Emerging Trends in the Studies of Electoral Behaviour in India

Sajad Sona
Sajad Sona / 4 yrs ago /

K.M. Sajad Ibrahim

Election studies acquired immense significance in India on account of the complexity of electoral trends appeared in each election. A number of election studies have been conducted in each Parliamentary and state Assemblies’ elections with the objective of understanding the electoral behaviour. Studying elections in the largest democracy in the world is bound to be a challenge: given the size of the country and of its population, Indian national elections have been the largest electoral exercise in the world ever since the first national elections in 1952. Election studies are here defined as scholarly work focusing on the major phases of the electoral process, i.e. the campaign, the vote, the announcement of results and subsequent government formation. This is a restrictive definition: elections are obviously a central institution of representative democracy, and as such they are connected to every aspect of the polity. Yet, election studies constitute a distinct sub-genre of studies on democracy, which focuses, so to speak, on the ‘mechanics’ more than on the ‘substance’ of representative democracy.
Evolution of Election studies
The trend of election studies in India has been influenced by the evolution of actual electoral politics, especially those of Lok Sabha and the State Legislative Assembly elections. In addition, theoretical development of election studies in developed countries, especially the United States, has inspired an upward trend in election studies in India. Studies on voting behaviourhave had an impact on studies in India relative to determining what the important research questions are. Party identification, issues, candidates, campaigns, socio-economic status of voters, and other areas have been recognised as important realms for studies in voting behaviours. But because of peculiar elements that are characteristic of Indian  society, such as caste, electoral studies in India have unique features. Elections of both Lok Sabha and State Assemblies were conducted simultaneously and regularly till the 1967 elections. Both levels of elections are considered to be pacesetters, not only in electoral politics but also in India’s overall political process. Politics during the Nehru era was, basically, stable, in spite of the occasional failure and turmoil, such as in the border war with China in 1962. The relatively stable politics until Nehru’s death in 1964 seems to be one of the main reasons why the election studies were not so flourishing in this period in comparison to the period after the 1967, though studies of these elections were conducted on every major election.
The stability of the Congress-centric “one party dominant system” was shaken in the 1967 general election, when the Congress Party for the first time suffered a major setback both in the centre and in many States. The possibility of change in the ruling party of the centre thus grew large. For the first time since India had become independent, destabilization of the “Congress system” and the increasing possibility of changes in the ruling party through elections attracted the interest of many political scientists and journalists. This resulted in an upsurge in election studies. Thus, it can be seen that election studies proliferated in the latter half of the 1960’s.
Many studies of Indian elections are journalistic and descriptive. They tend to be based on case studies or surveys of individual voters looking into various aspects. Such aspects include among others the selection of candidates, the electoral campaign process, actual voting behaviours of individual voters like political perceptions and party preferences, and socio-economic status. These studies are very useful for understanding the electoral processes of parties and the voting behaviours of individual voters such as who votes for whom, for which party, and how. The period and scope of the studies are usually very limited because there is little data coverage in each study. Usually, each study includes examination of only several case studies simultaneously or only a few hundred or thousand individual voters (using questionnaire surveys) at maximum and on the basis of one or two elections. So, based on these studies, it is difficult to understand the over-all structural patterns of electoral behaviours and/or long-term changes in patterns. The only exceptions to this are surveys of the Centre for Studies of Developing Societies. (CSDS)
Excluding journalistic or simple reports, there are still many studies based on surveys of individual voters or case studies of election politics. Those studies include: Atal (1971), Dastur’s collection of papers (1972) that was sponsored by the Research Programes Committee of the Planning Commission with coverage over major parts of the country, Sirsikar (1973), Kini (1974), Eldersveld and Ahmed (1975), Ganguly and Ganguly (1975), Kaushik (1982), Jena and Baral’s collection of papers (1989), Mayer (1990), Sission and Roy’s collection of papers (1990) including Chhibber and Petrocik (1990), Isaac (1991), Gould and Ganguly’s collection of papers (1993), Meyer (1993), Chhibber (1999)16, Wallace and Roy’s collection of papers (2003), Chandra (2004), and others. These studies, as a whole, are valuable in revealing various factors influencing voting behaviour in the electorate. They include socio-economic status like education, caste, occupation, and class, value systems, and other important characteristics of voters, as well as issues in the elections, ideological positions and strategies of mobilization on the part of parties.
