati, the assembly constituency (AC) seat where I observed exit polls and post-poll fieldwork in April, the AGP won.

In Kerala, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) won a clean victory with 91 of 140 seats, besting the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), which won 47 seats. Kerala has swung back and forth between LDF rule and UDF rule for the last few decades, so this result is not surprising either. The BJP managed to expand its vote share to 11% (with its ally, the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena) and win its first seat in the niyamasabha with this election. The assembly constituency it won, Nemom, is where I observed pre-poll fieldwork last week. The other AC where I observed fieldwork, Varkala, was won by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The only remaining question is whether former chief minister (and nonagenarian) VS Achuthanandan or Pinarayi Vijayan will be the next chief minister of Kerala, a question the CPM must decide on in the coming days.

In Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa’s Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK) managed to hold on to power with a reduced majority of 134 out of 232 seats, beating Karunanidhi’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) – Congress alliance, which nevertheless expanded its vote share from the 2011 elections to win 89 seats. The much-hyped People’s Welfare’s Front (PWF), a motley alliance of the Communist Party of India (CPI), Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM), Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), and Vidhuthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) led by film star Vijayakanth, failed to win even one seat. As Rahul Verma wrote in The Indian Express today, this shows that the Tamil system of two Dravidian parties taking turns in power remains stronger than ever. This election was a milestone in that Jayalalitha bucked the trend of Tamil politics by which the DMK and ADMK are voted out every five years. This result comes something as a surprise, since the exit polls released Monday all showed the DMK-Congress winning (with the exception of CVoter, one of my research affiliates, who called the ADMK victory). The ADMK won in Usilampatti, the assembly constituency where I observed pre-poll fieldwork last week.

In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee and the Trina Mool Congress (TMC) won in a landslide, winning 214 out of 294 seats. The Left Front-Congress alliance managed to win only 73 seats, with the Congress winning 44 and the Left Front winning 29. A disastrous result for the Left, which dominated West Bengal politics from 1977 to 2011. The BJP won three seats, an improvement over its 2011 performance (when it won none) but did not match its performance from 2014. In Bolpur, the AC where I observed exit polls and post-poll fieldwork in April, the TMC won.

And in the tiny union territory of Puducherry, an alliance between the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and Congress has won 17 of 30 seats.

Overall, these are bad results for the Congress, middling results for the Left, and promising results for the BJP. The Congress has now been on a losing streak for several years at the national and state level. Losing two more states was the last result they needed; the only major state which they now govern is Karnataka (they are also a junior partner in the Bihar government). The Left, though happy to win Kerala, appears to be facing terminal decline in West Bengal, once their stronghold. The Left also failed to win a single seat in Tamil Nadu. The BJP is rejoicing at its big victory in Assam — their first win in the Northeast India — while also pleased to expand on its vote share and finally win a seat in Kerala.

I am happy to say that the CSDS pre-polls (for Kerala and Tamil Nadu) and post-polls (for Assam and West Bengal) were spot on in terms of identifying the trends in these four elections (we did not do a survey for Puducherry). The CSDS/Lokniti team’s analysis of the survey results will be featured in The Indian Express over the next few days.

Exit Poll and Post-Poll Observation in Assam and West Bengal

The trip to Assam and West Bengal was both joyful and insightful. Joyful in that I am a politics geek and get a thrill from any opportunity to observe or participate in elections. Insightful in that I finally had the opportunity to work with CSDS field investigators and observe the challenges of their craft in person. As outlined in the inaugural post for this blog, fieldwork observation with well-trained field investigators was a critical aspect of my research. Observing the CSDS pre-poll training and CVoter exit polls in Bihar, as well as shadowing an Impetus investigator conducting a market survey on chocolate in West Delhi, shed light on some of the challenges of data collection. But this visit allowed me to see up close the challenges that researchers encounter in the field when collecting data, far from the air-conditioned offices in Delhi and Noida.

Rather than narrate the entire sequence of my trip, as I have for previous field visits, a concise summary of the challenges encountered by researchers will suffice.

