Prashnam – My Interview with ThePrint

ThePrint published a report with some background quotes from me about Prashnam:

Prashnam founder and internet entrepreneur Rajesh Jain explained that any survey irrespective of the population could be representative in nature if it included participants across demographics and highlighted different voices such as people from urban and rural areas, men and women, etc.

And if a survey had such diverse voices then roughly 1,000 people being surveyed was enough for it to be representative of the population, he added.

“Our basic idea is that we want to transform surveys. What Google did to information, we want to do to opinions,” Jain said.

Explaining how the surveys are conducted, Jain said there is an opt-in panel, IVR system, which does the outbound call. They are telephonic surveys and randomised samples. And Prashnam has all the details of the people being surveyed, he added.

“Our main objective is that we want to democratise surveys. Usually comprehensive surveys are very time-consuming and expensive. On our website and soon to be launched app, we will allow people to conduct their own respective surveys by paying a small fee. They can choose their own geographical area. Our sampling cuts through demographics and can be conducted district-wise, state-wise and even pan-India,” explained Jain.

The survey being representative in nature is taken care of by the back-end. And the results of the survey can further be verified by picking 10 numbers randomly and can be cross-checked to verify if it was what people said, Jain added.

“We hope this enables people to make decisions based on what people are thinking,” he said.

With this new model of surveying, Jain said that he hoped that the decision-making process improves and becomes data driven.

“Currently a lot of decision making takes place in a vacuum,” he said.


I have launched a new startup, Prashnam. It is India’s first AI-powered feedback engine that collects real opinions from real Indians.

I have been using this over the past month to do various surveys — think of a question, and get an answer almost immediately. It changes the way one begins to perceive India. No more gut / intuition / half-baked online surveys. This is the real thing — a truly representative and a large sample of Indians for opinion gathering.

We can boldly state that these surveys have a 95% confidence, and 3% margin of error. Just as its done in developed countries.

Here are some of our initial case studies.

Quint (Hindi) published a report on our Sushant Singh Rajput survey.

Digital Politics

Published in Mint on July 31, 2020 with the title “How  the pandemic  will drive digital politics

[Translations in other languages are also available: Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam.]

The pandemic has upset the normal in many aspects of life. It threatens to undo even the slow progress that India has been making. In one fell swoop, many who have experienced better lives now face the prospect of being pushed back into a world they thought they had left behind forever.

Migrants in search of prosperity who had moved to cities are now back in their villages subsisting on Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

Livelihoods have been disrupted for many across the services sector—because services cannot be stored or retrospectively consumed. These ripples will inevitably cascade through the world of politics also.

Politics, by its very nature, is a touchy-feely exercise—a contact sport. Politicians are the “doers”—they are out there meeting with people, doing small events to large rallies, and managing a steady stream of daily contacts. They have to be seen among the people. For them, the interaction and response from the people is their energizer.

What the pandemic has done is to change all of it. For politicians, social distancing means that direct contact with people becomes much more limited. Large gatherings are a no-no.

Every decision of going out and mingling with people now needs an evaluation of risk.

If there is an election coming up, the challenges mount. How does campaigning work during times of a pandemic? Does appearing on a single mobile screen stir up the same passion as an open ground with tens of thousands chanting in unison?

Against this backdrop, what will the new post-pandemic politics look like? What will be the impact of the digital-first voter for politicians and their parties? Will the already big get even stronger, or will it create new challengers?

To start, let us see how politics has changed in the past decade, digitally speaking.

The rise of tech

The 2009 elections saw the use of SMS and outbound voice calls in a big way. But for the most part, politics was still in the offline domain—dominated by big rallies, traditional media and boisterous physical world campaigning.

By 2014, social media adoption had grown. Facebook became an important part of campaigns. Data started playing a role—with an identification of which seats, booths and voters had to be targeted for favourable outcomes. (Disclosure: I was an actor in this election via media platforms like NitiCentral.)

The 2019 elections moved up a notch in the digital engagement ladder with the widespread use of WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook. It was India’s first “social media election”. If BJP had its Namo app, Congress had Shakti. The name of the game was to empower the intermediaries (party workers and motivated volunteers) who could deliver the message to the chosen supporters among the voters.