The first survey based analysis of an Indian election carried out by CSDS was the Kerala Assembly election study 1965. However, the large-scale sample survey of electorate by the CSDS was started in the critical general election in 1967. Sheth’s collection of papers (1975) reported analyses of the 1967 election and the State Assembly elections of four States conducted in 1969. Since then, CSDS has been conducting election surveys every major election, not only Lok Sabha, but also State Assembly elections. It has also published insightful articles and reports based on the surveys. The series of surveys and analyses by the CSDS has revealed various important facts through which the direction of the transformation of people’s political perceptions can be understood. Among them, Information compiled in the series of surveys concerning the long-term transformation of the support bases of major parties is very important for determining to what extent and how the Upper caste, Other Backward Classes (OBCs), SCs, STs, Muslims, Christians, the rich, the poor, the illiterate, the educated, and other groups have shifted theirsupport from the Congress party to other parties in the four decades and assessing in which socialstratus the BJP increased its support. Data compiled by the CSDS are basic materials for constructing India-specific voting behaviour models or for examining the psychological models of voting behaviours developed in United States and other developed nations. In addition, the analysis of the data may, in the future, contribute to the development of the theory of voting behaviours of developing countries with multi-faceted cleavage like castes, religions, and classes. India’s heterogeneity and societal complexity may be a rich repository of information waiting to be tapped in order to construct a more generalised theory of voting behaviours. Finally, there is another valuable source of information on voting behaviour of individuals, that is, the public opinion surveys. Some institutions, like the Indian Institute of Public Opinion, conducted opinion surveys on the general election with large-scale sampling, but such surveys grew in the 1980’s in line with the development of mass media. Especially noteworthy was the dramatic evolution resulting in the Lok Sabha general election after the assassination of Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi in 1984. This made the election a drama to be shown in front of the people. Some attempts at forecasting election results were conducted by a few journals, and some opinion surveys were also conducted. Although such surveys might not strictly follow systematic sampling procedures, the huge number of samples and extensive geographic coverage made them attractive for understanding “quantitatively” the perception of the people. The opinion poll conducted in December 1984 just after the assassination of Mrs. Indira Gandhi and the massacre of Sikhs reflected an extraordinary mood of the people. The survey in December 1992 was also a reflection of the tense mood on the part of people just after the demolition of the Babri Masjid and a large-scale communal riot. It is evident that except for these extraordinary cases, the issues of most concern to people are those related to their daily lives. In this manner, consecutive surveys provide information on quantitative changes in the perception of the people, and this is useful for understanding the basic undercurrents in the politics of the masses.
Survey research exemplifies the close relationship between the media and political science. It was introduced in India in the late 1950s by an economist turned journalist, Eric Da Costa, considered ‘the father of opinion polling in India’ (Butler et al. 1995: 41)9, who went on to work with the Indian Institute of Public Opinion (IIPO) created in 1956 - but it was political scientists such as Bashiruddin Ahmed, Ramashray Roy and Rajni Kothari who gave it a scientific grounding. In his Memoirs (2002), Kothari recalls how he went to Michigan University – which had developed an expertise in psephology, i.e. the statistical analysis of elections - to get trained in survey research. When he came back to India, Kothari applied this new method in his work at the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), which he had founded a few years earlier, in 1963. The first election to which he applied this newly acquired expertise was the Kerala state election in 1965 (Lokniti team 2004: 5373). The CSDS team then went on to study general elections in 1967, 1971 and 1980(CSDS designed and conducted by Indian Institute of Public Opinion), but it seems to have progressively lost interest for election studies – hence the gap between this first series and the new series which started in 1996 – in a new political context, as we will see further.
The renaissance of electoral surveys came from another academic turned journalist: Prannoy Roy. An economist by training, Roy learnt survey research in the United Kingdom. After coming back to India in the early 1980s, he applied this method to Indian elections. He co-produced a series of volumes, with Butler and Lahiri, he conducted a series of all India opinion polls for the magazine India Today, but more importantly in 1998 he founded a new television channel, New Delhi Television (NDTV) on which he anchored shows devoted to the statistical analysis of elections – thus popularizing psephology. The link between these two pioneering institutions of psephology, CSDS and NDTV, was provided by Yogendra Yadav, a young political scientist who was brought from Chandigarh University to the CSDS by Rajni Kothari. Yadav revived the data unit of the CSDS and went on to supervise an uninterrupted series of electoral studies which have been financially supported and publicized by the print media, but also by NDTV. Yadav’s expertise, his great ability to explain psephological analyses both in English and Hindi, made him a star of TV shows devoted to elections, first on NDTV, and then on the channel co-founded by the star anchor Rajdeep Sardesai after he left NDTV: CNN-IBN. In 1995, the CSDS team around Yogendra Yadav created Lokniti, a network of scholars based in the various Indian states, working on democracy in general and on elections in particular. The Lokniti network has been expanding both in sheer numbers and in terms of disciplines, and it has consistently observed elections since 1996 by conducting NES 1996, 1998, 1999, 2004 and 2009.
Introduction of scientific Approach
Survey research has been dominating election studies since the 1990s for a variety of reasons. The survey method is defined:
[…] a technique of data gathering in which a sample of respondents is asked questions about their political preferences and beliefs to draw conclusions about political opinions, attitudes and behaviour of a wider population of citizens (Yadav 2008: 5).  
A major limitation of the survey method is its inability to capture the influence of local politics on the electoral behaviour of small communities. A questionnaire administered to individual voters can elicit information about individual attitudes and opinions but cannot capture the larger reality of events involving a collectivity of individuals acting over a longer period of time. A fieldworker who knows the community is better equipped to capture that reality (Shah 2007: 12).
