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Poll vault

Ashish Ranjan was a Class 9 student in Patna in 1998 when he saw a certain political scientist dissecting voter behaviour on TV. Hundreds of MA and MPhil students are active in election-bound states to study voter behaviour, writes Rahat Bano.

education Updated: Feb 21, 2012 14:51 IST
Rahat Bano

Ashish Ranjan was a Class 9 student in Patna in 1998 when he saw a certain political scientist dissecting voter behaviour on TV. “My father told me he was Professor (Yogendra) Yadav. His knowledge of the poll process was amazing - right down to the exact percentage of people of a particular caste voting for a particular party. I was interested,” says Ranjan, an MA in political science from the University of Delhi and now a research assistant at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi. Attached to Lokniti - Programme for Comparative Democracy at CSDS, he has taken part in their election studies which involve on-the-ground interaction with the electorate. Ranjan also took part in the national election survey 2009 as a supervisor, cross-checking data in the Chandni Chowk and Mukherjee Nagar areas of Delhi. (The CSDS gives a list of particular voters from the electoral rolls and their details to the field investigators who need to interview only them).

“The experience was great. Sometimes I would find that a field investigator had made a mistake,” says Ranjan. “While studying for our university degree, we confront theories, bookish things. When I came to know they (CSDS) are collecting data from the grassroots, I knew I could personally verify where the data had come from, how genuine it was. I got practical understanding.”

Like Ranjan, about 435 people, including field investigators — most of them MA and MPhil political science students — are active now across election-bound Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Manipur to carry out post-poll surveys of voter behaviour.

These field investigators get one-day training at their respective headquarters in the states. (Each state team is headed by a professor or a senior reader or lecturer) “We pay Rs 500 a day plus travel expenses. The amount is not connected to the number of interviews they conduct,” says Sanjay Kumar, fellow, CSDS. The investigators spend seven to eight days in the field, he adds. They need to find and persuade people on the lists to give interviews, based on a long questionnaire, which can take 45 to 50 minutes. Kumar says they expect 60-65% interviews to materialise. After the survey, participants are awarded a certificate.

According to Kumar, there’s a rise in the number of people of interested in election analysis. “I get emails from people saying they want to be psephologists (who study and analyse elections). But I say, there are no degrees in psephology. It’s political analysis.” Psephology indeed is not a standalone career.

The number of professional psephologists in India can be counted on the fingertips, says VB Singh, retired CSDS professor whose areas of interest are electoral studies, party systems and ethnic politics. “There’s a dearth of such people. Mainly opinion poll agencies and a few colleagues at CSDS are doing this work.”

When analyses take place, there’s some aversion to predicting seats. Singh explains, “Psephology is very different and difficult in India. It’s not a bipolar contest, but rather a multi-corner contest. Different political parties have support from different pockets in the states and converting that into seats is difficult.” For instance, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supporters are evenly distributed across UP, unlike Samajwadi Party’s, he elaborates. “There are about 16 and 25% Dalits in every area, which is not the same for other communities; unlike the scheduled castes, they are not evenly concentrated.”

Given this situation, “serious political scientists do not believe in predicting seats because of the limitations”, says Singh. (“We have decided not to do any pre-poll survey because they (commissioning organisations) want seat projections,” he later added.)

Singh says there’s “not much” demand for psephologists because it’s a topical subject, which engages few researchers in political science, polling agencies and media houses. Around election time, political parties, too, show interest in taking “feedback”. “They do seek advice – almost all of them,” says Singh. “They want to know, for example, which issues will dominate the campaigns, the concerns of the people. What are their (parties’) prospects? They approach us for surveys which we decline to do because we say the findings will be public. So, they go to pollsters.”