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.




Team CVoter


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)


University of Gauhati



A polling booth on Election Day



A polling booth in Jalukbari







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

Interview 2



A billboard for the BJP-AGP-BPF alliance


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



20160413_111731 (1)











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






Graffiti in support of the Revolutionary Socialist Party


Graffiti in support of the Trina Mool Congress

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



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








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















April 20 (Bolpur to Kolkata)


Bolpur train station


Park Street in Kolkata


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)


Entrance to the Pink City


Hawa Mahal



Albert Hall Museum


Gateway to City Palace



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


The photos look like they’re from the 1860s


Overlooking Jaipur from Suriya Mandir

Jodhpur (March 4-5)


Looking out across the rooftops of the Old City


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



View from Jaswant Thada


Mehrangarh Fort


Overlooking the Blue City from Mehrangarh Fort








Mandor Gardens, where the ancient capital of Marwar was located







The Clock Tower in the middle of the Old City



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar


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.


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.

Op-ed in The Hindu

Slowly returning to the blogosphere after a busy week and a half. I have an op-ed in The Hindu today on what pollsters and political analysts can take away from the Bihar polls. Today’s Hindu op-ed page also features a thoughtful piece on the long-term meaning of the Bihar elections by Yogendra Yadav as well as an examination of CVoter’s Bihar post-poll data by Yashwant Deshmukh and Manu Sharma.


Yashwant Deshmukh on the challenges of polling in India and the forthcoming Indian Polling Council

Yashwant Deshmukh is the Founder Editor of CVoter, and a Communications Professional with the working experience of Journalist, Pollster, Evaluation Expert, International Observer and TV News Anchor rolled into one. He founded Team CVoter in 1993, when he was still studying in IIMC. After receiving the UNI award for best research dissertation and for topping the 1993 batch across all streams, his company CVoter was hired by the premier news agency UNI to take care of on-line real time election analysis. Team CVoter continued to grow, and is now one of the largest media and stakeholder research agencies in Asia with expertise in Public Opinion Research & Election Studies. Today more than 120 team members work for CVoter across their 24×7 offices in Washington DC, Dubai and New Delhi.

CVoter is also one of my research affiliates for this project. I have been regularly visiting their Delhi office (which is technically in Noida) to learn about how they do their research. I visited Patna to observe their exit polls during the third phase of the Bihar elections.

Now based in Dubai, Yashwant was in Delhi last week for the Bihar election results. Last Friday, I met with him at Janpath Hotel near Connaught Place to talk about his experience doing public opinion research in India, the challenges he has encountered, and a forthcoming association for Indian pollsters called the Indian Polling Council. The transcript of the conversation below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

On polling in India

Sam Solomon: Please tell me about your background conducting public opinion research in India. How did you get into this field?

Yashwant Deshmukh: I am a major in journalism, actually. I did my post-graduation in journalism from IIMC. I am a journalist. That is my primary identity and my training.

But yes, I have always been interested in elections, ever since I was a kid. Had a personal history of roughing up with [the] Emergency. I wrote a piece on Huffington Post about my experiences during the Emergency. You might like to pull it out and read it once so that you can get the context of how as a kid I observed the Emergency and I got into the ‘77 elections which was a watershed election in Indian electoral history. Elections were always like something that were good for the people, good for the country, something which und[id] the wrong and [did] the right thing. So that’s the kind of personal background that I was raised on.

And then when I became a journalist, I was — I did my research dissertation on elections only, in IIMC — and then I wanted to join some polling organization as a political analyst. So I didn’t get a job there. I got a job in the campus placement in the newspapers and the magazines. But I didn’t get a job with the polling companies. So when I didn’t get a job with the polling companies, I had to start on my own. (laughs)

SS: What polling companies were around at that time?

YD: At that point in time, there were no multinationals around. There were no multinationals around.

The biggest company at that point in time was ORG and Marg — they later got merged as ORG-Marg, later years. But yes, they were the people who did the fieldwork for the initial polls of Prannoy Roy, which were the path-breaking polls in India, in ‘80 and ‘84 elections, to be precise. ‘84 was the time when psephology got a wider acceptance of political polling, in a way, when Prannoy said that Congress was going to end up with more than 400 seats. He got it right. So they were the people who did the fieldwork. Prannoy and Ashok Lahiri, they analyzed those elections. That was their job. They designed the poll and they analyzed the poll. Prior to that, in India the polling was only limited to what Eric de Costa was doing in IIPO [Indian Institute of Public Opinion], and there was no history to political polling as such.

I think that when I was graduating in the early 90s, that was a very critical and interesting time in Indian political life otherwise. It was the peak of what we call the Ayodhya controversy or movement. The BJP was emerging. The Congress was having problems. In [the] ‘91 elections, unfortunately, Rajiv Gandhi got assassinated. It was a very transitional time when PV Narasimha Rao became the Prime Minister. It was the time when [the] economy was opened up. So altogether [the] early 90s were politically speaking very charged, after [the] ‘89 elections, you know. V.P. Singh, Mandal Commission, Ayodhya, opening up the economy. I think there was too much to consume. It was a thorough transition and transformation that was going on.