Voters can be segmented into three categories: the loyalists (or committed voters), the non-aligned (or swing voters) and the non-voters. As it turns out, each of the three buckets account for about a third of the voters. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, about 27 crore voters did not vote. According to Lokniti’s post-poll survey, of those who voted, nearly half made up their mind either during the campaign or in the days or hours before they voted. That leaves us with the loyalists—for whom the candidate does not matter; only the party symbol does.

Thus, we have a split of roughly 30-30-30 in the 90 crore voters: 30 crore loyalists who vote and vote based on the symbol for their favourite party, 30 crore non-aligned (NA) who wait until close to polling day to decide whom to vote for, and 30 crore non-voters (NV) who skip the vote.

The key challenge that politicians will face is how to persuade the NA and NV segments. Think of the NA as those who can swing the election—they delivered the extraordinary victory for the BJP in 2019 (BJP won 230 of the 303 seats in 2019 with a vote share greater than 50%; a winning percentage even better than what the Congress did during its 1984 victory.)

The NA voters are especially critical because they need to be persuaded. The hawa is critical—and this is created through the various events that take place. In a subdued pandemic-time election campaign, how will these voters be persuaded becomes the big question.

The NV segment can also become important—should they decide to change their mind and turn up to vote. They may be hard to predict and may spring a few surprises. Many migrants are now back in their villages—where presumably they are registered as voters. In most elections, few bother to travel back to their villages to vote. Which way will they swing if they do vote now? The same applies to the young—many who are now back home where they are likely to be registered as voters.

The basics of every election campaign are constant: identify, register, persuade and turnout the right voters. What the world of data and digital does is bring precision to the process of targeting. This is the world which digital technology will impact and transform even more in the months and years ahead.

Digital politicians

In pandemic-infected India, life is now almost impossible without a smartphone. Want to get on a train—you need the Aarogya Setu app. Want to learn—the school is now online. Want to check where hospital beds are available—the app will tell you. Want to order something without the risk of visiting a store—there is an app for that. Want to just pass some time—there are many apps for that too.

Until a few years ago, India was in the digital stone age. The launch of Jio and the ensuing price wars created the opportunity that delivered an affordable phone with cheap data to most Indian households. This is the digital foundation that politicians can now leverage to get their jobs done.

At a basic level, politicians have five key jobs to be done: manage a hierarchy of workers and volunteers; build a voter file of their constituents; communicate with their supporters (loyalists and some of the non-aligned) to get their message across; get feedback from voters on their pain points and expectations; and manage the booths for the get-out-the-vote on election day.

Digital can now help them do each of these tasks more efficiently. There are many parallels with the corporate world and businesses creating customer relationship management (CRM) systems to track engagement. The one big difference between politics and business is that in politics there are no prizes for coming second—one has to spend five years figuring out what went wrong and preparing for the next election.

In this winner-take-all world of politics, digital will now be the differentiator. Voters already have gone digital for their other activities—it is now time for the politician to become digital-first.

This offline-to-online shift mirrors what has happened in the past few months for many consumer-facing businesses. For many businesses, it is not even about being omnichannel—they have to be only online. For politicians, it is going to be the same story. In a world wary of direct contact, the interface with workers, volunteers and voters has to shift to becoming digital.

One database, three apps

Digital politics will need one database and three apps to do the five jobs that politicians need to get done. The starting point has to be the voter database. Many politicians had already started building these in the past few years. This will now become central to all communications and interactions.

This database is akin to the customer data platform (CDP) that consumer-facing brands have used for many years. The CDP aggregates all customer data into a single repository. This includes identity (name, email ID, mobile number), demographic information (age, gender, location), behavioural data (actions done on the app or website) and transactional data (details of all the purchases made). Taken together, the CDP provides a unified view of every customer.