On April 11, 61 of Assam’s 126 assembly constituencies went to the polls. On that day, I shadowed Nazbul, a researcher for CVoter, as he collected data for exit polls in the Jalukbari neighborhood of West Gauhati assembly constituency. On April 12, I shadowed two CSDS field investigators, Meenakshi and Vaswati, as they conducted interviewers for the CSDS post-poll in the Kahi Kuchi neighborhood of Gauhati, also in West Gauhati assembly constituency. On April 13, I shadowed Meenakshi and Vaswati again as they conducted interviews in Bahupara, a mixed Bodo and Rabha village on the outskirts of Gauhati and Garigaon neighborhood of Gauhati (both in West Gauhati assembly constituency). Field investigators and respondents generally presumed that the AGP, an ally of the BJP, would win the assembly seat.

I then traveled to Bolpur, a city in West Bengal that is about 150 km north of Kolkata. On April 17, which was election day, I briefly observed CVoter exit polling at a polling booth in downtown Bolpur, in the Bolpur assembly constituency. On April 18, I met up with Biswajit and Chandan, two veteran field investigators for CSDS, and trailed them as they interviewed respondents in a neighborhood of Bolpur. On April 19, I again followed Biswajit and Chandan; this day, we went to the village of Ruppur, which was about 10 km outside of Bolpur. Most of the selected respondents in the village were Muslim, though a few Hindu respondents were interviewed in a separate part of the village. Field investigators and respondents generally presumed that the Trina Mool Congress would win the assembly seat.

  1. Assam vs. West Bengal: Voters in Assam were much more willing to speak with field investigators than voters in West Bengal. It is possible that this may have been due to the gender of the investigators — female investigators may be perceived as less threatening than male — but it could also be attributable to differences in the politics of the two states. Elections in West Bengal have an ignominious history of intimidation and violence, a trend that has continued during this election (thankfully I did not observe any such instances). Because I was in Gauhati during Bihu, the Assamese new year, respondents were perhaps more likely to invite us in to offer chai and snacks. Overall, respondents in West Bengal were more wary and less willing to speak to field investigators than respondents in Assam; this was true of both CVoter’s exit polls and CSDS post-polls.
  2. Urban vs. rural areas: In both Assam and West Bengal, respondents in urban areas were considerably more difficult to locate for the CSDS post-polls than respondents in rural areas. In urban areas, people were less likely to recognize names on the lists of voters selected for interviews. Field investigators had to repeatedly ask different street vendors and neighbors about the addresses of selected respondents. In rural areas (Bahupara in Assam and Ruppur in West Bengal), respondents were able to identify the addresses of other selected respondents with ease. This meant that fieldwork proceeded much more quickly and efficiently in rural areas than urban areas. In West Bengal, respondents in urban Bolpur were also much warier about allowing interviews than  respondents in rural Ruppur. There was an initial skepticism from respondents in Ruppur (this might have had more to do with religion of respondents, see below), but once trust was earned from village residents after the first few interviews, other selected respondents were more willing to be interviewed. Interviews were facilitated by a group of young men who took us around to meet with each selected respondent.
  3. Language: In Assam, language was not an issue in the urban areas of Gauhati. However, when we went to Bahupara, the majority of residents spoke Bodo and Rabha, not Assamese. This meant that field were not able to interview the majority of selected respondents in the village. Only a Bodo couple who spoke Assamese and was not originally from the village could be interviewed. Language was not an issue for West Bengal, where all respondents spoke Bengali.
  4. Gender: With the exception of elderly women, female respondents who were selected were nearly always interviewed in the presence of their father or husband, especially in the case of West Bengal where the field investigators were male. Interviews were often conducted in the presence of family members or other village residents (as is clear from the photos below) and other family members often cut in to answer. These interruptions were more frequent with female respondents. In some cases, male family members/husbands would talk over female respondents; in others, female respondents would defer their respondents would defer their responses to male family members/husbands. Field investigators adopted a deferential approach towards these dynamics and did not intervene when other family members answered questions in lieu of the selected respondent.
  5. Education level: For less educated respondents, some questions in the CSDS post-poll questionnaire were beyond their comprehension level, particularly questions about current events. This produced high levels of non-response, especially among some female respondents in Gauhati and in Ruppur.
  6. Timing: During the afternoon, Bolpur residents were less willing to open the door or be interviewed. Biswajit said this was because many people were taking afternoon naps. Fieldwork had to be concluded early in Ruppur (around 4:30 PM) so that we could take the last bus back to Bolpur for the evening. Biswajit said this was a common problem for surveys; if field investigators were not invited to stay in a rural village, they had to leave earlier in the day, cutting off fieldwork time.
  7. Nonresponse to political questions: Respondents in both Assam and West Bengal were less willing to reveal their vote presence for exit polls than for post-polls conducted in residents’ houses. This was especially the case in West Bengal, where a large share of respondents would answer questions about which issues mattered to them but not their voting decision in exit polls. However, field investigators for exit polls in both Assam and West Bengal expressed a general reluctance among respondents to reveal their votes. Field investigators in West Bengal
  8. Religion: As stated above, there was initial reluctance to participate among respondents in Ruppur. It is not clear whether this reluctance was due to the presence of outsiders in the village (to say nothing of an American researcher), the difference in religion between the field investigators (Hindu) and residents (Muslim), or some combination of both. However, once this suspicion about field investigators dissipated, selected respondents were quite open about their voting intentions. Hindu voters, both in Bolpur and in Ruppur, were more circumspect about revealing their voting preference.

