Can We Have Some Real Vox Pop Please?

The Economic Times - January 2004

I certainly don't want to be a party pooper but I do feel uneasy reading the results of the Census of India and assorted Development reports side by side with the India Shining campaign and the English newspapers talking about the 'feel good' factor. I know both are true, and I know which one I want to believe as the larger truth that the good macro economic numbers translate into. But I can't help thinking that there are human beings that all these macro statistics represent and that we haven't really heard what they have to say. In a business, we would insist that sales data be backed up with data from the customer level on performance, both behavioural and attitudinal - percentage usership, repeat purchase rates, brand perceptions and loyalty, customer satisfaction levels, etcetera.

What makes me uneasy is the impression I have that we haven't heard the voice of the average (read that as the 'in the majority') Indian in the media, or through widespread opinion polls that are representative of the rank and file of the country. Are we getting into a situation where we are revelling in the very attractive icing on the cake, made to look thicker than it is because the cream is whipped to give it large volume, and the cake below is not so good at all? The worry is that if we don't deal with it because we don't want to see it, then the inaction stemming from denial could blow up in our faces soon. Equally, if the mood of optimism and 'can do' and faith in the new India is indeed there at the 'grass roots', we have a huge upswing in the making which will influence bold moves on the part of all constituents of society, not the least of which being business and industry.

I asked my friends in media whether it was my inflamed imagination and my cheerless disposition as a congenital dissenter that made me think that we are cut off from the voice of the country. Maybe the English language press and the cable channels that I watch are disconnected from the rest of India (please, no debates on the 'real India' - both India and Bharat are parts of the real India). Maybe the vernacular press is reflecting it? But from my conversations, it does appear that the eyes of the vernacular media have limited vision lenses too.

What about all the polls that appear in the media? A lot of them do not make it clear what universe the poll is representative of. They do say we interviewed so many people of this kind in these locations. But do not qualify the blanket headlines by saying that this represents only x million households , which are y% of the total populaton. For example the urban social classes of A and B around which a lot of good news media stories are done comprise under 10% of India. And the top rural social class (pucca house and educated chief wage earner) comprises under 5% of India. Even if you take the top three social classes in urban India they comprise around 20% of India, and the top two social classes in rural India comprise under 15% of India. As for surveys that make cover stories, screaming generalizations about what Indians are doing, thinking and feeling, be it about promiscuity or gen next attitudes, based on Social class A and B in top 4 metros, they represent a little blip on the landscape. This is not to say these percentages do not translate into large numbers, and does not take away from the reasoning that even if they are a small percentage of the country, they are large enough to form attractive 'world size' markets or universes by themselves. Focusing on and celebrating these from a business and commercial investment standpoint is fine. But to do so in the context of discussion on issues that affect society or polity or national identity or changing culture is not fine.

What would be an interesting, and not too expensive opinion poll design, that would still reflect the voice of the real India, would be the following: Separately sample five regions of the country (cluster states geographically) and within each region sample urban, semi urban and rural. Thus we have fifteen geographic clusters.

In each cluster, construct a sample which is based on generation (age) and social class (defined as per Market Research Society of India standard definitions, well validated and based on occupation and education of head of household in urban India, and based on type of house and education of head of household in rural India). Therefore the sample will have nine cells - three generations and three bands of social class. The generations will be midnights children, born between 1944 and 1965, midway children born between 1965 and 1980 and liberalization children born after 1980. Technically we should have the pre independence generation too - after all they are the political ruling class still. However in most normal households this age cohort has passed the baton on to the next. So here we are - fifteen geographic clusters (region x rural/urban) multiplied by nine cells in each based on generation and social class, making it a total of 135 cells. A sample of around 30,000 should be eminently and easily do able, and not very expensive, given that the scale of readership and other commercial market research surveys as well as national election polls are several times larger. I am suggesting that this effort be a private one, and not a government agency one, only because it would be nice to have the results in a few months and not in a few years, as is the norm with Government agencies.

The issues covered would be very simple questions on whether they feel quality of life has improved, how optimistic they are about their future and the future of their children, whether they are resigned, struggling or aspiring scale, where they stand on the communal issue, what being Indian means to them, and related ideas of nation hood, and what their attitude to consumption and saving is (broadly, is the hindu holy grail of renunciation and freedm from want, a thing of the past?). Please, no questions on who they will vote for and what brand of tooth paste they consume.

I did suggest this to a variety of folk in the media. There were no takers. Sources of funds were more easily available than relevant users and disseminators of the information. Back to the scary question. Does anyone really want to know? Political parties perhaps? Or is an opinion poll among potential coalition partners more useful than a poll among the people?