For politicians, the voter file is the CDP equivalent. For every voter, all the info needs to be collated and put into a single database—voter ID, mobile number, loyalty level and the likelihood of turning out to vote. With the voter records, the politician also needs information about the place and what schemes have benefitted voters. Armed with this, it now becomes possible for the politician to personalize communications to every voter—exactly what businesses do with their customers.

Once the database has been set up, the digital-savvy politician will need an app for managing the intermediaries—the workers and the volunteers. This is typically done on WhatsApp and via a mix of phone and personal contact. An upgrade is needed to a better system that enables hierarchies to be created, tasks allocated and activities monitored. Just as managers in corporations are discovering the need for new apps to monitor employees, politicians will need an app for engaging with their next level.

The second app is for voter communication and engagement. With large shows of strength becoming increasingly unlikely for the near future, politicians will need the equivalent of digital events and rallies to get their face, party symbol and message across. Think Zoom on steroids.

In this process, politicians also need to run surveys to get better feedback on what people are thinking since in-person conversations are out. Campaign initiatives like Chai pe charcha need to become Screen se charcha. We are already seeing early signs of this in the election campaign that has started for the Bihar state elections, which are due later this year.

The third app needed is for booth management. A typical Lok Sabha constituency can have 1500-2000 booths, while a Vidhan Sabha constituency has 200-300 booths. Each booth has about a thousand voters (about 250 households). Close to polling day, booth workers need to be managed and guided on which voters to persuade and turnout on election day. The coming Assembly elections in states like Bihar, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal will be a test of how digital booth management works.

Taken together, the voter database with the three apps for coordination with workers, two-way communications with voters, and booth management can lay the foundation for digital politics in the times to come.

In conclusion

Besides shifting the engagement model from offline to online, the pandemic will also bring about three other changes in politics.

First, it could encourage more younger politicians. With older people being more susceptible to the virus, older politicians may be more reluctant to venture out—until a vaccine is available.

Second, with people feeling greater economic pain, solutions that make more money available today may be more acceptable than putting forward the vision of a better tomorrow. In other words, politicians promising money in the present may find more traction than those who offer a better future.

Then, there is a danger of a sentiment shift against politicians. If the pandemic continues its spread and the lock-unlock duality persists, anger could start rising. While Indians are remarkably patient, at some point, the pent-up rage against their conditions could start rising.

Even as politicians make the move to going digital, can challengers create new platforms and marketplaces to create political disruption? If ever there was an opportunity to put India on a new path and correct the historical mistakes that kept Indians poor, this is the moment. Are digital-savvy political entrepreneurs listening?

[Translations in other languages are also available: Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam.]

Who will elect India’s leaders – we or Xi? The answer lies in EVMs

Published in ThePrint on July 31, 2020

The soul of a democracy is in our vote. Every Indian over 18 years of age can vote. So far, we have believed that what we vote is what is counted. Election after election, we have voted in large numbers with this implicit comfort. Yes, there were stray incidents through the decades of ballot box stuffing and rumours of EVM rigging. But none have been serious enough to cause us to question the election process.

But now, for the first time, India faces a serious and looming threat from outside its borders in the form of Xi Jinping’s China. Wars of tomorrow will not just be fought in mountainous terrain but also in the digital domain – we are moving from kinetic to algorithmic warfare. We have seen past alleged attempts by Russia, to state just one example, to maliciously intervene in the 2016 US Presidential election campaigns to influence voting behaviour. Such intentions now come armed with never-before capabilities. The manipulation of the actual voting process is but a half-step away.

From ballot to EVMs

For a long time, India’s electoral process relied on the paper ballot. There were three problems with the use of paper. First, ballots could be stuffed by rogue elements. Second, the process of counting the paper votes took long. And third, it was expensive – printing and transporting ballot boxes cost money.

That is when India introduced Electronic Voting Machines, or EVMs about 20 years ago. All one had to do was to press a button to cast one’s vote. No more ballot stuffing. Results came in hours rather than days. EVMs could be moved easily. Since they were reusable, the costs across elections were also reduced.

