All are poll pundits but none of us has a clue

Opinion polls and pre-election surveys are like weather reports, more interesting than accurate. Psephologists are fixtures on news shows, offering insights into the mind of the voter and casting the horoscopes of political parties. Their prognostications are given a ‘scientific’ hue, bolstered as they are by statistics and mathematical formulations. But more often than not, they tend to be wiser in hindsight, just like the rest of us.

Interestingly, this time around, pollsters are beginning to hedge their bets just a fortnight after their pre-election surveys. By and large, all the agencies agreed on two things: Narendra Modi is the top choice of prime minister and the NDA will either get a simple majority or end up within striking distance of one. Ergo, it stands to lose anything from 50 to 100 seats as compared to its 2014 tally, but will nevertheless be best placed to form a government.

At least two of the better known pollsters have reportedly scaled down the BJP’s expected tally after the first round of polling, citing low turnout as being bad for the BJP and a clear indication that its voters stayed home on April 11. The import of turnout lies in the eye of the beholder.

Had there been a high turnout, it could also have been seen as bad for the BJP, because more polling usually indicates anti-incumbency. What’s more, the PM’s approval rating has apparently fallen to “pre-Pulwama” levels in recent weeks, for no apparent reason. Perhaps the Pulwama push factor has simply run out of steam, or voters have suddenly found new grievances against the PM!

Psephology in India is an inexact science, given the large number of variables involved. It got off the ground in the 1980s and 1990s with an impressive formulation: the “index of opposition unity”, which guaged the challenge to the Congress and therefore predicted the outcome of an election. In layman’s terms, political rivals had a better chance of defeating the Congress if they fought together. This was stating the obvious, but quantifying it as a numerical ‘index’ somehow made it more credible.

Obviously, with the rise of the BJP and progressive shrinking of the Congress, the formula lost its relevance. In today’s context, the Congress could well attempt to apply the index of opposition unity against the BJP. But the presence of strong regional forces has muddied the waters and elections don’t necessarily follow either arithmetical logic or the law of conservation of parity.

A shining example is the ‘Mahakutami’ in the 2018 Telengana assembly elections, which should have mounted a strong challenge to the TRS, but failed miserably. The Congress-TDP alliance in fact managed to turn two positives into a negative.

This makes life difficult for psephologists, who have to figure out how an alliance of two or more parties will play out with an electorate comprised of multiple interest groups. A plethora of candidates, castes and sub-castes, a significant population of first-time voters and a large pool of floating voters, makes for an incredibly complex scenario, in which no one can predict outcomes with any degree of certainty. This has been borne out in election after election. Journalists who rely on their political instincts actually manage to get a better sense of the popular mood than opinion polls.

Most recently, a prominent agency which prided itself in having been spot-on on Gujarat, predicted an easy win for the BJP in Chhattisgarh in the 2018 assembly elections. This turned out to be wildly off the mark. In the run-up to the Uttar Pradesh assembly last year, all but three of the polling agencies predicted a hung assembly, with the BJP only fractionally ahead of the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance. Even those who predicted a majority for the BJP were off by more than 25 seats. As for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the polling agencies were probably more surprised by the outcome than voters.

One didn’t have to be a Nostradamus to predict a BJP victory and Congress defeat, but the sheer scale of both stunned psephologists and became the stuff of many learned lectures and papers, all written with the benefit of hindsight.

This time, it is obvious to the layperson that the NDA enjoys an advantage, although the “hope” factor is not as strong and PM Modi doesn’t have quite the same fan following as he did five years ago – but it’s not clear how that will affect votes. Everyone, from the chaiwallah and chowkidar to the psephologist and TV pundit, has a prediction and no one really has a clue. It’s like holding up a wet thumb to assess the direction of the wind, but finding the air absolutely still.

Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.

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