The impossible job: India’s pollsters face uphill battle to call election

Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi, above, won a surprising majority in 2014. (AFP/File)
Updated 12 February 2019

The impossible job: India’s pollsters face uphill battle to call election

  • BJP lost elections in crucial states due to increasing public annoyance over unemployment and decreasing incomes
  • Chief executive of research company says caste and religion affect who people choose to vote for

NEW DELHI: Thousands of candidates, hundreds of parties, endless combinations of possible coalitions – spare a thought for India’s pollsters, tasked with making sense of the country’s fiendishly complicated politics ahead of a general election due by May.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi won a surprise majority in 2014. Until last year, many predicted a similar result. But amid rising anger over unemployment and a fall in rural incomes, the BJP lost key state elections in December, making this contest more closely fought than first expected.
That means surveys conducted on behalf of newspapers and TV channels will be closely scrutinized. Some of India’s top pollsters however, told Reuters current surveys could be wide of the mark until the parties finalize alliances, which could be as late as April – and even then, there are challenges.
“In India there are certain relationships between caste, religion and allegiance,” said VK Bajaj, chief executive of Today’s Chanakya, the only polling firm to predict the BJP would win an outright majority in 2014. “We have to do checks and counter-checks when collecting our samples.”
Chequered past
Opinion polls grew in popularity in India in the 1990s, after economic liberalization saw a boom in privately-owned newspapers and TV channels, all demanding their own surveys.
In 1998 and 1999, the polls closely predicted the share of seats for the winning BJP-led coalition, according to data collected by Praveen Rai, an analyst who has tracked opinion polls in India for more than 15 years at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, which also runs its own surveys.
But in the last three elections, polls have been significantly wide of the mark. In 2004 and 2009 the victorious Congress alliance was completely underestimated, while in 2014 only Bajaj’s firm predicted the BJP would win an outright majority.
Elections in India have become “increasingly multi-varied,” Rai said, with the emergence of regional parties complicating pollsters’ efforts.
Reality on the ground
Many polls are conducted face-to-face, and collecting representative samples can be hard in a country that still has several armed separatist movements and tribal communities unused to opinion polling.
When CNX, one of India’s largest polling companies, conducts fieldwork in rural Chattisgargh and Jharkand – two states with large tribal populations – it often finds many are unfamiliar with the concept of opinion polls.
“In areas where people are not so educated it is difficult for them to understand,” said Bhawesh Jha, CNX’s founder.
Elsewhere, a lack of trust in why polls are conducted and how the data is used means respondents are also less truthful than other countries, pollsters said.
“Dubious opinion polls conducted by some media houses to sway the elections for political parties ... has definitely created a bad name for the polling industry in India,” Rai said.
India lacks strong data protections laws like those in North America and Europe, and many people still believe their details will be passed on to political parties, Rai and Jha said, meaning answers were often those they think the pollster wants to hear.
“We have to convince people we are not going to reveal their identity,” Jha said.
Complex arithmetic
Current polls are making large assumptions, no more so than in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state with a population of more than 200 million that accounts for nearly a fifth of the seats in India’s lower house.
Results there have been so difficult to predict that the state has earned the nickname “Ulta Pradesh” — a play on the Hindi word meaning “reverse” — for its ability to confound experts.
A recent poll there found that if two regional parties already in alliance joined forced with the main opposition Congress, the BJP would be wiped out in the state, almost certainly losing power nationally.
But like other states in India, much depends on who contests from where – and to what extent Congress stands its candidates down to allow regional parties a run.
Until the final seats sharing agreements and candidate lists are announced – which may not be until April – current polls are little more than guesswork, said Today’s Chanakya chief Bajaj.
“We have to wait until the final alliances come out,” he said. “It is not possible to do anything until that.”

Trump declares emergency for US-Mexico border wall, House panel launches probe

Updated 16 February 2019

Trump declares emergency for US-Mexico border wall, House panel launches probe

  • The Republican president’s move, circumventing Congress, seeks to make good on a 2016 presidential campaign pledge to build a border wall
  • Within hours, the action was challenged in a lawsuit filed on behalf of three Texas landowners

WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump on Friday declared a national emergency in a bid to fund his promised wall at the US-Mexico border without congressional approval, an action Democrats vowed to challenge as a violation of the US Constitution.