 


April 11 (Election Day in Assam — Exit Polls with CVoter in Jalukbari, Gauhati West assembly constituency)

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University of Gauhati

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A polling booth on Election Day

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A polling booth in Jalukbari

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April 12 (Post-Poll with CSDS — West Guwahati assembly constitutency)Interview 1

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A billboard for the BJP-AGP-BPF alliance

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April 13 (Post-Poll with CSDS — West Guwahati assembly constitutency)

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April 17 (Election Day in West Bengal — Exit Polls with CVoter in Bolpur assembly constituency)

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Graffiti in support of the Revolutionary Socialist Party

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Graffiti in support of the Trina Mool Congress


April 18 (Post-poll with CSDS — Bolpur assembly constituency)

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A billboard for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee appeals to both Hindus and Muslims

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April 19 (Post-poll with CSDS — Ruppur in Bolpur assembly constituency)

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April 20 (Bolpur to Kolkata)

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Bolpur train station

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Park Street in Kolkata

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Flurys, the legendary Kolkata tearoom

Jaipur and Jodhpur

Blogging has been backlogged — I am just now posting photos from Jaipur and Jodhpur in the days following the South and Central Asia Fulbright Conference at the end of February / start of March.

Tomorrow, I will be going out to Assam and West Bengal to observe exit polls being conducted by CVoter and fieldwork for the CSDS post-polls in both states. Reports to be posted on the blog once I return.


Jaipur (March 2-3)

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Entrance to the Pink City

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Hawa Mahal

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Albert Hall Museum

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Gateway to City Palace

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Tikam Chand maintains a camera that dates back to the 1860s in front of Hawa Mahal

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The photos look like they’re from the 1860s

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Overlooking Jaipur from Suriya Mandir


Jodhpur (March 4-5)

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Looking out across the rooftops of the Old City

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Umaid Bhawan, the last palace to be built in India (completed in 1944)

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View from Jaswant Thada

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Mehrangarh Fort

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Overlooking the Blue City from Mehrangarh Fort

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Mandor Gardens, where the ancient capital of Marwar was located

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The Clock Tower in the middle of the Old City

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A Guide to the 2016 Assam Elections

 In April and May, four different states (Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal) and one union territory (Puducherry) are going to the polls to elect new legislative assemblies. Below is a brief guide to the Assam assembly elections. For more information on these elections, please see Pranav Gupta’s overview as well as Sandhya Goswami’s and Vikas Tripathi 2015 EPW article, both of which were consulted for this guide. Uddipana Goswami’s Conflict and Reconciliation: The Politics of Ethnicity in Assam provides a definitive overview of the many dimensions of ethnic conflict in Assam’s colonial and post-colonial history, while Sandhya’s Goswami’s 2003 Journal of School of Political Economy article provides a definitive review of Assam’s political parties.