EVMs vulnerable too

Time, however, does not stand still. The same EVMs that once provided the assurance of free and fair elections in India, are now the biggest vulnerability in the face of an external aggression. While the EVMs are manufactured in India, the device is a black box. No one knows what hardware and software lies inside – other than the Election Commission and the government-controlled manufacturers (Bharat Electronics Ltd and Electronics Corporation of India Ltd). The chips and the code are an opening for a cyber superpower like China to exploit. In fact, with the introduction of VVPATs, or voter-verified paper audit trail, there is now an added vulnerability because there is a manual transfer of data, along with information about and images of contesting candidates, from a laptop to every EVM prior to an election.

It is urgent for us citizens to worry about the machines that are central to our democracy. Not all chips are made in India. Not all code is tamper-proof. No longer can other countries be trusted to stay away from our elections, given the rising stakes in international relations. For the first time in generations, all Indians ought to be concerned about their vote and ask, “Am I certain only the vote I cast will be the one that will be counted?”

How do we ensure that we – and not Xi – will decide our next chief ministers and prime ministers?

Open EVMs for inspection

One solution was for the Election Commission to make the EVM hardware and software open to everyone who wanted to inspect it. This should have been done earlier. Simply organising EVM hackathons is no answer. When we are not sure whether our phones, apps or mobile towers broadcast sensitive information to listening posts beyond our borders, how can we be certain that EVMs will not do this? When ultra-high security nuclear plants can be infected with malware to render them dysfunctional, won’t manipulating the EVM data transfer process just before polling be child’s play? Algorithmic warfare is today a monster at the cutting edge of technology. The EVM is no longer the solution – it is now the problem.

These questions were just whispers earlier. But in the light of the heightened threat India faces from a cyber superpower like China, we need to rethink every assumption about the robustness of the electoral process. We need to learn from advanced countries – are most of them dumb not to use machines in their voting process?

Go back to paper, and record

The solution lies in two parts. The first part is a shift back to paper and away from the machine. The time taken to count the ballot is no longer a concern – Indian elections now anyway stretch for nearly 50 days. An additional three days will hardly make a difference. The additional cost is also not an issue – India can afford it. No price is too high to ensure absolute integrity and confidence in our elections.

The other issue with paper-based voting was that of ballot stuffing. Politically backed miscreants could enter the booth and stuff paper ballots to favour a specific candidate or party. This is where we bring in the second part of the solution – webcams in every booth that can live stream on the internet. A billion pairs of eyes can watch over a million booths for the ten hours of the voting process. Internet connectivity has ensured that almost every nook and corner of populated India has coverage. In the odd booth where wireless does not reach, the webcams can store and timestamp for later viewing.

This combination of paper ballots with streaming webcams in every booth is the only solution that can guarantee a clean election — free from interference of foreign powers. This is in the interest of every Indian political party — those in power and those in Opposition. No Indian political party would want an enemy of the nation to influence the election process. All of them need to unite to persuade the Election Commission. Indeed, the EC should read the writing on the wall. Every Indian citizen needs to be reassured that the democracy that we so treasure, and our vote that is so precious, is not being handed over to Xi.

How  the Pandemic  will drive Digital Politics

Mint published my Long Read essay on how politics and campaigns will change after Covid-19. (I will publish the full essay on this blog in a week.) Here are a few excerpts:

We have a split of roughly 30-30-30 in the 90 crore voters: 30 crore loyalists who vote and vote based on the symbol for their favourite party, 30 crore non-aligned (NA) who wait until close to polling day to decide whom to vote for, and 30 crore non-voters (NV) who skip the vote. The key challenge that politicians will face is how to persuade the NA and NV segments…The basics of every election campaign are constant: identify, register, persuade and turnout the right voters. What the world of data and digital does is bring precision to the process of targeting. This is the world which digital technology will impact and transform even more in the months and years ahead.

At a basic level, politicians have five key jobs to be done: manage a hierarchy of workers and volunteers; build a voter file of their constituents; communicate with their supporters (loyalists and some of the non-aligned) to get their message across; get feedback from voters on their pain points and expectations; and manage the booths for the get-out-the-vote on election day…Digital politics will need one database and three apps to do the five jobs that politicians need to get done.