And it was a time when I was graduating as well and being a journalist, it was interesting for me to see and map the public opinion on different things. So that’s where I started. I floated CVoter when I was studying at IMC in 1993. I got lucky because I topped the ‘93 batch at IMC, and I was awarded a UNI award for my research presentation on elections. There are two primary news agencies in India, PTI and UNI. And UNI the next year actually offered me to analyze the elections for them as the live counting was done. So that was our first major break. Probably my research dissertation and getting an award on that luckily helped me to get into our first assignment.

And after that, because of UNI, the fIeld was going to more than seven hundred newspapers across the world. Slowly and slowly, we started working for other media houses. The Week was the first one to give us a commission on an opinion poll.

SS: When you say “we,” you’re talking about CVoter, right?

YD: Yeah. So that’s where it started. And one after the other, it kept on happening and it was happening at a very frantic pace because we had ‘96 parliamentary elections, then ‘98 parliamentary elections, then ‘99. So within the gap of three years we had three parliamentary elections in India.

And it was also the same time when satellite TV opened up in India. The first 24/7 news channel opened up in India; that was Zee News. Prior to that, the news operations were limited only to another satellite network called Jain News. Incidentally, Professor Yogendra Yadav also did his first election on TV with Jain News. That was the only private satellite network which was doing news in India at that point in time. We are talking about 1996. Then, Zee was the first 24/7 news network. Zee hired me to do the polls. After that, Aaj Tak came in, then Star, and so on.

Basically, being a journalist, being a broadcast analyst, being a TV guy and a media guy, it kind of helped me to be on the screen because I could not just analyze but also interpret the data. It kind of helped me stabilize CVoter in terms of the operations and other things.

This had been going on, then after that we went beyond political research to socioeconomic research. We entered into disaster mitigation research. Conflict resolution research. That’s where the majority of our work right now is going on. Into the international work as well.

I was always grateful to Robert Worcestor, the founder of MORI, because he allowed me way back in the ‘90s to observe the MORI exit polls in the UK. So I learned that part from there and I applied that as much as possible in India. If I have to pick my godfather– I guess Bob has been to many other pollsters across the globe. I’m happy that I learned from him.

It was also the time when the multinationals started coming into India. AC-Nielsen came in. TNS came in. Ipsos came in. Gallup came in. They were following their clients in India, because the economy was opening up. And it was also a transitional time when the bigger Indian companies were being taken over by the major groups. So all of a sudden we realized that now we are the only Indian company working as such in the private sector with that kind of footprint and operation, volume and scale.

We entered the US five years back. We did the last presidential [election] in the US. Rated very well in our very first operation over there. We did South African elections, bigtime. We did the backward integration for the UK elections as well but we did not take the CVoter brand over there. We were working for some other group over there. Hopefully in the next election, we will enter the UK market as well.

SS: During all this time that you’ve working in polling, how has the polling industry in India changed?

YD: Difficult question. So much has changed and still it feels like nothing has changed.

What has changed is the technology of it. Technology has changed a lot.

We have moved the majority of our operation from face-to-face to CATI [computer-assisted telephone interviewing] now because of the simple fact that India is right now the biggest mobile market in the world. Even though 85% mobile penetration is there now. Actually, 85% is of the total population. If you talk about the adult population, it is at saturation, more than 100%. Statistically speaking. We know that about 20% of Indians don’t really have mobile phone. But yes. It’s huge. And because it’s calling party pays, we started CATI operations seven years back. And now it’s getting standardized. I believe that’s the future. That’s why we invested in that.

Online research in India is still far out because only 15% of Indians technically speaking have the Internet facility, but only 5% of them are actually [the Internet] for social media or other purposes like that. It is just that the volumes are too big. It’s not representative as such. It will still take a lot of time to come. CATI is getting there. So technologically speaking, there ha[s] been a lot of improvement.

From the quality [perspective], unfortunately I actually see a downswing because this place was earlier being observed by a handful of key players. They were open to skepticism and criticism. But all of a sudden with the new electronic media and everything, we see many players who are opaque and the methodologies are not being discussed [in the] way they should have been discussed.

The polling industry as such is getting to a stage where less interaction and less education of the media and the media consumers at large is proving to be detrimental for the health of the research industry as such. The concept of polling has arrived. Many people work very hard for that: Eric de Costa in the initial years, Prannoy [Roy], Dhorab [Sopariwala]. They all worked really hard. Professor Yogendra Yadav. He did his part very well. But it’s trivialized now in the media circuit. The media and journalists at large don’t understand. They don’t understand what to expect from the polls, what are the limitations of the polls. And that is why their expectations from the polls is wrong. And that is where it gets trivialized. And when it gets trivialized at the editorial level, it gets automatically trivialized at the readership level. So that is a big challenge that needs to be [addressed].

But technologically speaking, a lot of improvement has happened. And from that perspective, it is getting better, I would say. It is getting better with time. It is getting better with each and every assignment.

But the expectation from the research industry is wrong. The limitations, the plus points, they need to be more discussed and understood more properly.