Assam’s politics are a direct reflection of the state’s uniqueness. Tucked away in India’s northeast, the state is a melting pot of cultural and ethnic identities. It has struggled with separatist violence, religious and ethnic tensions, and debates about the autonomy and independence of its many tribal populations. At the same time, Assam is a state that is developing rapidly and defies simple generalizations.

Like many previous elections, this election will fuse questions over Assam’s ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and religious identity with tensions over tribal issues and illegal immigration from Bangladesh. A Congress-led government that has held office for fifteen years will be fighting against feelings of anti-incumbency. The BJP will try to notch its first win in a state election in over a year, and post its first victory ever as a coalition leader in east Indian state politics.

This election will be a contest between three main electoral players: the Congress-UPP alliance, the BJP-BPF-AGP alliance, and the AIUDF-JD(U)-RJD allianceBecause this is the only one of the four upcoming elections in which the BJP could displace a Congress government, it will probably be the election most closely watched by the national media in Delhi.


  • What is Assam?

At 31.2 million people, Assam is the largest state in northeastern India. Its capital is Dispur, and its largest city is Guwahati. Assam is well-known for its tea and silk, which are the state’s largest exports.

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The state of Assam includes many different tribal populations; twelve percent are categorized as Scheduled Tribes (STs), which qualifies them for targeted benefits related to employment and education.Various movements, peaceful and militant, have occurred in Assam’s post-independent history to demand greater autonomy and sometimes complete independence for different ethnic and tribal groups. Such independence movements during the 1960s to 1980s produced a new set of small states in the Northeast: Nagaland, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, and Mizoram. Indeed, for decades Assam had its own armed separatist movement, the United Liberation Forces of Assam (ULFA), which laid down its arms in 2011 after an agreement with the Assamese and Indian governments.

Not all movements have called for full independence. The Bodos, who make up more than 40% of Assam’s ST population, led a movement in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s that resulted in greater autonomy through the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) that was established in 2003. While the Bodos are the most prominent, several other tribes have won concessions of autonomous governing councils from the central and state governments.

As a neighbor of Bangladesh, Assam has regularly received large inflows of Bangladeshi migrants throughout its history. Considerable tensions have generally surrounded this migration. The Assam Movement, or Assam Agitation, which occurred from 1979 to 1985 was the most organized outbreak of such tensions. The All Assam Students Union (AASU) led protests and demonstrations against undocumented Bangladeshis immigrants demanding that migrants be expelled from the state. This movement came to a head on January 19, 1983, when more than 2,000 Bengali Muslims were massacred in one of the worst pogroms in Indian history. The movement ended in 1985 with the Assam Agreement between the AASU and the government of India, after which the AASU became the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and entered party politics. The AGP won the 1986 and 1996 state elections, governing from 1986 to 1991 and 1996 to 2001.

Muslims constitute the largest religious minority in Assam. According to the 2011 census, 34% of residents were Muslim, the largest of any state outside of Jammu and Kashmir. This population includes Assamese Muslims, Bengali Muslims (i.e., originally from West Bengal), and Bangladeshi Muslims. Because nearly all migrants that have arrived from Bangladesh are Muslim, nativist movements are often inflected with religious overtones. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for example, has stated that all Muslim Bangladeshi migrants will be expelled from Assam during previous campaign trips to the state. On a recent campaign stop, he said that if a BJP government was elected, a fenced border will be built by December 2016 to keep out Muslim Bangladeshi migrants.

Language has also been as another key point of tension throughout Assam’s history. In 1960, the Assamese Official Language Act was passed, making Assamese the sole official language of the state. This act has never been fully implemented however. While Assamese is the official language of much of the state, it is not in three districts of the state in the Barak Valley, where Bengali is the official language. In the four districts of the Bodoland Territorial Council, Bodo is another official language. The Language Act of 1960 has therefore been the subject of much public debate, with some calling for repeal of the law in contrast to others calling for its full implementation.