Why China Can Kill and India Cannot (Part 4)

India cannot take on China – not until its economic might – and therefore military strength – increases. It will take a generation or more of rapid and sustained economic growth. Till then, just as we are now learning to live with the virus, we will need to live with the bully. No one in the world is going to come to help us. The US can yell and scream at China for the virus but look at its actions. See this headline from a few days ago in the Wall Street Journal:

The June 14 story goes on: “China has retaken its mantle as America’s largest trading partner, emerging as a rare bright spot for U.S. farmers and other exporters as the coronavirus pandemic constrains global commerce. Trade between the two nations rose to $39.7 billion in April, up nearly 43% from the month before, and enough to once again surpass Mexico and Canada. The jump followed the signing of a trade pact in January in which China agreed to sharply step up purchases of U.S. farm products and other goods.”

This US will come to help us? The joke’s on us.

What India needs to do is to start fighting back with a different playbook. We need to start strengthening our economy with bold measures – actions no Indian political leader has ever taken even though everyone of them had the same authoritarian streak that China’s leaders have had.

  1. Create War Cabinets because the neta-babu jugalbandi cannot see us through the triple guns, germs and steel crises that we face – borders hurt by China, bodies hurt by Covid, and bank balances hurt by Cashlessness.
  2. Launch Mission 10-20-30 to replace 10 crore Chinese workers with 10 crore Indian workers in 20 months with each job having a monthly minimum income of Rs 30,000 or more, Let’s hit them where it really hurts.
  3. Show immediate intent of seriousness to transform by liquidating Lutyens Delhi

Every Indian political leader has failed the people of India. While we see what China is doing to our soldiers, we don’t see what the damage that the domestic policies of our own leaders are doing to us. Let’s open our eyes and demand the change. We have had enough of the failed policies of the past. What India needs is a disruptive political entrepreneur who can transform India. (Narendra Modi promised that during the 2013-14 election campaign. That’s what got him the support from many of us – me included.)

China is the villain outside our borders. What about the real villains within our borders? Will we demand the real political and economic changes that India needs to truly take on China? Because our children will one day ask us, “Mummy, Papa, you saw all that was happening. Why didn’t you do something about it?” What will we answer them?

Why China Can Kill and India Cannot (Part 3)

Picture India in 1950. The British have exited, and Jawaharlal Nehru and his team have taken over the management of an India ravaged by nearly 200 years of colonial rule. Nehru stands tall with no equals after the deaths of Mahatma Gandhi and then Vallabhbhai Patel. He can do anything he wants. What does he do? Socialism. His daughter Indira Gandhi takes over in the late 1960s. What does she do? More Socialism. More economic controls. And precisely as could have been predicated, the socialist control of the Indian economy leads to more poverty. And so it goes on through the 1970s and 1980s. Even after seeing what China is doing, India’s leaders do not open up the Indian economy. Half-hearted attempts are made by Narasimha Rao in 1991 followed by Atal Behari Vajpayee a decade later. Both miss the Deng-like transformation opportunity.

It doesn’t end there. The policies that have created perpetually planned poverty are now seeped deep into the psyche of the political leaders because in their minds that’s what helps them win elections. Manmohan Singh has 10 years in power, and Narendra Modi has had 6. Have they changed anything? Nothing substantial. It is the same old socialist stifling of the economy. Every Tokenism here and there goes by the name of second-generation reforms.

By and large, Indians stay poor. The gap between China and India keeps widening. India’s leaders still don’t see the writing on the wall. China’s power keeps growing and India does demonetisation. As if the economy wasn’t damaged enough already.

Every Indian leader has failed the people. And almost everyone has won re-election, validating every bad policy. So, why should the leaders wish to change the failed socialist policies?

And then one day, 20 Indians are killed and there is outrage. We realise that we cannot really fight back. All we can do is to mourn our dead soldiers, make a few grandiose statements, threaten to uninstall Chinese apps from our phones and put some trade restrictions on China (which will impose costs on Indian consumers by increasing prices of locally made goods). We are angry. But at whom? China is doing what the bully does – hit the weak. The question to ask is – why are we weak? Who made us weak? Did the Chinese make our policies? Did the Chinese elect our leaders? Did the Chinese re-elect our leaders? All we need to do is to look into the mirror for the answer.