SS: You said that it feels like everything has changed and yet not much has change. What do you feel hasn’t changed about the polling industry since you got into it?

YD: What hasn’t changed is the pathetic understanding of the polls by the media. What hasn’t changed is the absolute lack of data awareness among the journalists in this country. What hasn’t changed is the knack of sensationalism in the media scene while they are reporting the polls.

What hasn’t changed is the lack of continuity of the data gathering and analytics, the serious component of the research of the changing trends on on political sectors and indicators. What hasn’t changed is [the] absolute absence of philanthropic funds which should go into the research industry. In the West, right from the start and even today, almost 90% of the socioeconomic research is being funded by philanthropic funds. In India, it is a big zero. So the only funding that the polling actually gets in India is either government or the media. And they have their own limitations on doing trackers and serious socioeconomic research. So that hasn’t changed. There was no funding from [philanthropic funds] back then, there is no funding in it today.

So what hasn’t changed is the lack of serious polling on socioeconomic issues. What hasn’t changed is the lack of continuous polling on serious socioeconomic issues. These are the things which have not changed.

SS: When you talk about the lack of quality coverage and awareness of how to analyze data at the media level, could you talk about the specifically with regards to Bihar? We were talking earlier about the headline today for the exit polls, how it just shows the midpoint, it doesn’t show the ranges [of seat projections]. How do you think the media coverage for Bihar has been as compared with other elections?

YD: Basically, it underline[s] all the things which I just mentioned. If the understanding of the polls and the understanding of the research would have been better, it would have been easier for the media to say that these elections are close to call. If something is close to call, why [does] it ha[ve] to be a matter of ego than one needs to take a call? When you take a call that it is close to call, that itself is a call that it is close to call.

The big problem in these Bihar elections has been as usual the media’s inability to accept that this is close to call. And them forcing the pollsters to take a call. Because that’s what we are getting paid for. All the pollsters are getting paid to get a call. But I think the change is that now we are also forcing in the ranges which are overlapping. We are forcing them to say personally, even if it has to be on a personal level like me standing in front of the camera, saying, “Listen. This is close.” Statistically speaking, it’s difficult to call. My ego is not getting bruised or hurt by saying that I am unable to call this. No big deal.

In fact, more than Bihar, I would like you to read the one-year report card of the Modi government programme. It was a brilliant programme on India TV and Times Now where it was a Mood of the Nation poll. Probably the first time where I requested [of] them, “Please don’t force me to give you the seat share and vote share.” Because that’s not really the thing you should be analyzing in a weekly report card.

You are aware that we do the weekly tracker, which is the only such vehicle in India. Nobody does that. It was nice to see week-on-week Modi’s popularity going up or going down and analyzing that. It was fascinating to see that right after than 9 lakh suit controversy Modi’s popularity went down. As they say, pollsters are the chroniclers of history. It was important to see the last fifty-two weeks on different scales of popularity, the satisfaction, the issues, which way the country is going. If I would have given the vote and seat share projection, then nobody would have talked about those issues. “Ah! If the election are held today, Modi would have faced problems or Modi would be flipping more [seats]…” That’s trivializing.

So the big change is that I requested them and somehow I got lucky. Both my editors, Mr. Sharma and Arnab, they actually saw the merit in that thing. And they did a brilliant program which was [a] first in Indian television, that you are having a political program on a one-year report card without showing the vote and seat projection. You never have any state of the nation, mood of the nation [program] without vote and seat [projections] in this country. So that is the change which I am trying to push. I am lucky that I got a couple of good friends in media who are trying to see the merit in it. I hope that it continues.

But somewhere we have to put the foot down, that this is what the limitation is. 90% of the research material that goes into serious socioeconomic research and results go unreported in the media. The only 10% of the political aspect of it gets 100% out-of-proportion coverage. That needs to be changed.

And that is what we need to learn from the West. There are polls year round happening day in and day out on thousands of issues which are mapping the health of the society, the socioeconomic patterns, the issues, the trends, which way the society is heading. Not which way the politics is heading. We need to change that.

To change that, a lot of such surveys [need] to be done on a regular and continuous basis. To do that, a lot of funding is required. Not just from the media, but also from the corporate sector. To map those sentiments, to map the socioeconomic trends of the society, that needs to creep in. Somewhere it has to creep in.

On the challenges of polling in India

SS: What are some of the challenges that you’ve encountered during your career in terms of accurately measuring public opinion in India?

YD: That has to do a lot with two components. One is the training of the researchers. Two is the response rate in different sections of the societies.

Training of the researchers, that’s something which is directly related with the first part of my answer. In the absence of regular polls, even if you train a few researchers here and there, you are likely to lose them. Because if I am going back to Bihar after five years, I am unlikely to get back my trained researchers which I trained five years back. And I am unlikely to get the researcher which I just trained now five years from now unless I have a continuous assignment in Bihar and keep on hiring those people and keep on honing their expertise of interviewing and constant improvement. The researchers is a big issue and that primarily because of the lack of regular research in the field.

The second part would be the response rate of the different categories. In India, you know it’s a very heterogeneous society. Largely speaking, all of us have been getting lesser response [rates] from the minorities, from the Dalit communities, from the females. That’s a historic thing.

