Frontiers

The Voice of the People

The Center for the Advanced Study of India launches a groundbreaking public opinion project.
March 2014

In less than two weeks the world’s largest electoral exercise will unfold in India  as an electorate of nearly 815 million—a third more than the total electorate in the EU and the US combined—goes to the polls. This is a potentially pivotal election in India, with the ruling Congress-party led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) facing defeat.

While numerous opinion polls of varying quality are trying to call the horse race, the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) has just completed a large survey that seeks to better understand the Indian voter.  According to Devesh Kapur, Director of CASI, “the growth of the Indian economy, burgeoning urbanization, and an explosion in communications and media are all producing an unprecedented churn in Indian society.” To understand these changes—and their implications including possible shifts in the political preferences of Indian voters—CASI is partnering with the Lok Foundation (which is funding the surveys) in Mumbai to conduct an ambitious multi-year panel survey project, the largest of its kind ever undertaken in India.

The survey covers 65,000 households across the country and will be conducted biannually over the next few years. It is a panel survey i.e. the same households will be surveyed each time. This will allow for a deeper understanding of social change in a huge and complex society and lay strong empirical foundations to inform public debate and policymaking.  The first module covers electoral attitudes among Indian voters, while the second examines aspirations and anxieties of the Indian public, such as discrimination, social hierarchies and social mobility. The third round will be a post-election analysis that will return to the same households to see how they actually voted and how their vote choices were shaped by candidates (as distinct from parties), campaigns and electoral alliances.

“We’ve made all of our empirical methods public, which is not generally done by Indian organizations. Our academic base together with our transparency lends us greater credibility,” says CASI post-doctoral research fellow Neelanjan Sircar. The research project is led by CASI director Devesh Kapur, Madan Lal Sobti Associate Professor for the Study of Contemporary India and also includes Milan Vaishnav, C’02, Associate in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and CASI Research Coordinator Megan Reed.

Data from the pre-election survey module is currently being made public in the Sunday Times of India, the country’s largest English daily, through a 4-week series “The Indian Voter: Inside Out.” In addition, CASI has set up a blog, IndiainTransition.com, which provides further analysis of the data and the current political situation in India.

“The response in India has been very good,” says Reed.  “Our aim was not simply to make vote predictions. We really wanted to understand the Indian voters’ perspective—their priorities, and how they are evaluating their vote choices, especially when these choices include dynastic politicians and candidates with criminal cases against them as is often the case in India.”

Respondents were asked about what election issues were most important for them from a set of eight options. The data indicated that the Indian voter is first and foremost pre-occupied with the overall state of the economy. While there was significant variation in responses across states, economic issues largely dominated across all demographic categories such as gender, age, education, and caste. “While India has many complicated dynamics like identity politics and corruption,” Sircar explains, “we are finding that people are most concerned with the slowing economy, widespread corruption and high inflation in the last few years. Voters seem to be yearning for change which is bad news for the incumbent Congress Party led government.”

The survey also asked voters about their attitudes towards dynastic candidates and those facing criminal charges. (Under Indian law a candidate can stand for elections if he faces criminal charges but has to step down if convicted).  Recognizing that 29% of the members of the current Indian Parliament come from political families and 30% faced criminal charges, the research team was interested to learn voters’ attitudes on these issues. They found that 46% of respondents were accepting of dynastic candidates and 48% would support a candidate facing criminal charges if he delivered benefits to his constituents. “Voters are desperately looking for someone who gets things done,” explains Sircar, “and poor governance in many parts of India leads many voters to make their choice based on pragmatism.”

The election results will be declared in mid-May. The CASI research project will not only improve our understanding of the world’s largest electorate, but also of voting behavior and social change in developing democracies in general.

To learn more about the surveys, visit CASI’s blog IndiainTransition.com; and about CASI, visit casi.ssc.upenn.edu.

 

Photo credit: Megan Reed, CASI Research Coordinator