The impossible job: India’s pollsters face uphill battle to call election

Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi, above, won a surprising majority in 2014. (AFP/File)
Updated 12 February 2019
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The impossible job: India’s pollsters face uphill battle to call election

  • BJP lost elections in crucial states due to increasing public annoyance over unemployment and decreasing incomes
  • Chief executive of research company says caste and religion affect who people choose to vote for

NEW DELHI: Thousands of candidates, hundreds of parties, endless combinations of possible coalitions – spare a thought for India’s pollsters, tasked with making sense of the country’s fiendishly complicated politics ahead of a general election due by May.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi won a surprise majority in 2014. Until last year, many predicted a similar result. But amid rising anger over unemployment and a fall in rural incomes, the BJP lost key state elections in December, making this contest more closely fought than first expected.
That means surveys conducted on behalf of newspapers and TV channels will be closely scrutinized. Some of India’s top pollsters however, told Reuters current surveys could be wide of the mark until the parties finalize 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.”
Chequered past
Opinion polls grew in popularity in India in the 1990s, after economic liberalization saw a boom in privately-owned newspapers and TV channels, all demanding their own surveys.
In 1998 and 1999, the polls closely predicted the share of seats for the winning BJP-led coalition, according to data collected by Praveen Rai, an analyst who has tracked opinion polls in India for more than 15 years at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, which also runs its own surveys.
But in the last three elections, polls have been significantly wide of the mark. In 2004 and 2009 the victorious Congress alliance was completely underestimated, while in 2014 only Bajaj’s firm predicted the BJP would win an outright majority.
Elections in India have become “increasingly multi-varied,” Rai said, with the emergence of regional parties complicating pollsters’ efforts.
Reality on the ground
Many polls are conducted face-to-face, and collecting representative samples can be hard in a country that still has several armed separatist movements and tribal communities unused to opinion polling.
When CNX, one of India’s largest polling companies, conducts fieldwork in rural Chattisgargh and Jharkand – 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.
Elsewhere, a lack of trust in why polls are conducted and how the data is used means respondents are also less truthful than other countries, pollsters said.
“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.
India lacks strong data protections laws like those in North America and Europe, and many people still 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.
Complex arithmetic
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.
A recent poll there found that if two regional parties already in alliance joined forced with the main opposition Congress, the BJP would be wiped out in the state, almost certainly losing power nationally.
But like other states in India, much depends on who contests from where – and to what extent Congress stands its candidates down to allow regional parties a run.
Until the final seats sharing agreements and candidate lists are announced – which may not be until April – current polls are little more than guesswork, said Today’s Chanakya chief Bajaj.
“We have to wait until the final alliances come out,” he said. “It is not possible to do anything until that.”


Cyclone death toll above 750; fighting disease new challenge

A boat carries people from Buzi on a river near Beira, Mozambique, on March 22, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 22 min 27 sec ago
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Cyclone death toll above 750; fighting disease new challenge

  • Nearly 110,000 people are now in camps more than a week after Cyclone Idai hit, said Correia, the government’s emergency coordinator
  • Malaria is another looming health problem that the minister said was “unavoidable” because large expanses of standing water encourage the spread of malaria-carrying mosquitoes

BEIRA, Mozambique: Cyclone Idai’s death toll has risen above 750 in the three southern African countries hit 10 days ago by the storm, as workers restore electricity, water and try to prevent outbreak of cholera, authorities said Sunday.
In Mozambique the number of dead has risen to 446 while there are 259 dead in Zimbabwe and at least 56 dead in Malawi for a three-nation total of 761.
All numbers for deaths are still preliminary, warned Mozambique’s Environment Minister Celso Correia. As flood waters recede and more bodies are discovered, the final death toll in Mozambique alone could be above the early estimate of 1,000 made by the country’s president a few days after the cyclone hit, said aid workers.
Nearly 110,000 people are now in camps more than a week after Cyclone Idai hit, said Correia, the government’s emergency coordinator. As efforts to rescue people trapped by the floods wind down, aid workers across the vast region are bracing for the spread of disease.
“We’ll have cholera for sure,” Correia said at a press briefing, saying a center to respond to cholera has been set up in Beira though no cases have yet been confirmed.
Beira is working to return basic services, he said. Electricity has been restored to water pumping and treatment stations by the government water agency, so Beira and the nearby city of Dondo are getting clean water, he said. Electricity has been restored to part of Beira and the port and railway line have re-opened, he said.
Repairs and bypasses are being built to the main road, EN6, which links Beira to the rest of Mozambique and the road should open Monday, said Correia. The restored road connection will allow larger deliveries of food, medicines and other essential supplies to be to be brought to Beira and to flooded areas like Nhamatanda, west of the city.
“People are already going,” the environment minister said of the newly accessible road.
Malaria is another looming health problem that the minister said was “unavoidable” because large expanses of standing water encourage the spread of malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
Asked about his country’s current corruption scandal and whether the diversion of money has hurt the rescue efforts, Correia bristled, saying the government’s focus now is on saving lives.
“We are doing everything to fight corruption,” he said. “It’s systematic, up to the top,” he said of the anti-graft drive.
Two large field hospitals and water purification systems were on the way, joining a wide-ranging effort that includes drones to scout out areas in need across the landscape of central Mozambique, said Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, deputy director of the UN Humanitarian operation.
The scale of the devastation is “extraordinary” not only because of the cyclone and flooding but because the land had already had been saturated by earlier rains, he said.
A huge number of aid assets are now in Mozambique, Stampa said: “No government in the world can respond alone in these circumstances.”