The recent poll by CNN-IBN, presented by The Hindu and conducted by CSDS, led by Yogendra Yadav, puts Rahul Gandhi as the most popular choice as Prime Minister at 19% vote by the population sample and 42% of the UPA sample. (If I missed out anyone involved in the exercise please remind me!) Hang on though, we’ll get to that poll in a few minutes.
First, let’s have some fun. In an episode from the 80s TV series ‘Yes Prime Minister’, Jim Hacker, PM, wants to announce a ‘grand design’ by cancelling introduction of the Trident nuclear missiles and reintroducing conscription (national service). Sir Humphrey, his permanent Dept. Secretary doesn’t want him to make such an announcement and has to turn the cabinet ministers’ opinion against the decision. What follows is an interesting poll exercise between Humphrey and the PM’s assistant, Bernard Woolley. Here are some random and edited excerpts (in blue):
Plot: Jim Hacker has just returned from his visit to the American President in Washington. While the PM is suffering from jet-lag (in other words: sleeping), Bernard Woolley is briefed by Sir Humphrey to stop the PM from announcing his Grand Design (canceling Trident and reintroducing conscription) in his first television broadcast. Jim Hacker sounds out General Howard about canceling Trident. The General is in favour because Britain does not need it. When the General later learns from Sir Humphrey that canceling Trident also would mean a reintroduction of conscription, his opinion about canceling Trident changes immediately.
Bernard goes to see Sir Humphrey and tells him that Hacker is planning to announce his Grand Design in the broadcast. The PM thinks it will be a vote-winner because a Party poll has shown that 64% of the population are in favour of reintroducing conscription. Sir Humphrey advises Bernard to issue another poll to show the majority of the population is against reintroducing conscription. Bernard wonders how this can be done and Sir Humphrey explains it. Sir Humphrey will make sure all the Permanent Secretaries will brief their Ministers to oppose the Grand Design.
After the Cabinet meeting where the Grand Design is discussed Jim Hacker is rather puzzled by the outcome. All his Cabinet colleagues who were previously in favour of it, now all seemed against it. The Foreign Secretary was talking about how it could look as appeasing the Soviets. The Defence Secretary was saying that Britain should have the best and Trident is the best. And the Employment Secretary was raving about how conscription will let an army of trained killers loose on the streets.
Sir Humphrey advises Hacker not to announce his Grand Design in the television broadcast. Bernard gives Hacker the results of the latest poll that shows that 73% of the population are against conscription. Hacker now thinks it is best not to refer to the Grand Design in the speech.
The discussion here between Humphrey and Bernard is a good example of how poll pranks are played out:
Humphrey: "You know what happens: nice young lady comes up to you. Obviously you want to create a good impression, you don't want to look a fool, do you? So she starts asking you some questions: Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the number of young people without jobs?"
Humphrey: "Are you worried about the rise in crime among teenagers?"
Humphrey: "Do you think there is a lack of discipline in our Comprehensive schools?"
Humphrey: "Do you think young people welcome some authority and leadership in their lives?"
Humphrey: "Do you think they respond to a challenge?"
Humphrey: "Would you be in favour of reintroducing National Service?"
Bernard: "Oh...well, I suppose I might be."
Humphrey: "Yes or no?"
Humphrey: "Of course you would, Bernard. After all you told you can't say no to that. So they don't mention the first five questions and they publish the last one."
Bernard: "Is that really what they do?"
Humphrey: "Well, not the reputable ones no, but there aren't many of those. So alternatively the young lady can get the opposite result."
Humphrey: "Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the danger of war?"
Humphrey: "Are you worried about the growth of armaments?"
Humphrey: "Do you think there is a danger in giving young people guns and teaching them how to kill?"
Humphrey: "Do you think it is wrong to force people to take up arms against their will?"
Humphrey: "Would you oppose the reintroduction of National Service?"
Humphrey: "There you are, you see Bernard. The perfect balanced sample."
So, you see, just as Sir Humphrey’s questions are motivated by his own policy beliefs most opinion polls in India have similar motivation. Now you will be explained the methodology and how scientific it was and all that. That doesn’t mean the questionnaire used for the ballot itself was scientific. Did you get to see the questionnaire? I did not and then there are direct discussions with respondents that can be safely left to your imagination.
Opinion polls not only need to provide options but also need to take into account realistic probabilities of someone being a real candidate for say, the prime-minister post. By what logic does the survey consider A.B. Vajpayee to be a candidate? The man has retired from politics, has decided not to contest elections again and yet he is an option. This is tom-foolery at its best. In a lesser way L.K. Advani also falls into the same category. I doubt he is considered a PM candidate even by the BJP or NDA. In contrast Nitish Kumar, after his great victory last year in Bihar was being touted as a PM candidate by CNN-IBN, is missing from the list. Was he there on the list and did he poll zero votes? If there is some stupid logic in Vajpayee being on the list then I am quite certain even Amitabh Bachchan or Rajnikanth would have polled some votes if they were included. So just like in real elections some candidates are put up just to divide votes, maybe ABV and LKA might be those candidates in this particular poll. Very clever. Now I wonder what the questionnaire actually contained.
Then, having concluded Rahul Gandhi is going to be the most popular choice for PM (whether by secret ballot or just verbal interaction is not clear now) there are other questions kept ready for the respondents. You will find them in pic 2 and 3. Is he trustworthy and pro-poor? What one thought of his Bhatta-Parsaul adventure and even if he is ready and should become PM straightaway. Okay, but when it comes to a poll for candidates from within the BJP itself there is no Advani. So now we should be convinced that LKA is not a preferred candidate within the BJP itself but according to the pollsters is good enough to be a candidate for popular vote by the general public respondents.
Now, if they had these questions about Rahul Gandhi ready for the respondents what about similar questions about other candidates? Nothing? It would be really interesting to see the pro-poor or trustworthy votes for at least one more candidate from the list. If not, I doubt the pollsters even measured all the candidates on the same parameters in the poll.
So all of us Bernards can now see how the perfect balanced population sample was used, with the best questionnaire and with the best and realistic options for PM candidate. Why go through all this painful trouble? CNN-IBN and CSDS should just listen to Digvijay Singh! He declares Rahul Gandhi PM almost every fortnight, doesn’t he? We could have been saved the pranks.