CSDS: Five decades of Understanding Electoral Politics in India

18 February 2015
SERIES Think tanks and elections 17 items

[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Sanjay Kumar, Director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). CSDS has ventured into the field of election studies and surveys in India since 1965. It is part of a series posts on think tanks and elections around the world]

The CSDS is one of India’s leading institutes for research in the social sciences and humanities and has pioneered intellectual thought on political, social and socio-cultural issues. Founded in 1963 by political scientist Rajni Kothari, CSDS has primarily been involved in studying and understanding the democratic and electoral politics of India and its neighborhood, and much of this has been done through sustained empirical work by scholars of politics. Over the years scholars of political philosophy, sociology, anthropology, psychology, history, and legal and media studies have also come to be associated with the Centre giving it a multi-disciplinary context and character.

CSDS was the first Indian organisation to venture into the field of election studies and surveys, long before they became the norm in India. It conducted its first survey-based research of an election in 1965. This was also the year the CSDS Data Unit was established. Since then, CSDS has conducted election studies during almost all national elections (barring four) and several state (provincial) elections that have taken place in the world’s largest democracy. In addition to these it has also conducted several theme based studies related to Indian politics and democracy. This has meant that today, outside Western Europe and North America, the CSDS Data Unit’s holdings might constitute one of the largest archives of social scientific survey data on political behaviour and attitudes, spanning nearly five decades. It provides a unique combine of aggregate and survey data sets, which have been used by students of social sciences from around the world.

Research based on aggregate and survey data

While election-related research at CSDS touches upon various aspects of electoral politics, its main purpose is to understand the dynamics of electoral politics in India, how elections take place, what kind of role do various actors play in these elections, and how and why people vote. This research is undertaken by analysing aggregate data (actual election results) as well as survey data, both of which are collected and maintained by the CSDS Data Unit.

Aggregate data

Soon after each election in the country – national or provincial – the programmers at the CSDS Data Unit first undertake the task of downloading the results released by the Election Commission of India (the institution that is in-charge of conducting elections in the country) for every constituency. Once downloaded, they arrange and organise the constituency level data by various analytical categories that may be useful for doing research. For example, if a person wants to know how urban constituencies voted in a national election in India, their task would be difficult as the geographical boundaries of localities (as defined by the Census of India) do not necessarily match with the electoral boundaries (as defined by the Election Commission). The person could at best make a guess by looking at the electoral verdicts in constituencies bearing city names. However this estimate would be flawed as it presupposes that the city being analysed occupies the whole of the constituency, which is not the case. An electoral constituency which has an urban area/city within its fold may also have some rural areas within it.

This is where CSDS plays an important role : it has been able to match the electoral and census boundaries in order to classify the constituencies in terms of levels of urbanity as rural and urban. Not only this, using other available Census data, CSDS has also categorized electoral constituencies by the proportion of Muslims, Tribals and Scheduled Castes in the total population of a constituency. The Data Unit at CSDS also classifies electoral constituencies by other categories such as regions and districts. Depending on the availability of data, the Data Unit is also in a position to classify constituencies by special categories if and when the need arises – for instance left wing-extremist affected constituencies (in left-wing extremism affected states), coal producing belts (in coal rich states) and constituencies with sizeable number of tea garden workers (in states with tea plantations). While the results declared by the Election Commission of India help us in knowing which parties won and lost the elections and by how much, such detailed information is only available with the Data Unit of CSDS. In fact it is probably the only other resource centre, besides the Election Commission of India which houses the election results in a systematic way. At times, even the Election Commission verifies its results from the CSDS data files.

Survey data

The much more visible, popular and widely acclaimed research on elections conducted by the CSDS research team largely relates to voting patterns, voting preference of voters belonging to different socio-economic groups in elections, and what determines their vote. The analysis of these research questions draws upon the large scale surveys which CSDS conducts during and after elections (pre-poll and post poll surveys) using rigorous research methods. This could be referred to as the core expertise of the CSDS. While the primary task of these surveys is to gather information about how people are planning to vote/voted during an election, they are not just about voting behaviour. They treat elections as an opportunity to capture the most accurate snapshot of political behaviour, attitudes and opinions of Indian citizens on diverse issues such as leadership, the health of the economy, infrastructure, national security, democracy, and diversity. Moreover, comprehensive ‘background’ information of each survey respondent is collected allowing for a more in-depth demographic analysis compared to analysis that can be conducted with aggregate data on voting patterns alone.

Data from an election survey is useful in explaining the outcome of the election in a way that aggregate data cannot. But this is only possible if the correct and relevant questions are asked during the survey. For instance while doing surveys on provincial or state elections, CSDS has been consistently asking a question on whether the work of the national government matters more to voters than the performance of the provincial government when they go out to vote. The question helps us understand the influence of national level factors on state level politics. Had the question not been asked, analysing the impact of the ‘national’ on the ‘state’ would have been difficult as aggregate data would have failed to provide us with any answers. Designing and asking the right questions is as important an aspect of survey research as sampling or fieldwork is, and CSDS has always engaged in this task with utmost seriousness.