According to data from the 2011 Assam assembly elections survey, Assamese-speaking Hindus constitute 31% of Assam’s population, Assamese-speaking Muslims constitute 9%, Bengali-speaking Hindus constitute 10%, and Bengali-speaking Muslims constitute 20% [Editor’s note: These figures have been corrected from a previous version of the article, in which figures were not properly weighted to the state’s overall religious demographics per the 2011 census].

  • Why is Assam having elections?

Like Bihar last year, Assam will be electing a Vidhan Sabha, or legislative assembly, to govern the state’s affairs. Assam’s Vidhan Sabha has 126 seats. Whichever party alliance can combined assemble 64 seats will have enough to back a government led by their named chief ministerial candidate. Once the chief minister has secured a majority of votes in the Vidhan Sabha, s/he will name a government of ministers. State governments hold office for five years if they are able to maintain a majority in the Vidhan Sabha.

  • When are the elections being held?

The elections are being held in two phases. In the first phase on April 4, 65 constituencies voted. In the second phase on April 11, the remaining 61 constituencies will have elections. The final results of the elections will be announced on May 19, along with the results of the elections in West Bengal, Puducherry, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu.

  • What are the stakes of this election at the national level?

The Indian National Congress (INC), which for many decades led the national government and many state governments, has been on a downward electoral slide over the past few years. This culminated in their embarrassing loss in 2014, in which the party was reduced to a historic low of forty seats in the Lok Sabha. After Karnataka and Kerala, Assam is the largest state governed by the INC. Losing it would be another embarrassment that shows the party’s diminishing appeal, following  on previous losses in head-to-head contests against the BJP in the 2014 elections of Haryana and Maharashtra. Another Congress loss to the BJP would further embolden other parties seeking to emerge as the national alternative to the BJP.

While successful in the most recent national elections and many state elections in the last few years, the BJP suffered two striking losses in last year’s elections in Delhi (to AAP) and Bihar (to a grand alliance of JD(U), RJD, and the INC). Prime Minister Modi and BJP President Amit Shah are eager to turn this narrative of losses around, especially with the crucial elections in Uttar Pradesh only a year away. Modi and Shah aim to extend their party’s advantage over INC in state and national politics, since the INC after all played only a minor role in the Delhi and Bihar elections.

  • What are the main parties contesting? What are their electoral strategies?

As in any Indian election, a multitude of political parties are contesting the polls. Three main alliances have emerged:

1) Indian National Congress (INC) – United People’s Party (UPP) alliance

Led by Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, who has led the state since 2001, the INC will be facing a tide of anti-incumbency after winning elections in 2001, 2006, and 2011. The Congress party in Assam faced a major rebellion last year, when minister Himanta Biswa Sarma left over the question of succession and joined the BJP along with nine other Congress members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). The weakened Congress government is hoping to focus on its record of development in Assam, and will be leaning heavily on its Assamese Muslim vote bank while also hoping to pull a significant share of votes from Assamese Hindus, Bengali Hindus, and the tea tribes.

While there was talk last year and earlier this year about a potential alliance between INC and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), nothing emerged from such talks. The electoral calculation may be that a tie-up with the AIUDF, which speaks to the aspirations of the Bengali Muslims in the state, could hurt the INC with its traditional voters among the Assamese Hindu and Bengali Hindu communities.

Without any major allies, the INC will need to either win a majority of seats largely on its own or a definitive plurality that gives it a mandate to make alliances with other parties (most likely the AIUDF) after the election. Congress recently tied up an alliance with the United People’s Party (UPP), a recently-launched Bodo party, which will compete in four constituencies in the Bodoland Territorial Council areas.

The INC will contest 122 of Assam’s 126 seats, while the UPP will contest 4 seats.

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Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi

2) Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) – Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) alliance

This alliance is being led by the BJP’s union minister of youth affairs and sports, Sarbananda Sonowal. Sonowal, who belongs to the Sonowal tribe that is categorized as ST, was once a member of the AASU and the AGP. In contrast to the Bihar elections last year, in which Prime Minister Modi’s heavy involvement was deemed a strategic failure, the BJP will rely heavily on popular Assamese leaders. This includes Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is directing the BJP’s electoral strategy.

