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Surveying The Masses

Politicians redefine grassroots contact as they resort to opinion polls to read the voter's mind

Surveying The Masses
An insecure politician wanted to test his mandate. With elections looming, did his vote bank still exist? The flatterers who surrounded him insisted that here igned supreme in the people's hearts. But he wanted the Truth. So he engaged a market research bureau to investigate his party's poll prospects. At the end of last year, the market survey agency, ORG-MARG, hired in secret by the Prime Minister to get the pre-election facts hot off the ground, came back with a staggering result. More than half of the respondents had never heard of P.V. Narasimha Rao.

The secret ORG-MARG poll has been the centre of a great deal of media speculation. The Economic Times has tried to reconstruct the survey through interviews. The publication Current has provided a detailed account of the survey. The Gujarat Samachar has even said that Rao was so angry about the findings of the survey that he refused to pay the full Rs 90 lakh fee that ORG-MARG was charging. Based on 40,000 respondents all over India, the survey was reportedly commissioned not as a number crunching exercise but as an attempt to gauge people's attitudes. ORG-MARG apparently advised the Prime Minister to take a tougher line on corruption (way back in November 1995) and even to adopt a more assertive defence posture to give himself a higher profile among the electorate. And so, there are reports that the recent CBI action as well as the launch of the Prithvi missile may have something to do with the results of the secret market survey.

For his part, Titu Ahluwalia, chairman of ORG-MARG, does not deny that his organisation had carried out a survey for the Prime Minister. "However, our professional conduct forbids us from talking about any of the work we do for our clients," he says.

 Whoever said that our statesmen are not statistics-savvy? At a time when the voter's mind is a mystery to many politicians, not only the man at the top but even politicians as diverse as Union minister Matang Sinh, Janata Dal elder Ramakrishna Hegde and BJP General Secretary Pramod Mahajan are enthusiastic votaries of opinion pollsby private agencies. Senior Janata Dal leader Jaipal Reddy may fulminate that India is far too heterogeneous and complex to ever be summarised by a market survey, but psephologists say that even those who claim to have an instinctive judgement about the Popular Mood often secretly commission surveys.

 "Market surveys," says Mahajan, "will increasingly be used in elections. We are likely to use a market survey for the coming election as well, but not as extensively as we did in the last elections." He was one of the first in his party to commission an independent opinion poll by a private agency and believes that such surveys are an independent and scientific method of gathering vital information: "Market surveys are more independent than party networks, which tend to confirm what we already know. Market surveys tell us what the issues are, which constituencies are good for us and which are bad. Based on these predictions we can arrange public meetings and mount advertising campaigns and so on." In fact, he believes that market surveys tend to be generally accurate in their predictions although a number of people are either not used to or not convinced about what he describes as scientific methods.

So, representatives of the people are increasingly turning to hired agencies to tell them about the will of the people.

"When the political process fails," says Yogendra Yadav, a psephologist at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in Delhi, "the market steps in. The fact is that today the routine processes of democratic politics have ceased to function properly. Politicians know less and less about the people because there is no party mechanism. The Congress, for example, simply does not know how unpopular it is among the Muslims. The channels of information from the ground are thin and getting thinner. So you need an objective survey if you want to know the truth. When political organisations fail, you have to pay for an election forecast."

Thus, specialist market analysts are increasingly doing the work political organisations should have been doing. A Delhi-based psephologist feels that the greatest advantage of market research groups is their political neutrality. "The point is that political work is only a small part of the work that they actually do, but it is much more high profile than their normal surveys. After all, look at Gallup. Nobody knows Gallup for its more mundane market research, but for its political predictions," he says.

Adds another psephologist: "A number of political parties carry out surveys now, including some individual politicians for their own constituencies."

Even senior politicians like Hegde have full faith in market surveys. In 1985, he engaged a private agency for the Karnataka assembly polls. The findings indicated that Hegde was not all that popular among women. So a zealous programme to win over women was immediately mounted—saris were distributed and anti-alcohol measures were promised. And in the elections, Hegde romped to victory with the full support of his female constituents. Since then he never distrusts a market survey. Sinh, minister of state for parliamentary affairs, was once at the centre of a controversy when it was reported that he had hired a foreign company to carry out a survey of 225 parliamentary seats. Although the Congress spokesman denied that any such survey was being carried out,

Sinh remains convinced of the efficacy of market surveys: "Look, there is nothing wrong in getting these surveys done. What could possibly be wrong? The party does its own surveys, the IB does surveys and sometimes private surveys are also done. Nothing is wrong. And after some of the reports that I have got, I am convinced that the Congress will form the government under the prime minister-ship of P.V. Narasimha Rao."

As a matter of fact, a Congressman, who refused to be named, said that for the forthcoming elections, Sinh had engaged an overseas market survey agency to provide reports from all parliamentary constituencies. "Let's face it, market surveys are valuable and every political party does it. They provide information about the performance of sitting MPs, of the caste alliances, of who's performing well and who's doing badly, of the health of the vote-bank. All manner of things."

 In a polity that hinges on elections, one which is fast becoming, as sociologist Ashis Nandy says, "a psephocracy, where elections occupy an abnormal salience in the politics of the country and parties are nothing but vote-gathering machines", election forecasting and opinion polls naturally occupy a crucial space.

N. Bhaskara Rao of the Centre for Media Studies says that there is thus also a great opportunity for misuse in the business of opinion polling: "Often these polls are just used as a tool by politicians to prove a desired conclusion. They have become money-spinning rather than professional exercises. The methods that are used are in urgent need of reform. The polls sometimes do not even indicate the size of the sample, but simply try to project an all-India result on the basis of a small study. In fact, power brokers often commission these studies as a means to gain influence in a party; there is so much money involved."

Big money must be spent for even bigger stakes. The elected representative prides himself on the fact that his heart beats to the rhythm of the people, but in '90s India, the representative has failed to listen to what the people are saying. Embarrassingly enough, only a few decades after the country acquired a government for the people, leaders must now pay cash to learn about the people.

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