‘Elections Becoming Increasingly Presidential. The Face You Offer To The People Decides Your Fate’: Swarajya Interviews Pollster Pradeep Bhandari
There’s a lot a scribe or a politician can learn from a man who believes in ‘knowledge through earthing’. Successful pollster Pradeep Bhandari tells Swarajya why pontificating on elections from the comfort of a Delhi studio, instead of hitting the ground running, is juvenile journalism, at best, and how he hit it big in psephology. Below are excerpts from the conversation:
28-year old Pradeep Bhandari rose to fame with his ‘Jan Ki Baat’ initiative which started out as a public opinion gathering company promoting citizen journalism and slowly shifted towards professional psephology.
As Bhandari started getting his election calls right in elections where even some established psephologists stumbled, Republic’s Arnab Goswami quickly formed an alliance with him for his channel’s election coverage.
And Bhandari hasn’t looked back since. He has his own show at Republic now, titled ‘Lalkar’.
Bhandari says he and his ‘Jan Ki Baat’ team travelled to 400 Lok Sabha constituencies for the 2019 general elections and this helped him get unique perspectives into understanding which narratives helped deliver the historic tally of 303 seats for the BJP. He has now jotted down his travel experiences in his book Modi Mandate.
Below are some excerpts from the interview.
1. One question that is on everyone’s mind, especially the reporters who cover elections, is how did you manage to cover 400 LS constituencies in such a short time?
See, I had been spending most of my time travelling since the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly election. I covered the state extensively. Then, I went to Tripura and Karnataka when elections to the assemblies happened there. Later, I covered MP, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh thoroughly. So, in a way, the groundwork for the 2019 general election coverage had started back in 2017. For seven months in the run-up to the general elections, I was constantly travelling and that’s why I was able to touchdown 400 constituencies.
On top of this, I have a large team with me which would cover a constituency to the block level if I wanted to clear my doubts, especially in cases where the competition was tough and I needed more data to analyse it correctly.
So far, the first source of political analysis on elections in India has been politicians themselves. I had to change that. That’s why my first source is voters themselves. This was the objective behind covering the length and breadth of the country, get enough data and reflect on how people are thinking because it's a very important task to document this so that the decision-makers can implement policies for the betterment of society.
2. What’s your track record? What’s that one ingredient that separates psephologists who get it right and those who almost always get it wrong?
We have got our predictions right more than 95 per cent of the time. Out of 16 elections so far, we have called 14 of them right. The reason for our success is that we don’t sit in a studio in Delhi and predict things. We hit the ground and collect data to the block level in a constituency.
Slowly, we have expanded our capabilities and for the recent Delhi elections, we were able to go to the booth level. Just like the parties have their in-charge at the lowest building blocks of a constituency, we assign our people to do the work at that level.
One of the biggest disruptions that I would say we have caused is to change the grammar of political analysis by extracting micro data and not just limiting ourselves to vote-share and seat-share number-crunching. Anyone who sees our analysis would be able to know who is winning in which area and for exactly what reason. I feel this is our biggest contribution.
3. In December, BJP lost three big states. That was a big jolt. From that to winning 303 was quite remarkable. Even after the General Election, we have seen BJP struggling in state elections. You talked to people across the country. Why does the BJP stumble in state polls?
The elections are becoming increasingly presidential in nature, especially at the state level. There are multiple factors at work, but they are becoming largely about acceptance or rejection of key personalities leading the parties. So, apart from caste arithmetic, having a good face has emerged as a key factor to win polls.
But there has to be credibility attached to that face. And that isn’t built by projecting someone during the election time. It is built over a period of time, where voters see whether you are genuinely involved with them and concerned about their issues.
Indian democracy has gone from MPs/MLAs effectively selecting PM/CM to PM/CM effectively selecting MPs/MLAs. So, faces are extremely important and the BJP has to do that at the local level, apart from getting the caste arithmetic right, of course.
4. I covered 10 Lok Sabha constituencies in a month and witnessed total annihilation of caste-based voting in favour of Modi. Another factor was that poor people got this confidence that Modi is working for them. What other trends did you witness on the ground that gave Modi such a big mandate?
I wouldn’t call it ‘annihilation’ but certainly the impact of caste in deciding the outcome was substantially low this time. As I said, the face has become an important factor in elections and the BJP had Narendra Modi, who emerged as a decisive and most credible personality in Indian politics today.