How are these studies conducted? 

The election studies/surveys conducted by CSDS are primarily quantitative and data is collected by face-to-face interviews of sampled electorates in the state. Standardized questionnaires are used for the study of the electorates. The sample for the study is drawn using the multistage stratified random sampling technique and involves the selection of – i) Parliamentary constituencies and Assembly constituencies within them (for a national election study) ii) Assembly constituencies (for State election studies) iii) Polling stations within the selected Assembly constituencies iv) and Respondents from the latest electoral rolls within the selected polling stationsA rigorous training workshop is organized before the survey fieldwork starts at various places across the country/state to train the field investigators who carry out the fieldwork operations. A comprehensive fieldwork manual specially designed for field investigators with general instructions on how to conduct standard interviews is also prepared and distributed. The interviews of the selected electors are conducted at their residence (or place of work in some cases) using the questionnaires designed for this purpose. All questionnaires are manually screened for consistency and quality check. Codes on the questionnaire are punched into an electronic database. Punched data are then edited through a specially written edit program, which checks for eligibility criteria, range and logic errors. The data is then analysed using special software.

Implementation and Use of Study to influence Decision making

Though most of the election related research at CSDS is academic in nature but given the rigorous methodology with which these studies are conducted, the findings are widely acclaimed and accepted. Although they do not influence policy making on elections/democracy per se, CSDS’s election related studies are widely noticed and used by political parties and candidates contesting elections and by the Election Commission of India. While the parties and candidates take cue from the issues which are thrown up in the pre poll surveys in order to develop campaigning strategies, the Election Commission may find them useful for the purposes of reforming the electoral process. For instance, there have been few occasions in the past when the Election Commission of India commissioned CSDS to conduct studies giving feedback on the electoral system and possible improvement in it. One such study was aimed at looking at the nature of expenses made by candidates and parties during election campaigns. It is important to mention that as per election laws a candidate contesting for national election from a big state cannot spend more than 70 lakh rupees for his/her election campaign while a candidate contesting for state assembly election in a state (outside the northeast) cannot spend more than 28 lakhs. These were much lower earlier and are revised from time to time. The CSDS conducted this study to help the ECI better understand the nature of expenses made by a candidate during elections.

Instead of ballot paper, voters in India vote using Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) for all the state and national level elections. EVMs were introduced in the mid 1990s, first at a few locations, then in some more constituencies, and finally in all. However before introducing the EVMs in all locations the authorities were apprehensive about how the voters would react to voting on an electronic machine and whether the introduction of EVMs in some areas had created doubts in the minds of the people about the legitimacy of an election result. This apprehension was not unfounded as there were indeed anxieties and questions raised by a few people regarding the use of EVMs. One such anxiety was that the voter had no way of knowing whether his or her vote had been recorded as intended since the EVM did not have an option to review a tangible ballot to confirm if the EVM accurately recorded the voters’ intent. Another anxiety was that in the event of a dispute an election official would be unable to manually recount ballots. Because of these doubts the ECI was eager to have some feedback from a cross section of voters before extending the use of EVMs to all constituencies. For the task of obtaining this feedback the ECI requested CSDS to conduct a study. The results of the study were very positive. A large proportion of voters approved of the use of EVMs and there was hardly any sense of suspicion or anxiety about the EVM. While one cannot say that it was only due to the CSDS study that the ECI decided to use EVMs for all the elections but the feedback gathered by CSDS would have played a major part in the ECI decision.

A lower voter turnout in Indian elections has also been a concern of the Election Commission of India during the last few years. In order to address this problem officials at the ECI have wanted to systematically understand why elections in some states witness a very low turnout, who are the people who do not turn out to vote in big numbers and what remedial measures could be adopted in order to mobilise voters to vote in bigger numbers in these elections. In 2013, with Delhi state assembly elections just around the corner the ECI approached CSDS among other institutions to conduct a study on voter participation and awareness. The study aimed to assess the knowledge, attitude, behavior and practices of electors, find out the level of involvement and satisfaction of voters with the registration process, find out why those who are not registered as voters do not come forward for enrolment and identify the demographics of elector segments with lower enrolment and participation in elections. The ECI and the Chief Electoral Officer of Delhi accepted the report and the recommendations made by means of the report of this study were duly implemented leading to a record voter turnout in the Delhi state elections of 2013.

Impact through Media

While some of the studies directly commissioned by the ECI do make some impact on policy making, but since most of the findings of the research on elections are disseminated through the media it does make an impact on the political system and actors directly or indirectly. The CSDS uses diverse platforms for releasing the findings of its research studies. These include the print and electronic media, research journals, and academic books. It also uses other means such as workshops, round tables and seminars to disseminate information regarding its studies. It must be emphasized that CSDS has always maintained neutrality while conducting its studies and does not do studies sponsored by political parties or politicians.