Prashnam: The Story and the Science (Part 2)

The Birth of an Idea

Prashnam’s story has its origins 8 years ago, in 2012. I was reading Sasha Isenberg’s just published book “Victory Lab.” In it, he talked about political science in the context of US elections. I had then set up Niti Digital to work on Narendra Modi’s 2014 election campaign. The use of polling as a primary input to decision making during election campaigns fascinated me. I started thinking how it could be used during Indian elections.

I got an opportunity prior to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. I decided to survey voters in UP and Bihar before and after they voted (pre- and post-poll). I followed the methodology outlined in CSDS-Lokniti’s national election surveys – use the electoral rolls to randomly select booths and then in the chosen booths random select voters. Done right, all that one needed was a sample of about a thousand voters to get an accurate assessment of what people were thinking.

The surveys in the 120 constituencies of the two states took time and were expensive. A person had to visit each of the identified voters and ask the questions. Responses were either tallied on paper or where possible entered into a mobile app. The process took time. It was also hard to verify if the conversation had actually taken place – so a smaller sample had to be called to do a cross-check.

The process worked well. When I compared the survey results with the actual outcomes, the accuracy was 90%.

A friend and I were discussing ideas around polling in India just before the lockdown started in late March. We both agreed that there had to be a better way. Almost everyone in India had a mobile phone – so why not just call them and ask? While a call centre agent could do it, that process was prone to manual errors. (And research has shown that respondents answer more truthfully to a recorded voice than a person asking them.)

One of the key elements we needed to ensure was stratified sampling – to make sure that the people chosen for the survey were representative of the overall population. If we could do this and combine it with an interactive voice response method, we could transform the process of surveys in India. Thus was born the idea of Prashnam.

Tomorrow: Part 3

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.