The Republican president’s move, circumventing Congress, seeks to make good on a 2016 presidential campaign pledge to build a border wall that Trump insists is necessary to curtail illegal immigration he blames for bringing crime and drugs into the United States.

Within hours, the action was challenged in a lawsuit filed on behalf of three Texas landowners, saying that Trump’s declaration violates the US Constitution and that the planned wall would infringe on their property rights.

Both California and New York said that they, too, planned to file lawsuits.

Hours after Trump’s announcement, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee said it had launched an investigation into the emergency declaration.

In a letter to Trump, committee Democrats asked him to make available for a hearing White House and Justice Department officials involved in the action. They also requested legal documents on the decision that led to the declaration, setting a deadline of next Friday.

“We believe your declaration of an emergency shows a reckless disregard for the separation of powers and your own responsibilities under our constitutional system,” said the letter, signed by Chairman Jerrold Nadler and other top Democrats on the panel.

Trump has been demanding for a wall on the 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) southern border

Trump on Friday also signed a bipartisan government spending bill that would prevent another partial government shutdown by funding several agencies that otherwise would have closed on Saturday.

The funding bill represented a legislative defeat for him since it contains no money for his proposed wall — the focus of weeks of conflict between Trump and Democrats in Congress.

Trump made no mention of the bill in rambling comments to reporters in the White House’s Rose Garden.

He had demanded that Congress provide him with $5.7 billion in wall funding as part of legislation to fund the agencies. That triggered a historic, 35-day government shutdown in December and January that hurt the US economy and his opinion poll numbers.

By reorienting his quest for wall funding toward a legally uncertain strategy based on declaring a national emergency, Trump risks plunging into a lengthy legislative and legal battle with Democrats and dividing his fellow Republicans — many of whom expressed grave reservations on Friday about the president’s action.

Fifteen Democrats in the Republican-controlled Senate introduced legislation on Thursday to prevent Trump from invoking emergency powers to transfer funds to his wall from accounts Congress has already committed to other projects.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, and top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer swiftly responded to Trump’s declaration.

“The president’s actions clearly violate the Congress’s exclusive power of the purse, which our Founders enshrined in the Constitution,” they said in a statement. “The Congress will defend our constitutional authorities in the Congress, in the courts, and in the public, using every remedy available.”

Members of the migrant caravan that has made its way from central America to the US-Mexico border

The first legal challenge, filed in federal court in Washington, came from three Texas landowners along the Rio Grande river claiming they were informed the US government would seek to build a border wall on their properties if money for the project were available in 2019.

The lawsuit, filed on their behalf by the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, also named the Frontera Audubon Society as a plaintiff whose “members’ ability to observe wildlife will be impaired” by construction of a border wall and resulting habitat damage.

The suit contests Trump’s assertion of a national emergency at the border to justify the president’s action.

California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, describing the supposed border crisis touted by Trump as “made-up,” and New York state’s Democratic attorney general, Letitia James, both said they planned to challenge Trump in court.

Trump acknowledged his order would face a lengthy court fight.

“I expect to be sued. I shouldn’t be sued. ... We’ll win in the Supreme Court,” he predicted.

Trump may have also undermined his administration’s argument about the urgency of the situation when he told reporters, “I didn’t need to do this. But I’d rather do it much faster.”

In their letter to Trump, House Judiciary Democrats said that language had left them “troubled.”

Both the House and the Senate could pass a resolution terminating the emergency by majority vote. However, any such measure would then go to Trump, who would likely veto it. Overriding the veto would require a two-thirds vote in both chambers.

Although Trump says a wall is needed to curb illegal immigrants and illicit drugs coming across the border, statistics show that illegal immigration via the border is at a 20-year low and that many drug shipments come through legal ports of entry.

Confronted with those statistics by reporters at the Rose Garden event, Trump said they were “wrong.”

Also present were a half-dozen women holding poster-sized pictures of family members killed by illegal immigrants. Trump noted their presence in announcing the emergency declaration.

He estimated his emergency declaration could free up as much as $8 billion to pay for part of the wall. Estimates of its total cost run as high as $23 billion.

As a candidate, Trump repeatedly promised Mexico would pay for the wall. It was one of his biggest applause lines at his campaign rallies. Mexico firmly refused to pay, and now Trump wants US taxpayers to cover the costs.