New Delhi

The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR, of which I am a founder member) and Daksh together conducted a nationwide survey of 2,50,000 respondents across 525 Lok Sabha constituencies. 

This was done over three months from December to February. This is the largest ever survey conducted for voter perceptions. Most opinion polls use a sample size of about 25,000 respondents, whereas the ADR-Daksh sample is ten times larger. 

The surprising finding is that the number one issue on top of voters’ minds, across the country, is jobs. Then comes drinking water, which is followed by roads, public transport and electricity

The purpose of the survey was to find out what was on the voter’s mind. The purpose was not to find who was likely to win the forthcoming election. It has been customary that election agenda is determined by parties. It is almost never determined by asking the voters. 

Presumably, the parties know the pulse of the people, and hence raise the right and relevant issues. But this fact has rarely been validated by a scientific survey. Do people really want free or highly subsidised food or gas cylinders? Do people worry a lot about black money in Swiss banks? Do they want free electricity? Do they want a temple or mosque?
Do they care about giant statues? How do we answer such questions? The best is by asking the voters themselves. This was the spirit behind the nationwide survey. Of course, the questions were broad based, related to governance and development. No leading question was asked like “Will you vote for a criminal candidate?” They were also asked to list other issues, in case something important was left out. 

Less than five per cent of the respondents listed any “other issues”. The survey design was such that it is possible to slice the findings by different states, by urban and rural areas separately, by gender and income class etc. Voters were also asked about how their vote was likely to be affected by consideration of caste, religion, money and criminal background. 

The surprising finding is that the number one issue on top of voters’ minds, across the country, across rural and urban areas, is jobs. People are anxious about securing stable employment. The second most important anxiety is about drinking water. The next three issues are roads, public transport and electricity. 

This is a nationwide average. The ranking of some of these varies from state to state, and also across rural and urban areas. Thus if one looks only at urban Maharashtra, then top four issues are traffic, security of women, food prices and corruption. 

Better garbage collection, and better quality of hospitals are also in top ten issues. Surprisingly jobs come below, but still in top 10. It is possible to slice these findings by rich or poor respondents.
Among the richer voters in urban areas, public transport and traffic congestion receive priority. It’s interesting to note that drinking water is very important to rural voters in Maharashtra, but does not even figure in the top ten priorities in urban areas. Better electricity supply is fourth most important item in rural areas, but absent in urban areas. 

Such granular insight is useful for candidates to frame their agendas. That is why manifestos should address local concerns. In many ways the Lok Sabha election is actually not one, but 543 different elections. It is no use telling the voters that garbage collection or traffic management is not the job of an MP. 

This is the perception of the governance experienced by the voter, and elected representatives need to find ways to address the gaps. Voters were also asked what would most influence their vote? In Maharashtra, the biggest factor is party, followed by candidate, then leader of the party, then caste and religion and lastly “gift” (or bribe). 

So prima facie, it looks like voters are not going to be swayed by cash distribution (perhaps knowing that it is illegal). Surprisingly, unlike the impression created by political campaigns, corruption does not seem to be uppermost on the mind of the voter. 

Or maybe, jobs, drinking water, no power cuts, security for women and good governance in general is just not possible without first reducing corruption?

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