The Curious Case of a Study on Bihar Elections: Kamal Nayan Choubey and Nishant Kumar

Guest post by KAMAL NAYAN CHOUBEY and NISHANT KUMAR

[This article is a response to the lead news-cum-article written by Sanjay Kumar and Suhas Palshikar and published in The Indian Express as well as Jansatta on 7th October about the pre-poll survey related to the Bihar Legislative Assembly Election. We had sent this article to the The Indian Express, but they could not give any space to our views. – Authors]

Politically, Bihar is one of the most complex states in India. It is often difficult to provide a substantially cogent electoral prediction because of the multivariate factors that impact the political outcome in the state. The other obvious reason is the political maturity of the electorates of Bihar, who decide the fate of the candidates based on several considerations including caste orientation and the candidates’ performance in the past. Still many analysts have tried to provide a picture regarding the possible outcome of electoral fray for the Bihar Assembly Elections based on quantitative surveys. The opinion poll conducted by Lokniti-CSDS and published in The Indian Express and Jansatta, two of India’s most respected newspapers, on 7th October, 2015 was one such attempt. In the last two decades election studies in India has seen a dramatic evolution with poll surveys gaining immense popularity among both analysts as well as electorates. Lokniti-CSDS has been one of the most reliable institutions for such studies because unlike other market oriented institutions it has always focused on serious academic and intellectual understanding of electoral competition. Many reputed academicians have been part of its election studies and its publications have given new dimensions to the study and understandings about the dynamics and churnings of Indian democracy. However, the pressure of media as well as the rush to publish opinion polls seems to have affected the way CSDS-Lokniti is known to release its analysis.

The news-item in the front page of The Indian Express read ‘Advantage BJP as Bihar gets ready’. It was claimed in that news-cum-article that BJP led NDA had an advantageous edge in the forthcoming Bihar Assembly Elections over Nitish Kumar’s Grand Alliance. We are not sure whether it was the editors who chose the headline to attract attention of its readers or it was consciously decided by the poll conductors based on their analysis. Whatever the case may be, the projection of ‘Advantage BJP’ exposes fissures at several levels, most of which are evident from the data itself. The publication also forces us to pose significant questions about the way in which such opinion polls are conducted both in terms of methodology as well as the analytical categories used to understand electoral politics in a complex society as in the case of Bihar. It further creates doubts about the aim of such published opinion polls.

First, it is really strange that in this new item the complete analysis is based on the survey of 30 constituencies of Bihar and the sample size was only 2079. Now the analysts may claim, as masters of quantitative analysis suggest, that till the time proportionality of factor variables is maintained, the sample size does not matter. Even then there are grave issues attached to the sample selected and presented. One of the important issues is that the current Bihar elections are closely contested one where even a small error could lead to drastic difference in outcomes. Further, the nature of each constituency is different and political arithmetic based on caste, class and political affiliations could reflect varying results even in closely situated constituencies. Keeping both these aspects in mind one can ask how representative are the samples used by analysts of CSDS-Lokniti. To make things worse, even the constituencies which became part of the survey are not mentioned, and hence it is not clear whether it really reflects the mood of the state at large. Interestingly the methodology part is just mentioned in a box at the end of the article. It is true that generally a reader may not bother to understand the methodologies involved in conducting such surveys. But it is equally true that the issue of methodology is primary to establish the authenticity and validity of any such survey in the public sphere. Also because it was published by two important news-dailies of India, that have played the roles of opinion-makers for years, such lacunae needs to be seriously questioned. Further, the name of author and institution working on the survey being so credible, there is no doubt that it would affect voting preferences of a number of voters who have yet not made up their minds. In that context the challenge of being methodologically upright and rigorous becomes more pertinent.

Second, certain propositions and conclusions of the article do not flow from the data presented. One intervention in this regard has already been made by Shivam Vij (in huffingtonpost.in) where he argued that the data actually reflected ‘advantage Nitish’ as according to the data the BJP alliance is shown as leading only in urban constituencies and urban constituencies make only 12% of all Bihar constituencies. Further, the authors consider that one of the reasons why the Grand Alliance is trailing at this time is because BJP’s campaign about ‘Lalu Yadav’s Jungle Raj’ have gained support among common voters, However, they fail to recognize the kind of polarization that issues such as Mohan Bhagwat’s statement on reservation or the question of beef eating, among others, have allowed. Such issues have definitely created ripples in the minds of voters. The survey contains more such anomalies. For example, according to the article, on the question about voter’s preference for Nitish Kumar as Chief Minister, 44 percent Lower OBC, 44 percent  Mahadalit, 53 percent Yadav, 54 percent Kurmi, 57 percent Koiri, and 56 percent Muslim supported his candidature. Now, if any leader has such support in the numerically dominant groups of the state, the clear conclusion should be that he is really popular and there is possibility of his return in the power. The data is remarkable because even after battling ten years of anti-incumbency, Nitish Kumar is the favourite candidate for Chief Ministership in the state. This is one of the factors that puncture the ‘Advantage BJP’ claim made in the article.

