By Guddugurki Anju Rao
“We do not do opinion polls or seat projection. We only want to know why people vote the way they do, for long-term understanding of Indian society,” said Professor Sandeep Shastri, national co-ordinator of Lokniti network, National Election Studies, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. A renowned political scientist, Mr. Shastri is also the Pro-Vice Chancellor of Jain University, Bangalore, with a vision to involve youth participation in the highly complex dynamics of the Indian election world. He spent the post-election Friday afternoon in Studio Chaape, speaking to the Political Action Interns and Prof. Rajeev Gowda, about the bigger picture behind a Congress-BJP syndrome, rather a Tendulkar-Gavaskar one, the former likely to be stumped at 99 while the latter at 190 in a metaphorical game of political cricket.
Getting a peak into Lokniti’s work draws from the rationale of answering a range of questions about Indian elections. Mr. Shastri believes that the network of 35,000 youth led by 60 experts in 28 states of the country is credible in its post-poll data collection, as the Hindu and The Economic and Political Weekly often quote their study. “It is an authentic mirror of the larger population since sampling is done on strict probability. We use qualitative methods in choosing respondents, rendering 20,000 of them enough for near-accurate results. We then match this scientifically chosen sample with census data, suitably applying weights in case of error,” he explained.
Elaborating the exhaustive methodology, Mr. Shastri demonstrated how important systematic pre-testing of post-poll questionnaires can be. He compared two ways of asking the same question: ‘Did you vote?’ (which sounds like a moral question) and ‘Some people could vote, some couldn’t. What about you? Were you able to vote?’ (which ensures dignity in a truthful response). He also revealed the strict re-checking and cross-checking in survey-based translations done within spoken dialects of 18 languages across the country. “We ensure that the questions resonate to mean the same thing in all languages. We discourage transliteration and word-changes. To this effect, constant supervision and intensive training towards our young field investigators are our top priorities,” he emphasised.
Mr. Shastri took his audience at Studio Chaape through the evolution of the National Election Studies. From first generation centralised control to second generation dependence on media to third generation thematic focus and decentralisation in survey methods, Lokniti stands today at its sophisticated best.Besides funding, one of the challenges the network faced in achieving the present state is the contextualisation of democracy in defining different social realities. “Some people do not identify with Abraham Lincoln’s definition of democracy. Research shows that democracy in South Asia is about group rights and justice. These differences must be taken into account,” he said. Another challenge is the occasional compromise of academic rigour when data-starved media demands Lokniti to fulfill its public role during election season for the sake of empowering masses. On the other hand, Shastri’s Lokniti stands the credit of some significant contributions like encouraging varied voter demographics in their surveys and better evaluation of governments.
Finally, Mr. Shastri responded to questions, posed both by interns and Prof. Rajeev Gowda, about the possible vote-share result in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. “For the first time, 2014 may see clear gender and age divides in voting preferences. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are battleground states and the fate of this election lies within them. However, the north-western Modi monsoon may meet a slight south-eastern chill, stronger only if the Congress defended its achievements positively and effectively countered criticism,” he said. The interns want to predict similar such outlines in the future of politics, greatly awed by the second-hand narratives of Lokniti’s field investigators.