That is something which cannot change overnight. We tried to come across these things by say, for example, for minority respondents, trying to field same-faith researchers into those localities to conduct the interviews. That helps [in] getting the response rate better. Fielding more female researchers to talk to more females. That helps. But then, fielding the female researchers increases the cost of the operations. It’s a tricky thing to understand that–

SS: How does it increase the cost?

YD: It increases because of the local sensibilities. Say, for example, if I have to conduct research 100 miles from here, or 200 miles from here, or 500 miles from here into some interior village, and I have to send a team of four researchers over there, ideally I should be sending two females and two males who can move together. If the selected respondent is a female, let the female interviewer take the interview. If the selected respondent is a male, let the male interviewer [take the interview]. Because in the rural areas, it is absolutely improbable for an unknown male to conduct an interview of the female of the household. It’s not part of the culture. It’s not done. Anybody who says that it is done does not understand India or South Asia, to be precise. It’s difficult. It gets easier to get the female response if the female interviewers are interviewing them.

But then if you have to send two researchers in the field, the cost goes up. If you are staying there overnight, if there are two males, you can still pick up one room for them to share. But if there is one male and one female, you have to pick up two rooms. If there is no boarding facility in that area, then you have to ensure that they come back to the district headquarters or their main place before it gets too dark. So your fielding operation times get lower because you field for the security of your female colleagues. And for obvious reasons.

All in all, this is a practical problem for all the polling companies. Barring the metros, barring the areas which are urban, barring the areas where they can hire female researchers who can conduct the interviews and come back on their own safe and sound, it is unlikely to send female researchers to the unknown interior areas without knowing the safety and security [is] in place. That’s the cultural context of it.

And when the clients are not willing to pay extra for covering up those additional costs, then the chances are the [researchers] are, to work within the given budget, more likely to send a male-only team into the field. And those male-only teams are likely to return with lesser female sample because of the non-response.

So it’s a vicious circle. One thing adds to the other. But you can always weight [after the fact]. But in the field operations, these are the things which one has to deal with.

SS: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in terms of effectively communicating poll results to a client, to a media outlet, or to the public?

YD: To the media outlets, as I said, they always need a number, especially the seat share in an election poll or a political poll. Not everybody understands very kindly that the science of surveys stops at the vote share calculation and conversion of votes into seats is not really part of surveys.

Everybody has got their own algorithm or mathematical formula to do that conversion. But that’s not foolproof. That’s not proven. That’s a work in progress always. Even in the oldest of the First World democracies. What we have seen in the UK elections. Even they could not convert it properly. They could not sense that the Tories would be getting a complete majority in the UK. And they have been doing the polls for — I don’t know — seventy or eighty years now.

The media doesn’t understand. We have been saying this. Everybody. Yogendra has been saying this, I have been saying this, everybody who has been appearing on TV has been saying this for so long. But still, the fascination of media with the seat share is amazing. They just refuse to understand. And the most classical [example] is that some of the media guys are so ignorant that when you talk about the margin of error, they put the margin of error on the seat share calculation. So that is the level of understanding the data. How many media companies have a research editor? Barring one or two, I don’t know if the newspapers or TV stations have research editors in them who understand data. They don’t have [them]. That’s a problem. It’s very difficult.

Yes, classically speaking, the normal viewers, the people actually understand it better. It’s very funny. When I interact within the social media with the people, when I tweet, they understand it better than most of the journalists around. So it’s difficult to make them understand.

Somewhere probably we have to draw the line, that okay, you see we can at worst try to come up with the vote share calculation. This is the seat share calculation. But we can’t hone it. It’s not scientifically proven. It’s only an assertion. It’s only a calculation. It’s only our best idea. But it is not the thing. It’s not the thing.

SS: CVoter is an international firm. You mentioned earlier that you’ve done polling in the United States, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. In a previous conversation that you and I had, you said that nowhere is more difficult to survey than here in India. Why is that?

YD: The sheer heterogeneity of this country. If you look into our operation that you have seen already, look into the kind of languages that we cover, the kind of demographics that we cover, you will understand that polling in India week after week is kind of [like] running a Eurobarometer week after week. It’s as simple as that. If you can understand the difficulties in running the Eurobarometer, you can understand the difficulty of running the Indian operations as well.

And then the sheer length and width of this country. The geography. The topography. How difficult it is to reach the interiors. That is why we took a conscious decision to going to CATI on the mobile, because that is something that shows us that we are reaching the remotest of the places in random probability sample. And we are speaking twelve different languages. And we are doing [the] audio recording of each and every interview. And doing the quality auditing of each and every interview. That kind of quality is possible only in CATI. That is why we took a conscious decision that [the] future is that. We cannot leave the field operations to happen in that way, doing only ten or twenty percent of back-checks in the face-to-face surveys. Everybody understands the handicap of doing that. Everybody understands that the where and why it can go wrong.

For example, in the West, the idea of human labor to be calculated in the per-hour approach. It’s a very objective thing. That you work for eight hours and you will be paid on a per-hour [basis], or how many samples you cover. So the per-sample based approach to the researchers, it is so West[ern].