Third, the points mentioned in the section titled ‘Limits of BJP’s advantage’ (IE, October 7, 2015, p. 2) reflect the limitations of such surveys in closely contested elections. The ‘probable changers’ among the pro-NDA respondents is shown to be 12% and among those favouring Grand Alliance as 8%. If even 20% of these respondents actually change their current preference, the alignments will completely change (Thanks to the first-past-the-post system and as reflected in several election outcomes including the 2014 general elections). More importantly, when the respondents know their candidates, their voting pattern may vary drastically based on regional, caste and other factors. It is not for no reason that BJP has fielded a sizeable number of Yadav candidates, and on the other hand JD (U) has given tickets to several upper castes mainly Bhumihars. Keeping these factors in mind one can conclude that the survey data is inconclusive. But if it is only ‘trends’ as the authors have claimed, what is the relevance of the title ‘Advantage BJP as Bihar gets ready’?

Undoubtedly election studies and surveys have played a crucial role in the better understanding of electoral politics and democratic churning in the India. There is, however, need to be more cautious against the pressure of media and market forces in the publication of such studies. Usually scholars of election study also claim that they follow a kind of ‘value neutrality’ and only present ground realities related to the changes in the mood and priorities of the electorate in a particular state or the whole country. But as we have tried to underline that the use of data, presentation of news, focus on certain aspects and avoidance of some crucial facts in such surveys not only register methodological problems of such studies, but also put a question mark on the very notion of  ‘ideology-less’ and ‘value neutral’ election study. At the least such surveys need to be rigorous and multivariate in nature and the methodology as well as sites of study should be well spelt out for the convenience of the reader and to maintain high degree of legitimacy among the electorates. 

Both authors are Assistant Professor of Political Science at Dyal Singh College, University of Delhi

5 thoughts on “The Curious Case of a Study on Bihar Elections: Kamal Nayan Choubey and Nishant Kumar

  1. K SHESHU BABU

    Even prior to Lok Sabha elections systematic indoctrination was heaped on the public by print as well electronic media. The TVs reverberated with ‘Ab ki baar/ Modi Sarkar ‘ The similar type of hypd is being created. This may have impact on people. Nut these ads might have financial support from bigwigs which should be analysef. Next time, these supporters may finance, ‘Ab Ki Baar/ Rahul Ki Sarkaar. Hopefully, someday, elections may leaf to ‘Ab Ki Baar/ Janata Ki Sarkaar.’ How wonderful would it be if Bihar elections lead the way! ..

  2. Kamal Nayan Choubey and Nishant Kumar in their rebuttal to Suhash Palshikar and Sanjay Kumar’s news cum article published in the Indian Express titled “Advantage BJP as Bihar gets Ready” to highlight two issues regarding the article. The first issue pertains to methodology – non-reliability of the method of data collection (those include sample size, representativeness of the sample etc.) and questionable correlation of variables; the second issue pertains to implication of publication of such opinion polls on poll bound voters especially in a media mediated political environment. What is interesting is that the rebuttal is laced with curious ignorance about quantitative methodology and subsequent inconsistency in argument that flows from the non-familiarity with such kind of methodology.
    The inconsistency is quite visible when they state, on the one hand, that CSDS-Lokniti findings are “the most reliable institutions for such studies because unlike other market oriented institutions it has always focused on serious academic and intellectual understanding of electoral competition”; On the other hand, they are questioning the findings of the study and implicating it with ulterior motives. It is reliable because the findings are valid and validity flows from the same “value-neutral” premises that Lokniti-CSDS has always adopted while conducting the surveys. If it is reliable and valid because of its value neutrality it should not have any motive irrespective of what the head line appeared in the news papers. By the way, the title of the news item has not been given by the Lokniti-CSDS team or the authors it has been given by the Indian Express. The finding remains neutral and reflects the mood of the voters by the end of September 2015.
    Secondly, in regards to the influence of the findings on poll bound voters in Bihar the authors again show inconsistency in organizing their argument. On the one hand, they claim Bihar voters are more mature and that is the reason why the state is politically more complex and beyond any prediction and, on the other hand, they deny such maturity to voters when they claim that the findings would influence the voters’ behviour. If Bihar voters are mature enough and have agency of their own then they would not be influenced by the survey findings and media advertisements. By raising the issue of influence they deny the maturity to voters of Bihar. If media had such an indomitable influence on the voters then the AAP would never have received 67 seats in 2015 vidhan sabha elections and come in second position in all the parliamentary constituencies of Delhi in 2014 Lok Sabha elections despite adverse media coverage. Again the authors have no conclusive evidence to prove that media findings influence the voting behavior.
    It seems that they wanted to hear something else that the findings do not show. Instead of questioning value-neutrality of Lokniti-CSDS findings they should rather re-examine conscious and felt subjectivity within.

