Open Diary

Swapan Dasgupta is an MP and India’s foremost conservative columnist
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Why pollsters fail to detect an electoral wave

ELECTIONS ARE INVARIABLY assessed in hindsight. In 2014, the pundits discovered the ‘Modi wave’ on the afternoon of May 16th when it became clear that not only had India reposed its faith in Narendra Modi but had given the BJP an outright majority. This was neither anticipated by the pollsters nor the journalists who spread themselves thinly across India reading tea leaves and conversing with the ubiquitous taxi driver.

Of course, 2014 wasn’t the only General Election whose final outcome was largely unanticipated. I vividly recall the 1984 General Election that was almost entirely dominated by the national anxieties after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The results were a landslide victory for the Congress, with most Opposition leaders suffering humiliating defeats. Yet, the remarkable feature of this election was that the magnitude of the victory—the largest majority in the history of democratic India—was largely unanticipated. Historians going through the press coverage will be surprised to find that seasoned journalists writing at the conclusion of the campaign gave the Congress a ‘slight edge’ at best. The sheer intensity of the sweep was not in evidence amid the hustle and bustle of the campaign.

Why, it may well be asked, do pollsters and others fail to detect an electoral wave. Part of the reason, in today’s context, lies in the unreliable nature of the opinion polls. It is not that all the pollsters are wilfully disingenuous and proffer outcomes that are flawed—although that too happens. The conversion of votes into seats is always hazardous and more so in a country as diverse as India where no two electoral battles are exactly the same. Consequently, there is a tendency to play safe, identify the overall trend and then begin the process of discounting.

But what about journalists who travel hundreds of miles across the country in search of the ‘mood’? Why don’t they capture the feeling at the grassroots. Here too there are no simple answers. Some get it wrong because they write what they think should happen, rather than what is most likely to happen. Others get it wrong because they try to be ‘balanced’ and spend a disproportionate amount of time talking to activists on both sides. Some do go to the actual voters but Indian villagers are careful creatures and are very careful about not revealing everything to total strangers. They don’t always lie outright but they are careful. Consequently, the true feelings on the ground don’t always come through in conversations with the media. Also, remember that Parliamentary constituencies tend to be very large and even the losing sides enjoy considerable support. A reporter can therefore be easily misled by talking to people on one side of the village and not factoring in what the other half thinks.

At one time, political narratives used to be very fragmented. The conversations in one corner of India could be very dissimilar from another corner. The voting intentions could be similar but the route to the end decision would vary enormously. The social meaning of a vote for, say, the Congress would vary enormously between Punjab and Telangana.

It is difficult to say how things have changed ever since the media— more particularly, the electronic media—became such an important part of our daily lives. Are people actually influenced by what they see and hear on TV or do they receive the information and opinions and filter them according to their own experiences and prejudices? Do viewers pay heed to the spirited and loud studio discussions or are they viewed as part of general entertainment? Then there is the social media which is rapidly acquiring great importance and which is impossible to truly monitor.

The answers to many of these questions remain in the realms of pure conjecture. All I can say with a measure of certitude is that in the non-Hindi belt the narrative tends to be more regional in character. In West Bengal, where I have been camping for the past fortnight, the electronic media is largely pro-Mamata Banerjee and strongly tilted against the BJP. However, at the same time, the BJP is rapidly emerging as the challenger to the Trinamool. This would not have happened if the media narrative had been internalised by the viewers.

Perhaps all this makes Indian elections particularly fascinating. There is a lot of money spent on elections and the expenditure is always a gamble. Till the votes are tabulated, no one can realistically predict how people see their political futures. As long as this uncertainty persists, Indian democracy is safe.