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Union Minister Sarbananda Sonowal

The BJP is hoping to win a large share of the Assamese Hindu and Bengali Hindu vote in the state, which powered its win in half the Lok Sabha seats in the state in 2014. In previous elections, the BJP’s base consisted primarily of Bengali Hindus in the state, since the AGP and INC had cornered most of the Assamese Hindu vote. The 2014 Lok Sabha elections changed these dynamics when the BJP won seven seats while the AGP won zero.

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Himanta Biswa Sarma

Through their alliance with the AGP, the BJP will aim to unify the Hindu vote, as Hindus make up 62% of the state’s population. In order to appeal to both Assamese regional sentiment and Hindu religious sentiment, party spokesmen have been referring to the AIUDF, a Bengali Muslim outfit, as their main opponent instead of the INC. BJP talk of building a fenced border to keep out Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants also serves to highlight religious and ethnic differences and thereby consolidate the Hindu vote among both ethnic Assamese and Bengalis.

The BJP will also try to expand its vote among tribal communities. Six ethnic groups that currently have Other Backwards Class (OBC) status in Assam — Tai Ahoms, adivasis (also known as tea tribes), Koch Rajbongshis, Morans, Sooteas, and Motoks — are seeking Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to expand the educational and employment benefits provided to these communities. At the beginning of March, the BJP government in Delhi established a committee to recommend ST status for these communities by May, following through on a campaign promise from the 2014 national elections.

The BJP has also made a strategic alliance with the major Bodo party, the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF). After thirteen years in alliance with the INC government, the BPF broke their alliance in 2014 to tie up with the BJP for the upcoming state elections. As the predominant political force in the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) areas of north Assam, this was a coup for the BJP, since the BPF is likely to perform strongly in the BTC constituencies (they currently hold twelve constituencies).

Lastly, the AGP, for so long the vehicle of regionalist sentiment in Assam, decided to tie up with the BJP for this election cycle. As mentioned above, the AGP has faced a secular decline in vote share since the 1990s when they were at their peak strength. Their pre-poll alliance with the BJP is a recognition of their declining electoral strength in Assam.

In this alliance, the BJP will contest 84 seats, the BPF will contest 16 seats, and the AGP will contest 24 seats. Two other political parties representing tribal communities, the Rabha Jatiya Aika Manch  and the Tiwa Jatiya Aika Manch, will also be contesting 1 seat each under the BJP symbol.

3) All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) – Janata Dal (United) (JD(U)) – Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) alliance

The All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) has emerged as a growing electoral force in the last decade. Established in 2005 by Badruddin Ajmal, a religious leader and scion of a wealthy perfume manufacturer family, the AIUDF has made itself the electoral home for Bengali Muslim votes in the states, winning the second-largest number of seats (18) in the Vidhan Sabha elections of 2011. The AIUDF’s increasing share of the Bengali Muslim vote has come largely at the expense of Congress. In 2014, AIUDF won three Lok Sabha seats in Assam, equalling Congress’ total in the state despite a lower vote share due to the geographic concentration of their supporters.

The AIUDF has been eager to frame itself as the major opposition force to the BJP in Assam. Though not in an official alliance with the Congress, the AIUDF will not be contesting seats in Upper Assam so as not to split the anti-BJP vote in this region. If the AIUDF-led alliance and Congress each win enough seats, it is possible that a coalition government could be brokered after the election.

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AIUDF leader Badruddin Ajmal

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who led a successful grand alliance of the JD(U), RJD, and INC against the BJP in last year’s Bihar elections, tried to produce a similar alliance between the AGP, AIUDF, and Congress for Assam. No such alliance emerged, though JD(U) and RJD, which do not presently hold any seats in Assam’s Vidhan Sabha, ended up aligning themselves with the AIUDF. Both Kumar and Bihari political stalwart Lalu Yadav will be campaigning during the upcoming elections in an effort to establish a presence in Assam.