The second limitation concerns with quantitative vs. qualitative methods. This opposition cannot be reduced to the use of figures vs. words. While many case studies involve some quantified description of the vote, they are deeply qualitative in nature, insofar as they aim at uncovering the qualities of particular political trajectories – of a community, a party, a constituency, a state etc. Survey research on the contrary aims at revealing general patterns. Here again the question of feasibility is central: while surveys are expensive, case studies are time intensive.
Limitations in the survey research
A major limitation of the survey method is its inability to capture the influence of local politics on the electoral behaviour of small communities. A questionnaire administered to individual voters can elicit information about individual attitudes and opinions but cannot capture the larger reality of events involving a collectivity of individuals acting over a longer period of time. A fieldworker who knows the community is better equipped to capture that reality
The evolution of National Election Studies (NES) conducted by the CSDS since 1996 shows an attempt to develop increasingly ecological types of analysis, which focuses on ‘the sociological characteristics of voters, which determine the construction of their representation of politics and their social solidarity’. Within India, the NES series has sought to distinguish itself from the growing industry of pre-election opinion polls […] The difficulties of obtaining independent support for NES made the Lokniti group turn to media support which in turn required the group to carry out some pre-election opinion polls and even exit polls linked to seats forecast. The experiment yielded mixed results, some reasonably accurate forecasts along with some embarrassing ones
Overview of Election Studies 2004 and 2009
NES 2004 comprised a single wave of post-poll survey undertaken in the period between the completion of polling and the start of counting, a unique window of opportunity provided by the current electoral practice in India. This was the first ever survey, social scientific or popular, of the Indian electorate to be carried out in all the 28 states of the Indian union, besides three union territories. While the immediate objective of the study was to map the behaviour and opinion of the Indian voter and help explain the electoral outcome, the survey included a wide range of secondary objectives that would continue to be of relevance to students of democratic politics in and outside India for a long time to come.
The sample for the NES 2004 was drawn using a four-stage stratified random sampling. In the first stage, 420 of the 543 parliamentary constituencies in the country were sampled. The second stage was the sampling of Assembly segments within the parliamentary constituencies. In every state, a certain number of assembly segments that form part of a parliamentary constituency were selected. this number varied from state to state. The third stage was the sampling of polling station areas within each sampled assembly constituency. The fourth and final stage in the sampling was the selection of the respondents. In terms of the broad demographic categories and at the national level, the profile of the NES 2004 appears quite satisfactory as all major social groups found a fair representation within the sample of the NES 2004, except slight variations. In caste-community terms too, the NES 2004 sample was fairly representative at the national level.
In party-political terms too, the NES 2004 captured the existing divisions fairly well at the national level. The reported vote overestimates both the leading alliances and, as is always the case with academic and non-academic surveys, underestimates smaller parties and independent candidates. But it captures the relationship between the UPA and NDA, a near perfect anticipation of the actual outcome.   The NES 2004 was thus a turning point for the tradition of empirical studies of Indian elections.
NES 2009 was a post-poll survey, i.e. it is a survey conducted at the place of residence of the respondent after the day of polling. of the 59,650 persons approached for interviews, 36,169 interviews could be completed. It not only followed the same procedure as in the NES 2004, but also introduced first time in the NES history, a ‘split sample’. This means rather than one interview schedule being administered to all respondents, five such sets of of questionnaires with common questions and background questions, along with certain set specific questions were randomly administered to the respondents. These additional set specific survey modules were on a range of different topics such as the economy, security, communalism, democracy and social values.
 The sample profile showed that the persons interviewed were broadly reflective of the Indian population, in terms of the country’s general demographic profile. In political terms, the NES captures the picture fairly well at the national level. The UPA figures in particular are quite close to the actual official figures. States such as Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka and Mizoram display a very accurate assessment of the vote share for the major parties. Whereas data collected from Assam, Haryana, Nagaland, Sikkim and Jharkhand there are greater discrepancies from the official figures. The election study is carried out by using the procedure of weightage to correct the inaccuracies and inconsistencies of the demographic profile and the actual vote share.
In view of the quantity and quality of election studies in India, it may be said that relative to other developing countries, India is advancing. But compared to studies in developed countries, there is still much to be done. A systematic accumulation of data for individual voting behaviours seems to be necessary. The Lokniti programme of CSDS made a breakthrough in the study of electoral behaviour by inventing most effective methodology unlike other studies in the field. The publications in this direction provide enormous materials to carry out the different aspects of electoral behaviour. Most studies which examined the confidence of people in the election system or the efficacy as citizens showed that people had faith in the election system. Socio-economic status like gender, caste, religion, education, and income were important in explaining political awareness, exposure to political propaganda, sense of personal effectiveness in politics, and party preference. Caste, religion, and to a lesser degree, economic status, are especially important variables for explaining party preference. Opinion polls of large-scale samples conducted after the 1980’s are important indicators of overall popular issues and sentiments. The most important issues of the electorate are those related daily lives of people such as rising prices or unemployment. These are undercurrents affecting the party preference of people.

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