Tomorrow: Why China Can Kill and India Cannot (Part 4)

Why China Can Kill and India Cannot (Part 2)

There are many explanations about how China became rich and powerful. One of the best books on China’s transformation is “How China Became Capitalist” by Ronald Coase, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1991, and Ning Wang (published in 2012). From its introduction:

How China Became Capitalist details the extraordinary, and often unanticipated, journey that China has taken over the past thirty five years in transforming itself from a closed agrarian socialist economy to an indomitable economic force in the international arena. The authors revitalise the debate around the rise of the Chinese economy through the use of primary sources, persuasively arguing that the reforms implemented by the Chinese leaders did not represent a concerted attempt to create a capitalist economy, and that it was ‘marginal revolutions’ that introduced the market and entrepreneurship back to China. Lessons from the West were guided by the traditional Chinese principle of ‘seeking truth from facts’. By turning to capitalism, China re-embraced her own cultural roots.

I want to focus on what I think is the single biggest determinant of why countries prosper or flounder: political leadership.

Consider China in the late 1970s. Battered by Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Communism, famines and government action has killed tens of millions. And then Mao dies. A new leader emerges. Deng Xiaoping. He begins the process of transforming China. Step by step. He sees a future very different from China’s past. He lays the foundation for a rich China. Which in turn creates a powerful China.

What does Deng Xiaoping do? Many things. Deng junks the old policies that kept the Chinese poor. He opens up the Chinese economy to foreign investment in manufacturing. The Chinese people respond. And so does the world. Manufacturing shifts to China. That creates jobs and lifts hundreds of millions out of poverty. It lays the foundation for China’s military prowess as China becomes prosperous.

Rarely is economic change bottom-up. People can overthrow governments but cannot create prosperity. For that, there needs to be a leader who overturns policies that had kept people poor. (In the case of the US, leaders like James Madison, Alexander Hamilton along with others crafted the rules via the American Constitution in 1789 that created the conditions for growth and prosperity.) Deng was that leader for China.

And what were India’s leaders doing while China was booming? They were keeping Indians poor.

Tomorrow: Why China Can Kill and India Cannot (Part 3)

Why China Can Kill and India Cannot (Part 1)

China killed 20 Indian soldiers. India also probably killed some Chinese soldiers, but we will probably never know that. Even as anger rises in India, there is also the realisation that in a straight contest between the two, China’s military superiority will overwhelm India. China is more powerful than India. Hence, China can bully India and get away with it. It is not a good outcome. It should make us rightfully angry. The question is: who should we be angry against? The Chinese leaders who made China powerful or the Indian leaders who kept India weak?

Until the late 1970s, India and China had very similar per capita income and problems. Both had large populations and both had been impoverished by singularly bad leadership over the previous 30 years. And then, as we know, something extraordinary happened. China transformed itself; India did not. Today, the average Chinese has a per capita income that is five times that of the average Indian. This chart below from Hindustan Times (Jan 18, 2020) shows the diverging fortunes of the two nations over the past 40 years.

Since India and China are comparable in population, the per capita GDP difference is also the difference in total GDP: China’s income is five times India’s GDP. China’s consistent higher income over the past four decades also means that China is certainly over 10 times wealthier than India.

Therefore over the decades, the might of the Chinese economy has enabled it to invest in a very powerful military. India’s defence investments have languished on the back of a weaker economy. And with power has come China’s aggression – knowing full well that none of its neighbours can fight back. That is why China can bully and kill, and all India can do is to meekly watch. We can fret and fume, but we know we cannot hit back. China is simply too strong for India.

How did it happen? How did China become so dominant? Why did India not do? What did China do right, and what did India do wrong? This is the introspection we need to be doing. We lost our past and fumbled our present. What will it take for India to win in the future?

Tomorrow: Why China Can Kill and India Cannot (Part 2)