Prashant Kishor (PK) is in news now with gossip of his chasing a different goal. He seems to be exploring a leadership vacuum in parties and their solo pursuit to oust a powerful incumbent. I’m sure PK is aware of the journey of Yogendra Yadav or Jayprakash Narayan of Lok Satta among such others. Despite being a psephologist with concerns and long years of ground work, Yadav could not have a turn around so far. Yadav has a far better understanding of ground realities than most psephologists.
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PK, of course, has been an impressive phenomenon with creditable performances within a decade in six different states and assignments with seven different political parties and contradicting ideologies. There was no other such outsourced assignment to compare except poll surveys and role of a couple of psyphologists who made it to politics. But PK is not described as a pollster or as a psephologist. He is being referred, as he himself would like, as a “poll strategist.” The scope of poll time surveys, proliferated in recent years, has been going through changes in the last 25 years ending up now as outsourced poll opportunities. Poll time surveys to start with forty years ago were mostly independent exercises. They became sponsored by news media and then after 1988 by political parties or leaders. Not all such assignments of parties were in news media. They were not publicized. Their scope was limited to projecting win-lose aspects by way of percentage of votes and number of seats and indicate factors that matter in that process. It was mainly for the leader’s information.
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Perils of surveys
In my book by NBT in 2011, Poll Surveys in News Media, based on my over two decades foray, by then, into poll eve surveys, I described how poll surveys in India were conducted, by whom, with whose sponsorship using what kind of methodologies. I also cautioned that voters as well as media should be concerned about the effects of such surveys. In my just published book, The Third Eye of Governance-Rise of Populism, I reminded the perils of such surveys in manipulating voting trends.
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“Outsourced services” by PK were at the instance and on behalf of the leader of a party and for winning a particular election. These services apparently include anything and everything that takes to win or perceived as required in that pursuit. These multiple functions include those which go with responsibilities of the leader. These include short listing and selection of candidates, formulate and direct campaigns, provide critical inputs for the manifesto and speeches of campaigners, negotiate with potential and critical individuals irrespective of their party affiliations, and of course track feedback and influence poll surveys and media coverage. And, in all, somehow manage the poll atmosphere in favor of the party boss who had hired him.
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Five critical factors
Five game changing developments came in handy for PK to emerge as a hero of the polls. The first was ECI making available booth-wise desegregated voting pattern for every constituency and on-line. The ECI was already having the voting trends for the past elections on line. The second was availability of a range of data bases openly or otherwise not just on demographics but also on beneficiaries of various government schemes, numbers of Aadhar cards etc and ownership (of phone, car, TV, etc). The third was analytical tools (software interventions) which could help integrate various sources of data with field data from surveys which in turn facilitate segmentation of voters to focus on voting trends and intentions and build scenario. The fourth was flooding of social media, particularly Face book, Twitter, WhatsApp etc and reliability of broadband connectivity. These have opened floodgates to plant news as and when required and use targeted ones which are even fake overnight videos. The fifth factor was that the party’s supremo who had outsourced indicates that fact to the cadres and even asks them to cooperate with him (the psephologist). Of course some leaders were discreet about hiring PK others were open making him even sit along. This obviously helped the pollsters in gathering ground level inputs faster and also tackle local potential ones directly without anybody in the party being in the picture of such “negotiations.”
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A certain vacuum in the political scene both at leadership level and in the confidence level of voters in leaders has increased uncertainties in voting intentions particularly because the percentage of young among the voters has increased significantly. To seize this situation, tracking methodologies were unleashed with relay-surveys where responses are captured for huge numbers on a weekly or even daily basis starting much earlier even before the ECI’s bugle? Daily tracking, relay surveys involving huge samples had improved confidence level and helped initiate campaign interventions and counter the opposing party’s moves both at micro and macro levels. PK changed the scope of field surveys with evidence based experiments, including planted ones. But not the representative character of the contestants nor of the elections.
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Once field surveys and surveillance had identified who matter locally to mobilise and motivate voters and the potential candidates of parties, PK had used his negotiation skills to woo those who matter with whatever it takes to cross over and cut off level of voting required to win. This mapping of vulnerabilities had increased his ‘explore and exploit’ moves for chasing those whose vote matters. All these inputs come handy for a Back-Track chase formula involving focus on pre identified constituencies, segments, booths, wards and even streetwise voters that matter for the desired result. PK had refocused on middlemen instead of limiting to voters. Instead of leaving it to the political leaders to read the survey reports (which he knew many will not even read), PK took up the task and undertook required interventions without losing time and caring for the internal group loyalties and bickering. Forming group networks, activating and engaging them is another methodology followed by his team. Confidence building in the cadres and voter groups is part of his task for which Image building tools were availed liberally.
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As a strategist PK was wearing multiple hats. As a pollster, canvasser, event manager, negotiator, PR man, analyst, manipulator and operational director of poll campaign. This is apart from or parallel to the efforts made by the political leader. He even hired or took counseling from lyricists for coining slogans, copy writers and, of course, journalists. This is to strengthen the hands of many analysts and researchers of I-PAC, who are system analysts and data integrators. PK Mantra is what aspiring leaders of different parties in states are seeking these days in lieu of relying more on internal democratic ways.
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Key political functions
Assigning key political functions of a party to an altogether outsider involving hundreds of crores of rupees with no accountabilities or concern otherwise, will have its consequences to the very electoral system that we had adopted. The ECI cannot remain a spectator of such practice with implications for free, fair and transparency of elections to assemblies and parliament. Even more importantly, it is for the leaders to ponder over outsourcing polls the way PK had demonstrated. Such an arrangement may help individual leaders, certainly not the parties nor the parliamentary democracy as I had explained in my earlier primepost.in article.
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(Dr. Bhaskara Rao is a pioneer in public opinion studies including poll surveys in India)