'Some Say This Is As Important As The 1977 Elections.'

Reader’s Digest spoke to pollsters Prannoy Roy and Dorab R. Sopariwala at their Delhi office, days before they set out for their month-long tour of India’s remotest villages to bring back the wisdom of the Indian voter from ground zero.

Sanghamitra Chakraborty Updated: May 13, 2019 10:30:03 IST
'Some Say This Is As Important As The 1977 Elections.' Prannoy Roy (photo credit Bandeep Singh)

Dr Prannoy Roy (PR) is widely acknowledged to be the person who introduced psephology to India and pioneered the art of decoding India’s elections on television. Dr Roy has a PhD from the Delhi School of Economics and is a UK-trained chartered accountant. He also has what he calls a day job at NDTV, the television media company he founded with his wife Radhika Roy. Dorab R. Sopariwala (DRS) has been a market-research professional in England and India and has spent decades tracking India’s elections. The duo have collaborated for the past 40 years on opinion polls and, more recently, The Verdict published by Penguin Random House. Reader’s Digest spoke to the pollsters at their Delhi office, days before they set out for their month-long tour of India’s remotest villages to bring back the wisdom of the Indian voter from ground zero.


As pollsters you try to understand the underlying forces of change. What are the changes that have surprised you the most?

DRS: From a voter that was supine, to one who got angry, to one who decided that ‘Now I’ll take note of what my MP does for me’—that’s the big change. It was probably the Emergency that made them believe that their vote meant something, that they could throw out people. That was a surprise then.

PR: When we went through the data, a lot of surprises emerged. For example, Indian elections are more volatile: For every one per cent swing in votes, 18 seats change hands; it used to be half the number. That women’s turnout is much more than men’s in assembly elections. That voters don’t identify the Lok Sabha election as the main election, but the panchayat and state assembly elections, that’s reflected in higher turnouts in those than the Lok Sabha.

For me, the most exciting election was 1977, when the voters threw out dictatorship and democracy was restored in India. It was not done on television; we were tracking it from a barsati in Delhi and once it was clear that the Janata Party was going to win, a lot of ‘apple juice’ was had (laughs). A lot of people say that this is the most important election, that it will determine the future of India. So, yes, it is widely believed that this could be as important as 1977.


What, to your mind, have been the most powerful underlying forces of change?

PR: That the voters have been ahead of politicians. Politicians have a lag syndrome, they just wish they’d be re-elected even if they do no work. And once voters decided that this was not going to happen, it took them [politicians] many, many years to realize, if they want to come back they have to ensure that there is some development in their constituencies. This is the underlying force that moves our country forward; it also drives our growth rate, because if voters force politicians to do work, you will get growth.


But politicians are catching up—for example, the Modi campaign. Do you think the voter can pre-empt, move ahead and see through all this as well?

PR: Definitely, you’re right. In north India voters generally say they are voting for Modi, not for BJP. It is a personality-driven election. That’s their electoral strategy, a marketing device. I think the new strategy is that they are trying to win by affecting turnout, their panna pramukhs and booth prabharis make sure that BJP voters turn out and vote. Of course, to win an election not by issues and policies but by just affecting turnout was not the essence of a democratic process. But the ‘dark arts of voter suppression’ are happening all over the world—particularly the USA—except in countries where there is compulsory voting, like Australia.


To go back to your earlier point: Women have also forced politicians to talk about their issues now.

DRS: Absolutely, it does make a difference, the manner in which they are responding and their needs are met. Now there are things like education, water, electricity, gas cylinders—things that matter to them personally.

PR: I think voters are more aware of their powers. The big change is the emergence of the woman voter and I think the politicians are figuring it out, but once again with a bit of a lag. Politicians today have started focusing on what women’s needs are. We’ve been to many rallies where they say ‘Women please come up to the front’, and they focus their speech on women. And many of them are actually nominating more women candidates. So the rise of the woman voter is the most recent and most heartwarming trend.


Have you noticed if women candidates tend to draw more women voters?

