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Tuesday 20th March 2018

India's Pollsters in Mission Impossible As General Election Looms


7Dnews London - Reuters

Tue, 12 Feb 2019 15:46 GMT

As May approaches, Indians are preparing for unpredicted general election results, with thousands of candidates, hundreds of parties, endless potential coalitions. So spare a thought for India's pollsters, tasked with making sense of the country's fiendishly complicated politics.  

As reported by Reuters, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was until last year expected to make a similar win to the 2014 election, but amid rising anger over unemployment and a fall in rural incomes, the BJP lost key state elections in December 2018, making the upcoming vote a fight for survival. 

This means surveys conducted on behalf of newspapers and TV channels will be closely scrutinised. Some of India's top pollsters, however, said current surveys could be wide of the mark until the parties finalise 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." 

Opinion polls have been popular in India since the 1990s, after economic liberalisation saw a boom in privately-owned newspapers and TV channels, all demanding their own surveys. 

Collecting representative samples is still hard in a country that has several armed separatist movements and tribal communities unused to opinion polling, as polls are conducted face-to-face. 

When CNX, one of India's largest polling companies, conducts fieldwork in rural Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand – 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. 

According to pollsters, a lack of trust in why polls are conducted and how the data is used means respondents are also less truthful than in other countries. 

"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. 

A lack of strong data protection laws in India has made many people 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. 

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.