In India, it doesn’t work like that. Or this part of the world, or even in Africa, it doesn’t work for a simple reason. I send you to a certain village. Thou shall go there and thou shall interview people and come back, and per-interview I am going to pay you this much. Now, you in the best possible way, picking up the autorickshaw, going to the bus station, taking the bus to that village, reaching that village, figuring out the random probability sample, and getting to that person, and the person refuses. And then you have to also worry about, “OK, at four o’clock is the last bus. I have to come back.” So what is happening is that you have spent an entire day doing the best possible work and still you might end up [with] two or three interviews. So if it is not economically viable for the researcher, what do you expect the researchers to do? To give you a complete random probability sample? No. Hell no. They are likely to do a cluster sample and come back and report to you as a random probability sample. Because they are getting paid on a per-sample basis.

This is why about twelve years back, we changed — in our organization, in our system — the per-sample system is wrong. Because the researcher is going there, doing the job. He or she may not get a single interview the entire day. And that’s not his or her fault. So the payment has to be on the complete day basis. That’s where we changed it in our organization. So today in CVoter, it’s been almost for the last twelve odd years, we tell the researchers, “You are being sent to this place. Go and do it. At the end of the day, if you do one interview or zero interviews or ten, you are going to get this much of payment which you deserve [for] doing the hard work. Plus, please make sure, even if you are doing one interview, that one interview should be scientifically, properly done and reported.”

But then this methodology or this way of functioning increases the cost of the operation. And when the quality goes up, the cost goes up. And if the clients are unwilling to pay for that cost, that is where the quality degradation happens. Now, understanding this thing is something which is important. The client’s understanding of this is more important for them to know that this is difficult, this is how it has to be done. So all these things, they need to be taken care of. New, better methodologies and technologies are to be adopted to improvise this further. And the clients need to understand this as well: what are the limitations of it, how it is to be done, and how the best could be achieved from this.

SS: What are some of the tradeoffs that you have to consider when you’re deciding whether to field a survey in person, over the phone, or over the Internet?

YD: Well, Internet is a no-go. First of all, it’s not really representative. For a simple reason that only 5% of the people are actually active on the Internet. The 15% that is floating around is for the people who have the data pack or the data plan, but not everybody who has the data plan is active on the Internet. So first of all, it’s a skewed number. It’s not representative.

The second thing is that even in the West the online opt-in is scientifically not a representative sample. That’s a fact. The so-called river sample is also again not a random probability sample. I mean, it’s a random probability sample among those who are visiting that part and willing to comment on it. So even a river sample is not exactly a simple random probability sample. In India, you cannot even think of doing that simply because number one, it’s not representative, and number two, the incentives with opt-in panels are further going to degenerate in that direction. So as of the current moment, the online thing is not done.

We do a random online thing, when we are doing our CATI every week, we also keep on asking in the final question, “Do you use Internet?” and “Would you like to be part of our panel?” So that is something which is [a] much more randomly recruited panel. But even in that random[ly] recruited panel when we have tried to do the surveys, one reminder, two reminder, three reminders, people are not very keen to click and answer. And probably the third round when we call them from the CATI center, the more likely answer is, “Why are you pushing me to click and answer? Why don’t you simply ask me? I will answer you right now.” So it becomes more like — instead of online — it becomes WAPI, web-assisted personal interview. That means you are talking to them and you are punching the data on their behalf. The only good thing is that some clients understand that and they agree to it whenever they commission it, because we have the audio recordings as the proof of the interview. But still a long way to go on the Internet.

CATI is the future right now because Indians may not read and write but they can certainly talk. This is not my saying. This was something which was said by Dhirubhai Ambani when he was launching his mobile services in India. [In] India, a big number of people are not very educated. A big number are illiterates, to be precise. But they will certainly talk on the phone. Everybody has a mobile these days. So that helps. So CATI is the future, as far as I’m concerned.

SS: Have you found that certain populations — because of cultural factors, because of socioeconomic factors — are more or less likely to be selected and participate in a survey? You discussed this a little earlier.

YD: Yes. The more educated, the more well-to-do, urban, affluent, upper caste, males are more likely to respond. The less educated, females, minorities, lower castes–

SS: Religious minorities?

YD: When I say minorities, I am talking about Muslims especially.

SS: What about Sikhs or–

YD: Sikhs, I never had [problems]. Because Sikhs are, from the class distribution perspective, Sikhs are one of the wealthiest communities in India. Jains are one of the wealthiest communities in India.

So more educated, well off, urban. The response rate of Sikhs is fabulous. [The response rate of] Jains is fabulous. The response rate of Christians is perfectly fine. The response rate of Christians even in the tribals is perfectly fine because in all likelihood they get better education because of the Christian missionaries running the schools. They get better education, so their response rate is better in that way.

But the females at large — regardless of caste, creed, community, or whatever it is, religion — females at large the response rate is lower. The Muslims, the response rate is lower. Unless you are sending the same-faith research into their community to ask the questions.