PR: We haven’t studied that, but it’s clear that women candidates do as well as men amongst the few that are nominated, with their winning strike-rate the same as men. So it’s crazy that it’s still a male-dominated Lok Sabha, and yet they refuse to pass affirmative action for women.


How do you evaluate the first-past-the-post system?

DRS: It is essentially a system that rewards the winner in a multi-party system excessively. It is generally meant for a predominantly two-party system, but it’s unfair for smaller parties. Parties like the Praja Socialist Party and Swatantra Party were powerful but their votes were spread across the country, so they did not win many seats and perished.

Now what’s happened is that each party is concentrated within the state. Like in Tamil Nadu there’s DMK and AIADMK; in Andhra Pradesh it’s YSRC versus Chandrababu Naidu; so it’s becoming one-to-one. Bihar is becoming one-to-one. In a way, Kerala has always been one-to-one. Maharashtra is almost one-to-one. So, through regional parties and alliances, you are trying to defeat the disadvantages of the first-past-the-post system.

PR: I think it was the wrong system. We just took it from the British blindly. We’ve improved it a lot over time by our wonderful ingenuity and jugaad, but there are many other systems which are fairer.

In this system, if you get 30 per cent of the votes you get 50 per cent seats, which is not fair. We’ve made it much fairer but there are many, many other systems, which if we had taken, would have been better. If you ask this Parliament to change the system, good luck to you (laughs)!


The depressing reality of 21 million women missing from the electoral rolls: Who is responsible?

PR: We took a lot of time to verify this figure and went to the Election Commission (EC), talked to them. We haven’t had enough time to do further research and look into the reasons behind it. But in our casual empiricism, we have not found any deep conspiracy yet. Although we are not ruling it out. The EC tries very hard to get women on the rolls. There are a lot of social factors in a male-dominated society, where they don’t want their women’s photographs taken for the electoral rolls. What makes it more worrying is the indication that the 21 million are mainly the poorest—Dalits, Scheduled Castes/Tribes and Muslims. It’s sad they have the right to vote but they are not on the rolls, and many of them come to the polling stations on voting day and aren’t allowed to vote because they are not on the rolls. It may be a technical error but it is a travesty of our democracy.


You had written to the EC with the suggestion to rectify this before the elections—has there been a response?

PR: [We suggested that] As long as women can show they are over 18 and they are living in that area, they should be allowed to vote in this election, and for the next election [the EC should] rectify the rolls.

I think there is a women’s delegation going to the EC. I think the Supreme Court is going to be moved. But frankly it’s quite late. And this election is going to be a tragedy for 21 million women voters.


dorab-sopariwala_bandeep_043019072339.jpgDorab R. Sopariwala


What are the difficulties of being a pollster in India?

DRS: Conducting all-India polls is a very difficult business. It’s also expensive. So very often you cut corners. How do you select the samples per state? How do you send out people who speak the language? You can’t send out women normally, as families often don’t allow women interviewers to travel to villages. The majority of interviewers are men, who often can’t speak to women respondents. The minorities are frequently not represented. When you go into a village, you dress like him [Dr Roy]. First, they are intimidated; second, anyone dressed like that is probably a government official. You are asking questions on polling behaviour and people are gathering around because they haven’t seen a guy in a shirt and trousers in a long time. All these are constraints you have to overcome.


What about trust?

DRS: The use of tablets has made it a little easier and discreet. Also in the old days the interviewers cheated a lot. Now they can’t because there’s GPS tracking them. So things have become easier, with better logistics, and the data instantly goes to the main office. But it is still a logistical nightmare to ensure that the data comes in and is collated. Then, votes have to be converted into seats, state by state. So it’s a big task and a difficult task. And it’s something you learn much better by making mistakes. In your earlier years, you do make many mistakes and then you learn and make fewer mistakes.

PR: For me that is the most terrifying thing, doing polls. Because you make a forecast, and you have collywobbles in your stomach for the next one month. The first poll is done one month before the results. So it’s both terrifying and also very rewarding, just going around asking people what the issues are, what motivates them, why they are going to vote, and for which party. And then the one lovely thing which is just guaranteed to happen every time you ask a person who they’re going to vote for, is the Great Indian Universal Smile. Everybody will first smile that ‘I’m not as dumb as I look’ kind of smile, and then they will give you the answer after a little bit of chatting and making sure that you are not from a political party.


