Monday, May 14, 2007

Exit Polls

Byline By M.J. Akbar : Exit Polls

How much money can you make by selling a mirage? Quite a lot, actually, if you dress it up in jargon and put on a suitably pseudo-serious face before a television camera. When facts
ventually interfere, the smart thing to do is disappear, your fat cheque safely tucked away.No reality check has ever persuaded a psephologist to part with his cheque.

One presumes that the reputations of all highly-paid, self-professed opinion pollsters who predicted a hung Assembly in Uttar Pradesh are hanging from the nearest lamp post, but I doubt it. This tribe’s ability to rise from the grave is near-miraculous. They are helped by the fact that opinion polls now fall into two categories. Both make money. The first is unscrupulous. The crooks, fortunately, are few though not far between. They come to secret arrangements with politicians, massage the "research" to suit these funders and get the "results" broadcast for a fat fee which is distributed as necessary. Politicians pay because they continue to delude themselves that lies can create positive vibes in the middle of elections.

The legitimate polls also make money all around, since television ratings rise when exit and opinion polls are announced, which means lucrative advertising. We in the print media are the ultimate suckers, because we print these poll-results without even getting the advertising.

The Election Commission is now in control of every minute detail of electioneering. The Uttar Pradesh poll, stretched over a month, was an exercise in patience and tenacity, above all else. The result of such thorough, and even intrusive, management is transparency and honesty. No one can now claim that the voting was rigged, or that booths were captured by the ruling party with the help of the administration. Even as late as in January, this was the charge behind the attempt to dismiss the Mulayam Singh government. But the Election Commission seems helpless over opinion polls. France had a general election recently. News of exit and opinion polls were banned on the eve of elections and during polling.

Exit polls are just that much more dangerous, since they purport to be more accurate. But utterly erroneous information is passed off repeatedly as credible. One example, that of the market leader in polls, will serve.

NDTV gave the Bahujan Samaj Party between 117 and 127 seats after its last exit poll. A three per cent margin of error either way is acceptable in such predictions. But to get the number wrong by 80 to 90 seats in an Assembly of 403 is breathtaking. At the other end of the electoral ladder, NDTV gave Congress between 35 and 45 seats. The Congress got half the higher estimate. NDTV must have been doing its research in some state other than Uttar Pradesh, or perhaps in some unwarranted state of mind. They projected the BJP as getting, with allies, between 108 and 118 seats. BJP president Rajnath Singh might today be strutting on all ten toes if his party had delivered what NDTV promised. In fact, its seats were less than half. Others were not much better: Star TV gave BJP a very precise 108 seats.

It is a terrible drop from inflation to deflation.

BJP and Congress claim to be national parties and, fuelled by dream merchants in Delhi, fantasise about a two-party system in which they are the only two parties. Let us check their status now in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP has only one MLA per one and a half district. The Congress has one MLA for every three districts. If you take the Rae Bareli and Amethi seats out, the average might get worse.

Both national parties played their aces. The BJP leadership distributed hate-Muslim CDs. The Congress put all its investment in the Family Charisma Bank. It is curious how elitist India accuses leaders like Mayawati and Mulayam of being "anti-modern" and "backward" when the real medieval politics is being done by BJP and Congress. Voters, both Hindu and Muslim, flocked towards the inclusive electoral strategy of Mayawati. The BJP and Congress did not even merit the limited joy of being runners up. "Maulana" Mulayam was an easy Number 2.

Will UP help BJP grow up? The drawing power of the Congress Family drew three fewer seats after five years in Opposition in Lucknow and three years of power in Delhi. Draw your own conclusions.

An interesting pattern is emerging at the national electoral level, and it will be bad news for the "nationals" if it sustains till the next general elections. The Congress and the BJP are, for the most part, only exchanging seats between each other, in states where third parties do not exist: Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and, to a lesser extent since it is a battle of alliances there, in Maharashtra. Wherever there are regional parties, they either dominate (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, Tamil Nadu) or the "nationals" are turning into the tail of the train rather than the engine. The BJP needs Nitish Kumar in Bihar and the Congress will lose in states like Jharkhand and Haryana if it does not voluntarily give more seats to regional parties. The Congress could even become vulnerable in Punjab in the next polls if a non-Akali regional party emerges. In Maharashtra the Congress needs Sharad Pawar more than vice versa. Deve Gowda holds the balance in Karnataka and M. Karunanidhi may invite Congress leaders to his celebrations but will not let the party into the ministry despite being dependent on the Congress vote. The BJP is dead in Orissa without Navin Patnaik. If the Marxists, in effect a regional party in Bengal, are at all threatened, it is by another regional party, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul.

The space for both Congress and BJP is shrinking, and they have only themselves to blame. The former has become strangely trapped in an economic philosophy imposed by a triumvirate that often seems more loyal to the World Bank than to the Indian voter. The BJP remains mired in a partition mindset.

The Indian voter has two demands: economic justice and social cohesion. Both are essential if the Indian nation has to reach its own high standards of expectation. Political parties are no longer leading the voter forward; the voter is setting the standards for political success. The voter is more mature than the party, and that is excellent news.

But perhaps nothing is more enjoyable than the manner in which the voter fools the opinion pollsters. I presume the fieldwork is done over many many thousands, as repeatedly advertised in order to bump up the credibility of the projection. I assume that no one fudges the answers in the legitimate sector of opinion polling. Then how does it all go so wildly, comically wrong? Quite simple actually. The voter sees the young man turning up with a detailed questionnaire, courteously helps the young chap earn his daily bread by filling all the blanks as required. The relieved young person goes away. And the voter bursts out laughing. He has taken his revenge upon television.

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