In November, Delhi votes in its fifth legislative assembly election. While this is one of five state elections that are taking place simultaneously – Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram being the others – the Delhi contest is attracting extraordinary attention.
How seriously does one take the series of opinion polls – one a day, it seems – that are coming out of the woodwork in Delhi? Every television channel, publication, political analyst and self-styled psephologist seems to have its or his or her very own “definitive” pre-election survey. Are these to be taken at face value? After all, between them, they suggest dramatically different results. Quite clearly they can’t all be talking about the same country or the same election.
The fact is pre-election surveys have become part of pre-election campaign and propaganda. Parties routinely pay off or inspire polls that depict them as doing well or at least their opponents as doing not so well. This is a sad reality but has been apparent for some time. It does not mean every opinion poll is clearly flawed or manufactured on the laptop of the promoter of the so-called survey, but many are. The promoter and face of the survey is usually a telegenic person who makes the absurd claim that he has sent survey teams to every single assembly constituency of a state. That is just not how polls, which are sampling exercises, are conducted. As such, the vast majority of surveys are clearly suspect.
Take some recent examples. One survey showed the Samajwadi Party doing very badly in Uttar Pradesh. A week after the survey came out, a relative of the chief of the agency that published the survey – and claimed to have interviewed respondents in every district of Uttar Pradesh – got a minister-level position in Lucknow. The following month, the agency did another survey. It found a miracle had occurred. The Samajwadi Party had increased its support massively and upped its seats by a third.
Another agency has been offering its surveys free to media outlets, and working with two national news channels. As a result, the two channels feature programmes on the same survey – and sometimes with an overlap of studio guests and expert analysts – roughly three or four weeks apart. Neither channel seems to mind since neither channel is paying for the survey. The agency offering the survey claims to have done the research and sent out survey teams using its own resources. Obviously somebody is sponsoring it. He who pays the piper is calling the tune; or rather different people pay the piper at different times to play different tunes.
At least two surveys have shown appreciable vote share increase for one of the two national parties in northern India but insisted there will be no commensurate rise in seats. This is inexplicable and can only be explained by the unlikely phenomenon of the party getting all its incremental votes in seats it already holds and where it is already strong. Insiders say what is happening is a manipulation of the votes to seats conversion. Converting votes to seats is never straightforward, especially in a multi-cornered contest. As such, genuine pollsters prefer to give a range of seats, within which the final number may fall.
The problem arises when the channel or newspaper or individual analyst decides to doctor the findings to suit political biases and conveniences. As such, the lower end of the range of seats is picked for some states and parties and the upper end of the range of seats is picked for other states and parties. The result is a crazy mishmash.
So do keep all this in mind when you watch one of those never-ending “exclusive pre-election opinion poll” talkathons on television.
Till next time, meow!