There were many reasons for this. He was able to deliver key social development tangibles to the deep interiors of the country. I have written in my book that women were the chief spokespersons of Modi and youth were his chief campaigners this time.
So, you have a Jatav woman who has got Ujjawala and is voting for Modi, while the husband is not. Second, the youth is an aspirational voter and he sees the probability of those aspirations getting fulfilled more by Modi than Rahul Gandhi.
Other factors were nationalism and Hindutva, and by the latter I meant that you can no longer take the majority in the country for granted. People had reasons to vote for Modi, but they didn’t have a good reason to vote for the Opposition, which to make matters worse, came off as anti-nationalist and anti-Hindu.
5. UP — the biggest prize on the table — was won by the BJP in spite of seemingly insurmountable caste arithmetic against it. We know the Modi factor was key, but was much of it due to CM Yogi’s governance record?
I think the Modi factor was the most important in winning the state. Yogi’s governance, especially good law enforcement, acted as a cherry on the top. The BJP managed caste arithmetic brilliantly — it was able to get an overwhelming majority of non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav SCs on it’s side apart from the upper castes.
The party had a unique strategy for each constituency and the election started from west UP and then moved to east UP, which reduced the impact of caste and accentuated religious polarisation, which helped the BJP.
Again, in UP also, the youth and women voters drifted away from the mahagathbandhan and shifted their support to Narendra Modi. I am saying Modi and not BJP because it is the PM’s schemes which converted these traditional non-BJP voters into one of its biggest cheerleaders. And their word-of-mouth praise translated into a positive environment at home as well as in their mohallas, which was a big factor in creating the wave.
6. The most stunning result for the BJP was in Bengal. Was it merely a positive vote for Modi since it was LS poll or was anti-incumbency against Mamata’s government also a big factor? If the latter is true, this will have consequences in the upcoming state polls there.
Clearly, what we saw was not just a vote in favour of PM Modi but also a huge anti-incumbency against the Mamata Banerjee government. It was certainly a protest vote against her governance and her excessive appeasement of minorities, which created a sense of alienation in the majority and they saw a hope in Modi.
In the northern part, which is a hub of tea plantations, Mamata Banerjee had promised development, which she didn’t deliver on. So this swung towards the BJP. In the western part, people saw their neighbours in Jharkhand getting benefits of schemes like Ayushman Bharat, which wasn’t implemented in Bengal. In the eastern region, which has a large Muslim population on border areas, there was religious polarisation in favour of the BJP.
Overall, there was a huge fear of the (Mamata) government in the population, and this got translated into votes for the BJP at the EVM.
While all this should give hope to the BJP for the assembly elections, it has a lot of work to do, especially in the region around Kolkata and Diamond harbour, where it didn’t get enough votes in the Lok Sabha polls. Additionally, it will have to focus on winning the minds and hearts of the Bengali-speaking population to clinch the state.
If the assembly election becomes too localised, then the TMC will have the edge. If it gets converted into a civilisational battle, then the BJP will win big.
7. How do you see the BJP’s future in Telangana in the next 10 years. The party got surprise results there too. Is it the most ripe state in the South for BJP’s politics?
Yes. Telangana is the most ripe state for BJP politics. The next best bet would be Andhra Pradesh. But if I have to pick one, then it is definitely Telangana. The BJP has to cogitate on why it’s not been able to make inroads in Kerala. Tamil Nadu is, perhaps, the farthest away among all the Southern States for the BJP.
In Telangana, it will be a brownfield investment as the party’s greenfield investment paid off in the Lok Sabha polls. The BJP cannot grow in the South as it did in the North. It needs targeted, states-specific plans for the next one decade.
8. Covering elections is a highly enriching experience. You get to know Indian society and its people and the way they think about issues — local as well as national. What was your biggest learning?
I feel extremely blessed to have got this opportunity to travel and talk to so many people across the country. It has taught me a lot. I found that Indian voters are very smart, more than the politicians. They are very nationalist.
They know how to differentiate between local and state elections, and the general elections. We saw how the voters voted differently in MP, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Rajasthan.
Indian voters respect sincerity more than actual delivery. Even if you promised 100 things and managed to deliver only 60 per cent of that, if your intentions are good, they will reward you.
Indian voters now want credible faces running their states and the country.
One thing that struck me while visiting different states is how close to nature food habits of our people are, whether it is the tribal areas of Jharkhand or rural North Karnataka.
Another thing that I understood is that the voter is highly informed these days and so the future of campaigning would’ve to be more conversational than a one-way campaign full of rallies filled with monologues.
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