Nepali Times
State Of The State
Footnotes to history


In an instance straight out of 'This happens only in India', premises of the Dinakaran newspaper in Madurai were vandalised by arsonists who disagreed with the findings of an opinion poll it had published. Three employees were killed.

The political repercussions of the poll shook the ruling DMK dynasty. Successors to 82-year-old Tamil strongman Karunanidhi stand deeply divided as the patriarch takes his time choosing an heir-apparent.

In Uttar Pradesh, on the other hand, psephology has been discredited because it didn't foresee the Mayawati majority last month. Pollsters and pundits were completely wrong: the closest seat forecast for Bahujan Samaj Party was off the mark by 20 percent.

Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh perhaps have compelling reasons to conduct opinion surveys. But does Nepal really need market research to gauge political preferences of its electorate when it's still going through the convulsions of transition? It seems some of our influential donors think that we do. The Asia Foundation and IDEA International sponsored separate surveys to map the mind of the Nepali electorate. Their findings were released last week.

Unlike Madurai or Lucknow, Kathmandu greeted the forecasts with a wall of silence. Perhaps the Nepali public is really the politically most mature in South Asia. This is also proven in the findings of the opinion polls. A majority of respondents in recent polls have declined to open up and commit themselves to any cause, party or leader (see 'Undecided', #352). They may be undecided, or they may be refusing to take polls seriously. In all probability, enumerators got the answers that they were looking for, and not what the interviewees actually thought.

At best, opinion polls are like any other applied research, seeking to set a political agenda. This is why some media treat opinion or exit polls as political interventions rather than news stories.

Then we need to scrutinise poll methodology. What was the purpose of the poll? Who sponsored it? What is the background of the polling organisation? What kinds of questions were asked? What was the order of questions? Who asked them? Who was polled? How were the interviews conducted? What was the timing of the poll? Has statistical rigour been observed? Is the analysis contextualised? Are the conclusions substantiated? Are findings theoretically sound? The media often lacks the incentive to examine poll findings so minutely.

Unexamined reports fail to inspire confidence and that is why the two recent polls created hardly a ripple in Kathmandu, let alone the rest of the country. Despite this opinion surveys are popular for several reasons. Statistics give credence to the commonplace, provide respectability to bias and give solidity to hot air.

Polls create short-term job opportunities for half-educated middle class youth. Enumerators are paid well for travelling places in Nepal that they are unlikely to visit for any other reason. Poll analysts, many of them my friends and colleagues, are respectably compensated for stating the obvious in pseudo-academic jargon.

Opinion polls provide the veneer of recipient legitimacy that donors desperately seek to keep HQ in good humour. The best part is that opinion polls in Nepal are mostly harmless indulgences.

Journalists prepare the first draft of history. Scholars go through the rough copy for posterity. But in a strange reversal of roles, our academic research generates footnotes in the name of psephology. And this journalists serve up as science. Since most Nepalis don't care much for the results, let's have as many opinion polls as donors are willing to sponsor. The more the merrier.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)