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
0

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.”


India holds ‘Super Tuesday’ vote

Indian National Congress party president Rahul Gandhi (C) gestures after laying a wreath to pay tribute on the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre at the Jallianwala Bagh martyrs memorial in Amritsar on April 13, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 22 min 42 sec ago
0

India holds ‘Super Tuesday’ vote

  • Rahul Gandhi is standing in Wayanad in Kerala state, taking a risk as south India is considered a stronghold of regional parties
  • This election is seen as a referendum on his five-year rule — which has seen impressive economic growth but not the jobs that the BJP promised

NEW DELHI: Indians are voting Tuesday in the third phase of the general elections with campaigning by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party and the opposition marred by bitter accusations and acrimony.
People lined up outside voting station at several places even before the polling started at 7 a.m.
The voting for 117 parliamentary seats in 13 states and two Union Territories on Tuesday means polls are half done for 543 seats in the lower house of Parliament. The voting over seven phases ends May 19, with counting scheduled for May 23.
The election is seen as a referendum on Modi’s five-year rule. He has adopted a nationalist pitch trying to win the majority Hindu votes by projecting a tough stance against Islamic neighbor Pakistan.
The opposition is challenging him for a high unemployment rate of 6.1% and farmers’ distress aggravated by low crop prices.
Modi is scheduled to vote on Tuesday in his western home state of Gujarat, though he is contesting for a parliamentary seat from Varanasi, a city in northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
The voting also is taking place in Wayanad constituency in southern Kerala state, one of the two seats from where opposition Congress party president, Rahul Gandhi, is contesting. His home bastion, Amethi, in Uttar Pradesh state will have polling on May 6. He will give up one seat if he wins from both places.
The voting is staggered to facilitate movement of security forces to oversee an orderly election and avoid vote fraud.
India’s autonomous Election Commission intervened last week to block hate speeches by imposing a temporary ban on campaigning by some top politicians across political parties.
Uttar Pradesh state chief minister Yogi Adityanath of Modi’s BJP was barred from campaigning, in the form of public meetings, road shows or media interviews, for three days for making anti-Muslim speeches. He said a Hindu god will ensure the BJP victory in elections, while the opposition was betting on Muslim votes.
Mayawati, a leader of Bahujan Samaj Party, was punished for 48 hours for appealing to Muslims to vote only for her party. India’s top court ordered strict action against politicians for religion and caste-based remarks.
Hindus comprise 80% and Muslims 16% of India’s 1.3 billion people. The opposition accuses the BJP of trying to polarize the Hindu votes in its favor.
Meenakshi Lekhi, a BJP leader, filed a contempt of court petition against Rahul Gandhi in the Supreme Court for misrepresenting a court order while accusing Modi of corruption in a deal to buy 36 French Rafale fighter aircraft. Modi denies the charge.
Modi has used Kashmir to pivot away from his economic record, playing up the threat of rival Pakistan, especially after the suicide bombing of a paramilitary convoy on Feb. 14 that killed 40 soldiers, in a bid to appear a strong, uncompromising leader on national security. The bombing brought nuclear rivals India and Pakistan close to the brink of war.
Opposition parties have consistently said that Modi and his party leaders are digressing from the main issues such as youth employment and farmers’ suicides.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan and both claim the Himalayan territory in its entirety. Rebels have been fighting Indian control since 1989. Most Kashmiris support the rebels’ demand that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country, while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control.