Monday, May 14, 2007

How The Psephologists Missed The Wood For The Trees

WHEN I referred to the hypocrisy of the poll pundits in a previous post in the context of U.P. election analysis, some blogger friends could not understand whom I am against: voters, analysts, or parties/candidates? An interesting article in the HT edit page by sociologist Dipankar Gupta articulates the same point which I had made, albeit while examining why the psephologists failed to predict the scale of BSP’s victory. Although the author referred to psephologists, much of what he said, could well be true of the analysts, the pundits on various channels, and the so-called beat correspondents of various print newspapers. Today’s report in The Hindu, for instance, gives caste/community break-up of Mayawati’s Cabinet. One wonders what sort of reader interest is served by this break-up. I can understand if one section is completely left out of the Cabinet, or even over-represented rather disproportionately. The break-up of the numbers shows that the journalists are still trapped in the same mind-set which failed to foresee the BSP’s victory.
Gupta says: “None of the psephologists predicted that the BSP would get an absolute majority simply because they fractionated voters minutely by caste. These pollsters would have done better if they had asked on what grounds members of different castes coalesce politically. As the UP election has shown, jati loyalty is not the key. The emergence of a degree of caste correlation with electoral outcome is because economic, social and structural considerations bring otherwise hostile jatis together in caste blocks or clusters.”
Although I agreed with a blogger-friend, that we should not seek to restrict expression of such opinions in the media, saying they must have the freedom to fool the viewers and readers (because what they say and write do not reflect reality), I had also felt they were essentially playing a negative role, and must be discouraged. This is how Dipankar Gupta concludes: “But psephologists need to reinvent themselves in a hurry. By insisting on the pre-eminence of caste round the clock during election time they are not only wrong, but also dangerous. Incorrect though they are on every count, they succeed, however, in a somewhat devious way. They are successfully able to pander to popular prejudice by continuously harping on individual caste identities. It is in this sense that they play a negative social role that borders on the subversive.” What Gupta says about the OBCs being common adversary of both the Dalits and Brahmins in U.P. may be debatable, but on the issue of how pollsters went horribly wrong, one is tempted to agree with him.
Update: Mahesh Rangarajan offers a different analysis of the BSP's victory in Telegraph. He says OBCs are very much part of Mayawati's rainbow coalition, marking a clear disagreement with Dipankar Gupta. He says: " Contrary to the claims of some commentators, Mayavati has accommodated the Mandal classes. Her vote share among the lower backward classes, according to the surveys of the CSDS, is as high as 30 per cent. This makes her the head of a rainbow coalition." His article is here.
The editorial in Tribune today calls for retirement for pollsters till they improve their methodology.
Further Update: Mr.Suresh writes in the response section that I might have underestimated the problems of psephology in a first-past-the-post system, and that psephologists like Yogendra Yadav and his team are fully aware of the nuances of the Indian voters' behaviour, especially in t he context of U .P., and that Dipankar Gupta's article must not be relied upon to pass an unfair judgment on the entire class of psephologists. He also writes that YY and his team have consistently repeated in their programme on the CNN-IBN that their conclusions are only indicative, and that they should not be construed as making predictions. I agree with Mr. Suresh that the studies carried out by YY and his team have yielded rich data on Indian elections, and it is for this contribution, psephologists have to be admired. The 'predictions' aspect of psephology is important to sustain viewer interest in this era of 24-hour news channels, and therefore, the imperfections associated with this aspect may be condoned. However, I would still like to have a complete response from YY and his team to the issues raised by Dipankar and me (My grievance was mainly against journalists masquerading as poll pundits) especially with regard to the assumptions and premises underlying these 'indicators' (if the word 'predictions' may not be correct to describe their efforts).
In the past, YY had written a post-mortem of the opinion and exit polls done by his team to throw light on what had gone wrong, and draw useful lessons. I am looking forward to a similar exercise by him in a print medium of his choice. I shall also try to contact YY, as Mr.Suresh suggested, to throw more light and possibly dispel certain misgivings on the practice of psephology in India, in the context of the U.P. results. I am thankful to Mr.Suresh for this timely intervention. I have the highest respect for the scholarship and contribution of YY and his team, and my post was, in no way, aimed to disparage his methodology or analysis.
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