What have you enjoyed most about being a pollster?

PR: Learning from voters in the deepest rural areas; they are smarter than we are; they think about issues a lot; and they completely overturn some of the conventional wisdom that we all have before we go out to poll, it’s wonderful to learn. There’s no better way to know the country. Really, just go out and travel, go deep into villages.


Can you think of an anecdote from earlier times which, for you, was like a sign of things to come?

PR: We once asked someone why he was not voting for this person who’d been in power three times. He said, “If you have been eating the same vegetable for the last 15 years, wouldn’t you like to try a new vegetable now?” Another guy was asked, “But if you don’t want this guy, what’s the alternative?” He said, “Look if you have a terrible stomach ache, and the doctor says I want to fix it, you don’t say, ‘What’s the alternative?’ First get rid of your stomach ache, then think of what the alternative is. Don’t ask me silly questions.”

DRS: I met somebody, a blue collar worker, recently in Lucknow, and this is the sign of changing times. He was voting for party A, his wife for party B, his mother for party C and he gave us a reason why each person was doing what they were doing. And they were emminently sensible reasons.


You speak about the Index of Opposition Unity (IOU). How would you rate it this time?

PR: This time many states are going to have a much higher IOU than last time, because of the alliances. I think the BJP is much superior in understanding the value of alliances than the Congress is. They understand that one party with three to four per cent [votes], when part of an alliance, can swing 10 to 15 seats. The Congress has just not figured it out.


Democracies are under threat all over the world, and so are elections. What do you think is the future of elections in India?

PR: There is a global trend towards less freedom, especially for the media, a move towards the Right, more autocratic governments and leaders. We hope it’s not going to happen in India. There’s certainly increased pressure through different forms of ‘state capture’, that has reached a peak right now. Historically, the voter has fought back and won. We hope that it will happen in India too.


In a field where excellence is so dependent on credibility, how do you deal with a post-credibility world?

DRS: If you exclude 2004, more than 90 per cent of the exit polls got the winner right. So the issue of credibility arises if they keep getting them [polls] consistently wrong, if the methodology is not properly explained or your sample size is not known. You build credibility by doing good work. But you can always go wrong, because it’s a sample survey, not the census of India. All samples have a range of error; the more carefully you select the sample, the more you can ensure that your errors are somewhat limi-ted. You gain credibility only through the repeated ability to get right something that is both a science and an art.

PR: I tend to agree that in the last couple of years there has been a trust-deficit across India and the world. Nobody trusts anybody. One corporate doesn’t trust another. Corporates don’t trust politicians. Politicians don’t trust corporates. The media doesn’t trust anybody, nobody trusts the media, social media is full of fake news. And I think, as Dorab says, to break that, you have to show the details of the specifics of how you’ve done your work, which, I think, a lot of pollsters are not doing and they are playing into the hands of lack of trust.


You mentioned fake news. If you were put in charge of fighting fake polls and news, what would you do?

PR: Well, one of the great advantages—and a key problem—with the internet is the veil of anonymity. In all other forms of media we know who’s writing or speaking. The person, or the editor, or the owner has to take responsibility for what their platform is saying. The internet’s total anonymity gives it beautiful creativity. Without anonymity you would not have got this wonderful product. So one must never lose that anonymity. However, we feel that anonymity has a downside and it can now become very dangerous. There are perhaps, justifications for lifting the veil of anonymity and identify who posted this ghastly, fake message that incites violence and ensure that they’re actually punished. People should know that it is technically possible to identify them and that they will be punished. This lifting of the veil of anonymity must be done only in the rarest of rare cases, and only by the judiciary, though never by the government.


Who for you is the most admirable Indian politician?

DRS: Jawaharlal Nehru

PR: I would say Mahatma Gandhi.


Anybody who is alive?

PR:  No ... we are equidistant from all of them. To put it mildly (smiles).

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