Exit Polls: Good for Fun, But Not To Be Taken Seriously
By Sandeep Sahu
One has to admire their tenacity. Even after ending up with egg on their faces election after election, national TV channels, in association with their chosen agencies, are ready with their curious mix of pop psephology, political punditry and downright conjecture that passes off as Exit Poll to keep us glued to our television sets all evening today. And true to form, we just cannot have enough of it and spend hours watching the outcomes of the various Exit Polls, comparing them and sharing and discussing them with friends or on social media. Even Odia TV channels, which have little stake in the elections in these five faraway states cannot do without dissecting the outcomes of the various polls. Such is our obsession with these Exit Polls that at times one wonders if the actual results generate the same kind of interest in us!
Psephology has come a long way since the time Prannoy Roy, in the company of Vinod Dua and Dorab Supariwala, set new bench marks in the field in the 1984 general elections predicting, quite accurately, the landslide victory of the Rajiv Gandhi led Congress party. In the time since then, psephology has lost much of its credibility as a science. Pick up the Exit Polls of any election in recent years and compare them with the actual results and you will realize how far off the mark they have been. It is hard to put a finger on what exactly has led to this loss of credibility. May be the scientific rigour that goes into predicting election outcomes has gone missing; may be the sample size employed by the agencies is not big enough to make an accurate prediction; may be the polls are now sponsored by political parties; may be the Indian voter now believes in keeping his cards close to his/her chest. Whatever it is, election forecasts have now become more an exercise in kite-flying than anything else; good for a couple of hours of ‘fun’ but not to be taken seriously.
If you don’t believe it, it would be a worthwhile exercise for you to jot down the numbers predicted by the various Exit Polls for the five states that went to polls this time and compare them with the actual results when they come in less than 48 hours. While it is almost certain that all the Exit Polls would be way off the mark, the one that comes closest to the actual figures would not stop crowing about being ‘spot on’ and ‘hitting bull’s eye’ with their prediction for weeks on end. It would be even more interesting to listen carefully to the pearls of wisdom shared on TV by our Delhi-based know-alls explaining away the figures thrown up by the Exit Polls in terms of political, socio-economic, caste and religious factors this evening and then watch them coming up with altogether new explanations when the actual results start coming in on Saturday evening – without so much as batting an eyelid!
Just a cursory look at the figures being bandied about by various channels would tell us why they should not be taken seriously. To take just one example, while the News 24-Chanakya poll gives the BJP 53 seats and the Congress 12-21 in Uttarakhand, India TV-C Voter predicts a hung Assembly saying both the BJP and the Congress would end up with 29-35 seats each. If that is not bewildering enough, let is consider the most hotly contested election in this round: UP. While the ABP-Lokniti poll gives the BJP just 164-176 seats, India Today-Axis gives the saffron party an incredible 251-279 seats in the 403 strong Assembly. Common sense would tell us that such wide divergence is just not possible if the Exit Polls really reflected voting behavior.
This being the credibility of the Exit Polls, it is a bit of mystery why national level TV channels stake their reputation to come up with this frivolous exercise election after election. It is possible that it is a battle of TRPs in which no channel worth its salt wants to be left out. What the channels are essentially doing is to try and cash in on the huge public curiosity and interest in it. As for putting their reputation on the line, the channels, like politicians, are perhaps banking on a short public memory.
Here is a piece of unsolicited advice from this columnist. Watch the Exit Polls for fun, but don’t take them too seriously. Wait for Saturday instead.