    Biswajit Mohanty

    1. Bibhu Prasad Mohapatra

      Methodological points made by the Duo about Lokniti article are appropriate. Rigour in that sense has never been Lokniti’s strength. Psephology and predicting election results are two different kettles. About maturity of voters in any part of India and media influencing voting behaviour are always taken with a fistful of salt. The fact that IE and Jansatta chose such a headline is a gimmick played by all editors. Apart from what has been pointed out by the Duo in their rebuttal, I got the impression that perhaps BJP is peaking too soon and the grand alliance would recover space in next four weeks, which seems to be the case.

  3. Kamal Nayan Choubey and Nishant Kumar

    We would like to thank Prof. Biswajit Mohanty for his lovely comments. But his rebuttal worries us. His priorities seem to be misguided. Rather than responding to our arguments, he seems to be more interested in defending the institution and subsequently make personal attacks by questioning our subjective orientation and integrity. Comments like “rebuttal is laced with curious ignorance about quantitative methodology and subsequent inconsistency in argument that flows from the non-familiarity with such kind of methodology”, smells of academic arrogance and we are not at all interested in it. Our aim in the write-up was not to malign the sanctity of Lokniti-CSDS as an institution (as understood by Prof. Mohanty) but rather to initiate a debate about limits of the methodology adopted. It is a fact that we have problems with the methodology adopted in the study and the analysis, and we have made our objections clear. We hope that the debates about methodology within quantitative analysis of social behaviour has not reached to a conclusive end that there cannot be any engagement with the same. We were more interested in understanding and discussing some of such limitations and how it can be made better.
    As per the paradox highlighted in Prof. Mohanty’s write-up regarding our comment that Lokniti-CSDS findings are ‘one of the most reliable institutions for such studies’ and then questioning it on the subject of ‘value-neutrality’ is concerned, we would like to humbly submit that it is the legitimacy that Lokniti-CSDS has achieved in public sphere that worried us more on reading such misplaced analysis. Our larger concern was about how to make such surveys more transparent and potent in ‘capturing the mood of the people’ (as the study claimed to be doing). We have respectfully agreed that the standards set by Lokniti-CSDS have always been of high academic quality and regardless of all provocations we continue to think so. But does it make Lokniti-CSDS infallible, or has it achieved the highest levels of accuracy and perfection in its analytical capacities that there is no scope to grow further?
    As far as the heading was concerned, if Indian Express chose it deliberately and the researchers did not have a say in it, it reflects an even more dangerous predicament. The defence laid down by Prof. Mohanty does not work as it highlights a deliberate compromise on the part of the researchers. It is like surrendering your research work to the market forces and giving them full freedom to use/misuse the same. Earlier, Lokniti-CSDS had decided not to give any prediction about the seats won by different political parties in a particular election. But it is also ethically wrong to surrender your data and study to the market forces. However, if it is not so and the researchers were fully satisfied with the claims made in the heading, they should own it and we can further discuss the points raised by us in our earlier piece.
    Secondly, as much as we agree that there is no conclusive evidence of a causal link between media’s role in influencing electorate’s preferences, to claim the exact opposite that there is absolutely no impact of media on the minds of electorates (only because they are smart voters) could at best be called ‘naïve’ (Hopefully we should completely reject that the BJP’s victory in general elections of 2014 and the rise of Modi had no link with the impact of different technologies of mediation!!!). Rather than searching for a causal relation between media reports and voters’ preference, a more potent question is about the role being played by media in trying to influence voters’ preferences and thereby generating such determining relation. The fear is that in the complex co-relations between media mughals, corporate houses and politicians, there is a possibility that best of researchers, either willingly or unwillingly, can fall prey or become party to unethical practices. In case it is possible, we as researchers, claiming ‘value-neutarlity’, should restrain from it.
    It is true, as Prof. Mohanty has argued, we ‘wanted to hear something else that the findings do not show’. But this ‘something else’ was spatially located in a different terrain than where Prof. Mohanty’s mind was travelling. That ‘something else’ (as we have explained above, and in our last piece), pertains to a more rigorous and transparent use of methodology, without being blind towards its practical limitations. Also by questioning our integrity as independent commentators on the subject Prof. Mohanty tries to engage in an unwanted posturing which we are not interested in. But he would have done much better by at least pronouncing his personal biases before talking about the objectivity of the institution. At least in a public forum, this is one of the core requirements to the claims of ‘objectivity’, as (probably) Max Weber had suggested (if we are not wrong). Right, Prof. Mohanty!!!

    Kamal Nayan Choubey and Nishant Kumar

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