The AIUDF will contest 76 seats, while the JD(U) and RJD will each contest 12 seats.

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Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar

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RJD leader Lalu Yadav

The Left Front will collectively contest 59 constituencies in Assam: the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) will contest 19, the Community Party of India (CPI) will contest 18, the All India Forward Bloc (AIFB) will contest 10, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (CPI(ML)) will contest 9, and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and Revolutionary Communist Party of India (RCPI) will each contest 2 seats.

The All India Trina Mool Congress (AITMC), which presently governs in West Bengal, will also be contesting 25 seats separately.

  • Where does each party expect to perform well?

The infographic map below from Mint below examines where each party has performed well in the past two elections, the 2011 Vidhan Sabha elections and the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

Assam-Battle-Ground_web

The blue stripe in the upper left corner of the first map (Winner – 2011 AE) is Bodoland, and the BPF is likely to win these assembly constituencies again. The constituencies colored in yellow in these first two maps, where AIUDF won the largest share votes, are the areas where Bengali residents are most heavily concentrated: Lower Assam in the western pocket of the state and Barak Valley at the southern end. AIUDF will again be competing in these areas.

Note the mass of red in the second map (Winner – 2014 PE). This is Upper Assam, where Assamese Hindus and Muslims are concentrated, and the density of red shows that the BJP won this area decisively in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The AIUDF-led alliance will not compete in these constituencies so as not to split the anti-BJP vote with Congress.

The BJP knows that its strength lies in Upper Assam; its alliances will help most in Lower Assam. Without any major allies, Congress will be competing statewide and hopes that the upstart UPP might be able to delivering some Bodoland constituencies at the expense of BPF.

  • Who is going to win the election?

Conventional wisdom has been that Congress, facing strong anti-incumbent headwinds after fifteen years in government, is likely to lose a number of seats while the BJP is likely to emerge as the largest party in the state. BPF’s breaking of its alliance with Congress to join with the BJP after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the AGP’s recent addition to this alliance show that regional parties expect the BJP to have the upper hand once all the votes are counted.

Three polls by major survey organizations have been released so far. The first, conducted by CVoter (who, full disclosure, is one of my research affiliates) for India TV, projects the BJP-led alliance to expand its vote share (from 34% to 35%; note that the BPF did not contest with the BJP in 2011) and the Congress’ to shrink (from 39% to 36%). It does not project a majority for the BJP-led alliance, since 57 seats overall would be a few short of a majority. However, this poll was fielded before the addition of AGP to the BJP-led alliance and thus presents a favorable picture for the BJP.

At the beginning of April, CVoter released a new poll for Times Now showing similar results: the Congress alliance winning a vote share of 37%, BJP-led alliance alliance winning 35%, and the AIUDF-led alliance winning 12%. Based on the seat projections released with the poll, neither Congress nor the BJP would hold a majority of seats in the Vidhan Sabha. Such a scenario could make Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF the kingmaker in government formation negotiations.

A third poll conducted by ABP-Nielsen, and also fielded after the announcement of the BJP-BPF-AGP alliance, projects that the BJP-led alliance will win a sizable majority of 78 seats. It is noteworthy that in both the CVoter and ABP polls, Congress is projected to win significantly more seats than AIUDF.

However, we will not know the final results of the election until Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal have all voted by the middle of May. The results for all these state elections will be announced on May 19.

*Thanks to Pranav Gupta, Jyoti Mishra, and Rahul Verma for their reviews and comments.

Questions? Anything unclear or in need of further explanation? Please add any additional questions to the comments.

Fulbright conference presentation

Below is my presentation from the Fulbright conference in Jaipur on February 29. It is largely a modification of the presentation from the IPSA conference at University of Kalyani last year, with the addition of interviews conducted after then.

More elections are coming up in the next two months! Assam will hold state legislative election on April 4 and April 11, and West Bengal will have them on April 4, 11, 17, 21, 25, 30, and May 5. Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Puducherry will all have elections on May 16, and the results for all elections will be announced on May 19. More details on these elections to come. At CSDS, we are preparing the sample and questionnaires for the Assam and West Bengal post-polls.

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