Tue, Mar 11, 2014 - Page 12 News List

Faith no more

Fraudulent opinion polls are corrupting India’s democracy

By Andrew MacAskill and Bibhudatta Pradhan  /  Bloomberg, New Delhi

Prime ministerial candidate and Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, right, holds up a sword during a rally at Jagraon in Ludhiana, in the northern Indian state of Punjab, late last month. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is likely to emerge as the single largest party in coming elections, according to the ABP News-Nielsen poll forecast, published last week.

Photo: REUTERS

The pioneer of political opinion polls in India says he has good reason not to trust them: he has been asked to rig them on more than 10 occasions over the past two decades in return for envelopes of cash.

N. Bhaskara Rao, who has conducted surveys for Robert F. Kennedy and Indira Gandhi, said he once had to fire his right-hand man after discovering the person accepted money from a political party to doctor a poll. That’s why he wasn’t surprised when a local broadcaster last week exposed employees of 11 polling companies offering to fix results for money.

“l used to think there were one or two respectable polling agencies, but not anymore,” said Rao, 73, who helped develop the polling industry in India in the 1970s and remains chairman of Marketing and Development Research Associates, which conducts consumer market research. “It is a bit like fixing matches in cricket — everyone knows it is going on.”

Investors are grappling with how much faith to put in surveys showing Narendra Modi opposition Bharatiya Janata Party winning elections with results due May 16 after they failed to predict the outcome of the last two national votes. Election officials have called on lawmakers to ban opinion polls during the campaign period and asked police to look into the claims by News Express.

‘PINCH OF SALT’

“One will have to take the opinion polls with a pinch of salt,” said Mahesh Patil, co-chief investment officer at Birla Sun Life Asset Management Co in Mumbai, who manages about US$2 billion in equities. “We won’t get too much guided by polls in our investment decisions as they haven’t got it right every time.”

CVoter, Nielsen and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, the three largest organizations conducting national political polls, project Modi’s BJP to emerge as the biggest party, an outcome favored by investors seeking a change to revive Asia’s third-biggest economy. Of those, CVoter was the only one named in the News Express report.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in January his government could’ve done better at controlling price rises after the BJP trounced Congress in state elections held late last year, even while defending policies to buy farm produce at guaranteed prices, boost rural wages and distribute cheap food. India has Asia’s highest inflation rate, and the rupee has fallen 11 percent against the dollar in the past year.

BJP LEAD

The CVoter, Nielsen and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies surveys predict the BJP will win 188 to 217 seats of the 543 up for grabs in the lower house of parliament, short of the 272 needed for a majority. Congress would win 73 to 91 seats, its lowest-ever tally, with smaller parties splitting the rest.

The BJP and its two allies would win as many as 232 seats, 40 short of a majority, according to a poll released yesterday by the Centre for the Study of Developing Studies. Congress and its coalition partners would get as many as 139 seats, it said.

About 815 million eligible voters, more than double the US population, will cast ballots in nine rounds of voting from April 7 to May 12, the Election Commission of India said this week. Results will be announced on May 16 as votes are counted from the Himalayas to islands in the Bay of Bengal.

“The corporate world is betting on the BJP and the Modi phenomena,” said Satish Misra, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “There is a lot of suspicion that money is exchanging hands, and some of these survey companies are not all above board.”

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