In certain areas, the Dalit response rate is lower. When I say certain areas, it is directly proportional to how politically empowered the Dalits are in those areas. Before Mayawati happened, the Dalit response rate in UP was very low. But not anymore, because now Dalits in UP are now wearing their identities on their shoulders. So they are not really shy to say. Before Lalu happened in Bihar, the Dalit response rate was low. After Lalu happened in Bihar — one may call his rule as a misrule, or whatever — I have no problem in saying that Lalu Yadav was a game changer in Bihar for that downtrodden, that oppressed Dalit and other communities in Bihar to come up in their social aspirations and their sense of being powerful. So I don’t get a poor response from the Dalits in Bihar. It doesn’t happen anymore.

Yes, in Rajasthan, I still get poor response [rates from Dalits]. In Punjab, I get poor response rates from the Dalits, including the Dalit Sikhs. In Madhya Pradesh, I get poor response from Dalits. So the states where the Dalit political identity is still weak, the political identity being weak is directly proportional to their response rate.

I don’t know how to phrase it correctly. I may sound very unscientific, but I am talking only from my personal experience. The stronger the political identity, the better the response rate of the community is supposed to be.

SS: Do you see this with Muslims as well across states?

YD: Yes. It is there. But with the Muslims, it’s not that they don’t wish to talk. It’s not that. Whenever we send the same-faith researchers, the response rate dramatically increases. They don’t say much, their response rate is down, when there is a sense of polarization. Then they go quiet. But in a normal situation, they speak well. They speak as good as Hindus actually when there is no fear of polarization around.

But yes, it is next to difficult to interview the Muslim females. It is almost impossible because of the cultural context. We must respect and understand that. And it’s not just related to India. I have worked in Indonesia. I have worked in other South Asian countries. I am right now working in the Middle East, bigtime. And I know it’s impossible for a Muslim female to talk to a male stranger. It’s the cultural context of the situation. The same is applicable. And then what happens is that in the puritan way, as many of the methodologists call it, even if she agrees to be interviewed, the chances are that she has to be interviewed in the presence of male members of the family. And when you are asking about the questions that are uncomfortable, can you imagine a Muslim female being interviewed on the uses of contraceptives by a male stranger in the presence of her husband? Can you imagine that? And can you imagine that the answer flowed freely without interruptions or without any things from her husband?

And that applies equally well on the Hindu females. Can you imagine a Hindu stranger talking to a Hindu female in a household about the contraceptives she is using in the presence of her husband or father? I’m sorry, if somebody says yes, he is lying. I’m sorry to be so harsh about using the word “lying” because it’s impossible in this cultural context. There are cultural sensibilities which are to be taken care of, which are to be honored.

And when you honor those cultural sensibilities, that doesn’t mean you are compromising the quality of the data. It only means you are trying to figure a way out on how to get the best possible data. So the answer is that if you have something sensitive like uses of contraceptives, it is always better to send the same-faith female researcher who can interview alone and get the data.

And the same thing happens with the hard-to-reach populations. We did a fabulous survey when we were doing the census for sex workers in one of the districts in Bihar. It was wonderful research. How do you expect a sex worker, a victim of human trafficking, to reveal their socioeconomic problems to a complete stranger? What are the chances like? We know how difficult it is to interview the hard-to-reach populations in stressed conditions. That’s why we did a project over there where we actually trained a big number of children of sex workers who are minimum high school graduates. And we trained them as a researcher to go and conduct the interviews in their localities. Now they knew the localities. They were talking to their moms, their sisters, their neighbors. And they were more likely to get the data correctly. So we named that project as Project VASE, Victims As Social Evaluators. And it worked fabulously.

Even when we were doing our post-tsunami research in Aceh. Because in Aceh, there were conflict victims as well as tsunami victims. It was almost impossible for the normal researchers to go into the interiors, to visit those areas, and talk to the female multi-victims, as we say, those who were the tsunami victims as well as the conflict victims. There we trained a special team of ex-guerrila fighters of GAM [Free Aceh Movement] who had laid down their arms and surrendered and were looking for better jobs. We trained an entire team of them to conduct research on sexual harassment and other cases and other difficulties. Fabulous set of data. Because first of all, they were themselves the victims. They understood the sensitivity of the subject. And they were going to interview other victims. And they were coming up with data which was kind of unheard of. When you get an interview from somewhere in the interior of Aceh, where in the end of the form, the researcher has written that this lady was raped three times by the security forces. Now that’s an insight which no one can ever provide you. That’s an improvisation.

So Project VASE has been something which is very close to my heart. I have been working on that. I used that in Bihar for the sex workers survey. I used that methodology in Aceh. In Sri Lanka, in the northeast of Sri Lanka. It’s amazing. It’s amazing. That is something which I am going to focus more and more on, on how to get better responses from hard-to-reach populations, in special conditions. These are special populations.

But in routine conditions, yes, my solution in India is very simple and straightforward. Sending more female researchers gives you a better female response. Sending more same-faith researchers gives you a better response from Muslims. Sending more same-community researchers gives you a better response from the Dalits.

SS: Going back a bit to your discussion of Muslims, you said that at times when there’s a sense of polarization, the response rate decreases among Muslim respondents. Could you provide some examples of that?

