High on ratings and revenue, low on credibility

READING the voters’ minds in a diverse and fragmented electorate is not easy. But reading it wrong many times makes a mockery of pre-election forecast and exit polls. Understanding the voters’ minds might have been easy till the ‘80s but with the emergence of state level regional parties as also BJP’s rise as a major contender to power vis-a-vis Congress has made it difficult for election experts and psephologists to predict exact trend and likely outcome.

Ever since veteran psephologist and well known broadcaster Pranoy Roy pioneered election forecast on Doordarshan in late 1980s, elections have become big events on television. In the old Doordarshan days election was a subdued affair. But with the advent of 24×7 private news channels, every national and state level election is like a big reality show. Channels leave no stone unturned to build viewership which, in turn, translates into big business opportunity. Obviously higher viewership means higher revenue for channels.

For instance, during 2014 Lok Sabha election, described by Roy as the real ‘media election’, top ten English and Hindi national news channels earned over Rs. 200 crore, thanks to the Modi wave. Never before was an election season as profitable for news channels as it was in 2014. The key driver of election coverage is the forecast based on opinion and exit polls. However, given the fact that more often than not most election forecasts and exit polls have gone horribly wrong, they score low on credibility. In view of their dismal track record and the tendency to misread public opinion, voting trends and larger ground reality, it is quite likely that they may once again be outwitted by voters when results are announced for the assembly elections in UP, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur on March 11.

Of the five states, Uttar Pradesh, the biggest and most populous, is also the most crucial one for BJP which had won 71 seats out of 80 in 2014 Lok Sabha elections in the state. That was the Modi wave effect, but 2017 is different. In an assembly election, things can be quite different in a diverse state where several factors like castes, sub-castes, religion, party loyalty and local issues will matter more than they did in the last Lok Sabha poll. In Punjab, another important state for all stakeholders – Akali Dal, BJP, Congress and AAP – it will be a big surprise if AAP delivers a shocker, though Congress is said to have an advantage. Goa is going to be a test case for BJP where AAP is again expected to spring a surprise. But the big question is: will psephologists and poll forecasters get their numbers right for each state?

Psephology is a branch of political science which deals with the study and statistical analysis of election and poll forecast. It is considered to be a reliable scientific method of studying election results and the trend of how people vote or are likely to vote, using a number of tools like the historical precinct data, campaign finance information, public opinion, caste and religion-based voting pattern and indicators etc. And yet election after election, psephologists are off the mark.

In 2004 and 2009 Lok Sabha elections, for instance, exit polls had wrongly underestimated UPA’s winning tally by as many as 60 seats; same was the case in 2015 Bihar assembly elections which saw a stunning victory for Nitish Kumar and his alliance partners. Even in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, nobody had predicted 282 seats for BJP and 336 for NDA, though NDA was expected to get past 271 tally. It shouldn’t have been difficult to gauge voters’ disenchantment with UPA-2 government well before the Lok Sabha elections, thanks to the nationwide disgust against corruption. Hence forecasting seat tally from exit polls for the two national parties shouldn’t have been difficult for psephologists who use the most modern and technologically advanced tools for evaluation of sample data. That BJP would be a net gainer from Congress’ decline was another plus for forecasters to get their numbers right.

In the 1960s, ‘70s and early ‘80s forecasting elections was not a complex job as it is today. There were no professional psephologists; electoral politics didn’t need them either. India’s democracy was too young and there was little else for voters to choose from as the country’s political landscape was dominated by the Congress, save a few regional leaders and local parties. Television was at its nascent stage and private satellite news channels did not exist then.

Pollsters and psephologists were also not there when the Janata Party came to power in 1977. Post-Emergency, it wasn’t difficult to gauge the winner; large scale anti-Emergency unrest and anti-Indira Gandhi movement and mood with several powerful individual leaders under the Janata Party umbrella fighting against the Congress was a fair indicator of election outcome. What was interesting about the 1977 election was that the Hindi heartland voted overwhelmingly for the Janata alliance and the Congress got most of its seats from the four southern states. The prime reason being the anti-Emergency strife was largely a north India phenomenon – particularly Uttar Pradesh, the largest state where Congress was wiped out – and had little impact and influence on voters in south.

Whether modern psephologists and political pundits would have predicted such completely divergent voting trends in northern and southern parts of India is anybody’s guess. But it is safe to assume that India does not vote uniformly and it didn’t even in 1977. Reading the voters’ minds in a diverse and fragmented electorate is not easy. But reading it wrong many times makes mockery of pre-election forecast and exit polls. Understanding the voters’ minds might have been easy till the ‘80s but with the emergence of state level regional parties as also BJP’s rise as a major contender to power vis-a-vis Congress has made it difficult for election experts and psephologists to predict exact trend and likely outcome.

It doesn’t happen in India alone but all over the world, including advanced countries like UK and USA. Brexit was an unexpected shocker. So was Trump’s victory. In both cases pollsters had predicted the opposite. Is it because psephology is an inexact science? May be; there could also be problems with the sample size, its components, methodology and may be too much reliance on macro trends and popularity of the mascot leader.

There are several micro factors that count in victories and defeats – caste, religion, lack of development, unemployment, state of economy, prices of essential commodities and services  corruption, disenchantment with government or political party in power, party in-fighting, divided or united opposition, poor infrastructure and so on. But then each election is different. Factors that may count emphatically for voters in national election may not count as much in state elections.

Politicians are crafty professionals. But voters are equally astute. If politicians are guided by their experience and know the art of influencing voters, the latter are well aware of the power and value of their vote. Sometimes, politicians get it all wrong. Sometimes emotions, caste and religious affinity and leader’s charisma influence voters to make a choice which they may either rejoice or regret later. But what about psephologists, political pundits and TV channels that make barrage of incorrect predictions? With time everything is forgotten till the next election comes and another round of pre-poll forecasts and exit poll predictions begin. The story repeats time and again.

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