The Congress also conducts issue-based surveys. So far, the data analytics team has asked voters their opinion on hot-button issues that include the Rafale deal controversy, the effects of demonetisation, and women entering Kerala’s Sabarimala temple.

“An issue like Rafale will have a national implication, so (survey results and analysis) have to be sent back to the party president so that he can include it in his speeches,” a member of the data analytics team told Quartz. “But there are also issues that are very local. So in Madhya Pradesh, you may want to know the extent of migration out of the state, or unemployment. Or in Chhattisgarh, you’ll have issues of healthcare or the public distribution system (PDS).” This way, the data analytics team member said, when the party president is in a particular place, he can be sure he addresses the issues that are most important to locals.

For issue-based surveys of voters, the Congress either sends party workers door to door—Chakravarty’s preferred method, since this allows asking of follow-up questions—or conducts phone-based surveys like the one done to pick the chief minister.

“I have to build this for the least common denominator,” Chakravarty said. “The only assumption I make is that everyone has a phone”—not even a smartphone, at that. Those who don’t have smartphones receive SMS messages telling them they’re about to get survey phone calls; those who have smartphones get WhatsApp alerts. (Chakravarty estimates that 70% of the party workers use smartphones.)

Survey results often inform the direction the party chooses to take on the national stage, for example, in speeches made by Gandhi. Sometimes, the results indicate the need to create more awareness on an issue. “If people say they’re not aware of an issue, then that message needs to be spread out more,” the member of the data analytics team said.

BJP: NaMo app, loan waivers, demonetisation

The BJP hasn’t publicised the existence of a separate data analytics office within its party structure, but that’s no reason to infer that they’re far behind the Congress on this front. The party, which dealt the Congress a withering defeat in the 2014 general elections, is known to be extremely deep-pocketed and tech-savvy.

Data analytics was a component of the party’s successful strategy in 2014. A few months after that victory, the party’s then technology head Arvind Gupta said, as reported in PR Magazine, that the BJP “had data on each of the 543 constituencies. We knew how many mobile and internet users were present in each constituency. The same holds true for social media users. Alongside, we used analytics to understand which polling booths had voted for the BJP in the previous elections.”

The political consultant who has worked with national parties said the BJP often conducts surveys on the phone by asking party workers to call voters on the phone and ask them questions directly. “Robocalls are a bit risky in India because you get a lot of false positives—people sometimes aren’t sophisticated enough to understand what to do,” the consultant said. “It’s the most time-consuming, but the most effective form of getting surveys done is through actually doing a call.”

In fact, one of the BJP’s key political moves—its choice to waive farmers’ loans up to Rs1 lakh ($1,400) in value in the state of Uttar Pradesh in 2017—was orchestrated thanks to surveys. The new chief minister did this because surveys indicated the pressing need for it, the consultant said.

The BJP is also conducting surveys in a more public way: on the NaMo app. One survey that debuted on the app just days ago drew media attention because it asked users detailed questions about their local MP, including “are you satisfied with his/her work?” And “is he/she popular in your constituency?”—such questions, The Times of India said, could “send chills down the spines of BJP MPs.”

Image for article titled Surveys and data are key weapons in the great Indian political battle of 2019
Image: NaMo app

However, surveys conducted on this platform have long drawn the same criticism of sampling bias, as those who are active NaMo app users are most likely to be supporters of Modi. The BJP has especially come under fire when it has attempted to use survey results from the app to denote overall public support for its policies, as it did in the case of demonetisation.

There are some who are more widely sceptical of parties’ analytics strategies. A senior pollster, speaking on condition of anonymity, cautions that while parties “say they’re doing huge data mining,” the “fact is that hardly anybody is doing real, cutting-edge data analysis.” In fact, he said, surveys and data analysis are used by parties as “political one-upmanship—saying ‘we are much more advanced than you.’”

But even if the parties’ data analytics practices are more bark than bite, voter surveys still could well become another political arms race among the country’s major national parties ahead of the upcoming general election.

Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.

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