YD: In Gujarat, we have always been getting lesser response post-Godhra [riots in 2002]. In fact, every time there is a Gujarat election we do a special sample in Godhra. That is something which is part of our study also.

Whenever there is a communal riot or something like that, [in the] post-riot scenario, the response rate of minorities actually goes down. Especially in the areas where they are even less spread, but really lesser in number. Probably the fear cycle just takes over. They don’t really wish to talk and be seen as something different. They want to assimilate and be safe. Their response rate goes better only when you are entering a completely ghettoized area where they are kind of feeling safer and the same-faith researchers are going. Then it goes up.

In a normal scenario, they respond as normally as the Hindu or other communities. This happens only when the political surveys are happening and if the atmosphere is charged on communal lines. Then only this thing happens. Otherwise, normally we get the normal response rates.

SS: Did you see that in UP after the Muzaffarnagar riots?

YD: Yes, that happened. That happened in UP after Muzaffarnagar.

SS: The last group I want to check with you is Scheduled Tribes. Do you see a different response rate among Scheduled Tribes?

YD: Yes, yes, yes. It is lesser among the Scheduled Tribes as well. But that lesser response rate is not because of something like they don’t wish to talk. Scheduled Tribes, there is no fear. They wish to talk. They can talk to you easily.

It depends on what exactly are you asking them. So if you are asking about something like– and actually, funnily enough, we do questionnaires like that from clients. “What is your view on Russian President Vladimir Putin? Are you favorable or unfavorable?” Try talking that to a tribal  in Gumla district of Jharkhand. I mean, come on! Come on. I sometimes really wish to ask those who frame those questions sitting in some plush university campus in America or Europe, “Man, go out of your office. Try interviewing ten people you come across outside your office and ask them how many of them know the name of Mr. Putin over there. And you are expecting that a person in a remote Gumla tribal village is going to answer that?” I mean, it is more contextual, more on the subject. So the issue of response among the tribals is not because they don’t answer. You talk about their problems, their day-to-day lives, the issues around them, they are more than happy to answer. It’s just that they are more likely to say in that kind of questionnaire, 99% of the questions will be, “Don’t Know / Can’t Say.” And when you say, “Don’t Know / Can’t Say”, how can we accept this interview where everything is “Don’t Know / Can’t Say?” “Don’t Know / Can’t Say” is information as well. They just don’t know Putin! What is the big deal? Hell. They might even know about Putin but they certainly won’t know anything about the head of the state of Brazil for sure.

How many in this room…? I mean, we are sitting in New Delhi. You go and talk to that table, “What do you think, favorable or unfavorable, of Dilma [Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff]?” The next thing they are going to say, “Ah, Dilmah. They make good tea in Sri Lanka.” (laughs) What are we talking about?

So the issue of non-response also kind of has to be seen in the right perspective. The issue of non-response or lesser response has directly to do with what exactly you are trying to ask.

SS: Do you see big differences in response rates across states?

YD: Yes. There is. There is. The more politically charged-up states actually get a better response rate. The more educated states also give better response rates. The response rate goes down typically in urban, affluent locations where the people just don’t– They are educated. They are upwardly mobile. They are wealthy. They know. But the response rate is going down. They are least interested in talking to you. So that’s a different kind of problem of response. That’s the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum. The affluent class, the upper middle classes, their response rate is going down because they don’t wish to answer. They don’t have the time. They are not interested. They are just too happy counting their money and living their life.

SS: When you said the more politically charged states, which states do you mean?

YD: Bihar, Tamil Nadu, UP, parts of Maharashtra. We are likely to get a good response rate.

People are very happy to talk. Indians are very talkative. They love to talk to you on any issue under the sun. And it’s not that they don’t wish to answer. The problem is that on CATI, for example, for us a ten-minute interview on CATI usually ends up being fifteen or sixteen minutes because people keep on talking. We don’t know how to cut them [off] because it is rude to cut them [off]. We cannot cut them [off]. “Sir, please don’t explain your answer. Just tell it to me yes or not.” No. They don’t tell you as yes or no every time. They give the context and they talk.

Probably they talk to us more because of our media identity. That is something I am agreeing to concede. Our branding is primarily of a media entity. People have seen so much of our name and face on TV and the newspapers that when we say we are calling from CVoter, we are doing a survey for India TV or Times Now, probably coming from the media background opens them up immediately. We also designed the questionnaires in a way which starts with the problems of their life, to open it up. The moment you talk to them about their problems, their lives, they are more likely to open up and talk to you. And then they talk like hell. They keep on talking.

SS: Have you found for election surveys that some states are easier to poll? That you have a better track record with some states than others?

YD: No, nothing of that sort. I believe that from the election polling perspective, the only easier polls are those when the anti-incumbency issue is huge and the feedback from the people are so crisp and clear that there is no confusion whatsoever in your mind that, okay, this government is going to lose. They are the easiest ones. Otherwise, I would not say any particular state is difficult or easier to poll. Every state is similarly as difficult and as easy to poll, but depending on that particular election, whether or not there is a clear cut winner or clear cut loser.

On transparency of pollsters, disclosure of methodology, and the forthcoming Indian Polling Council

SS: A number of the people I’ve spoken to, including researchers — and this is again something you were saying earlier — have critiqued the lack of transparency among pollsters in India when it comes to reporting methodology. What do you think can be done to make pollsters more transparent about how they’re doing their surveys?

YD: We have already taken the first step. You might be aware of this. This we have been trying for a really long time, and now there is a group formally in place called the Indian Polling Council, to start with the colleagues from [names of polling companies have been removed]. They have pitched in together. The idea is basically to make everyone accountable. The idea is to make this entire process more open.

We have been trying. Our office and our working posture has been always open. You have visited yourself. You can talk to any colleague in the industry that those who are confident in their work are always open. When I say open, that means even physically opening up the facilities, to visit the office, see the data, see the process, how it is being done. It is as open as that. So those who are trying to do that in media, especially the ones who have been doing it for a longer time, they really do feel the importance of making it more accessible, more transparent so that the public at large, the media at large gets educated and they can differentiate a good apple from a bad apple. Purely on the merit of the data. Institutionally speaking, it is an important thing to do. So that’s why we have formed that.

The biggest differentiator of those who would be in this organization or this setup and those who would be outside this gambit is the question of accessibility. Anybody who is in this group is committing and opening up for peer review of their data if there is any controversy around. If I am opening up, “Okay, you are happy. Please come and visit my data. See the data. Analyze it. Figure it out. If I got it right, why? If I got it wrong, why?” Whatever it is. If I am opening it up, I am pledging myself to do that, then I am transparent enough for my industry and my peer review. If somebody is not agreeing [to] that and remaining opaque, their problem. But at least people would know who is part of the Indian Polling Council and who is not. Who is opaque and who is transparent.

Somewhere we have to draw the line. And I believe the responsible ones have started realizing that. It took a little bit long. I believe that this should have been done five years back. But better [to] be late than never. We are starting it now, and we hope that this will help us in the long run.

SS: Would the Indian Polling Council determine– members would have to disclose certain things about their methodology, their sampling, their margin of error? I haven’t seen margin of error in almost any of the polls I’ve seen reported here.

YD: Yes. Pretty much. We are going to make a format which will be required to be filled up by all the pollsters every time they release a poll. That standard form would be uploaded on the website. So for any research the disclosures are complete and full. That standard format is applicable to anybody who is willing to offer. And this has been asked by the Press Council of India, that it should be done. This has been advised by the Indian Law Commission, this should be done. And they actually advised that this should be done in consultation, something like the British Polling Council.

I wrote up to Nick Moon, who is the Secretary of the British Polling Council. Nick Moon was running NOP. They immediately agreed to help in every possible way, that we can pick up all those standard protocols, SOPs, from their things and apply. So I wrote to Kathy Frankovich and she happily said that she would be helping in every possible way. I am also a member of WAPOR. So what I am trying to say is that those things which have been done and tested over there, we just have to try and apply everything.

If anybody has a problem with that kind of transparency, it’s for that organization or that person to explain why they are uncomfortable. But if you are to be part of this particular setup, you need to be transparent. You need to be open for a peer review. That’s the bottom line. That if there is a question mark, then you shall be sending the entire dataset for the peer to see through and understand what the problem’s like and help you with the answers. It’s about the intent. Transparency is basically a question of intent. Whether you are opened up or not, whether you have the intent to let the peers review, that’s transparency. Those who are not, it will automatically come out that they are not a part of this group. Because they refuse to follow these procedures. They refuse to follow these standard operating protocols. They refuse to disclose this part of the methodology. They refuse to disclose the minimum amount of information that should be released with every poll. So we are forcing now these guidelines.

This should have been done many years back. I understand that. But, I don’t know why, the seniors at that point of time did not do it. I don’t know why and I am not questioning them. Maybe these were not the important things at that point in time because there were only a handful of players and even then we were in good communication with each other, and offering help and solutions to each other. It was a good, cozy club. We used to talk to each other and give advice to each other. If I had a problem, I could have picked up the phone and [talked to] Mr. Yogendra Yadav and he had been kind enough to suggest [to] me the solution at that point in time.

But now we have moved because all of a sudden we are looking at the industry growing. It’s good that the industry is growing. If it grows, it’s good. But then the growth has to come with the discipline of the quality consciousness and transparency.

SS: How soon will the Indian Polling Council be a more formal organization? Will we see this in place by the time of next May’s elections?

YD: Right before that.

It’s already in place, first of all. We are in regular communication as a group. It’s already in place. We are talking to each other. We are helping each other. It’s just probably I believe that we would like to do it this calendar year, that everything [is] formally in place. Most probably, if all goes well, we would like the general secretariat to be at CSDS for a simple reason that number one, they are the oldest of the bodies who have been doing that, and number two, they are [a] noncommercial venture. They are academic in nature. So they are a nice [place] to be stationed. I hope that Sanjay [Kumar, Director of CSDS] agrees to that. We are likely to have our very first meeting very soon.

SS: Thank you very much.