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Exit polls: Exercises in speculation

October 21, 2009 13:56 IST

The moment the outcome is announced on October 22, all these speculations and wild guesses passed off as educated surmises and conclusions in the exit polls will be forgotten till the next round, says Mahesh Vijapurkar.

Hark back to the exit polls and projections by television channels in collaboration with pollsters, their partners in the media business and comments by political pundits during and just after the polls to the Maharashtra State Legislative Assembly.

They have triggered gloating by parties shown as likely to do better and have begun asserting that they would in fact, do much better than that. Those in the suspect list have debunked the exit polls and the projections saying that in the past, these have been incorrect. The measure or otherwise of the reliability is dependent on their own convictions, assessments and convenience.

There were projections galore. Here is a list of what was put out after the October 13 polling was concluded:

  • Star Majha with Neilson: Congress and Nationalist Congress alliance 136 seats of the 288 and 113 for the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance
  • The Week newsmagazine: 136 to 152 seats for the Congress-NCP and 102 to 118 for the saffron parties
  • CNN-IBN and IBN-Lokmat: 130 to 145 for Congress-NCP and 100 to 120 for the rivals
  • Chintan Group, an agency that helps people and entities¬† 'groom and improve' images: 142 for the ruling alliance and 111 for the opposition
  • Sakal newspaper group: 157 for Congress-NCP and 96 for Sena-BJP

This means, should this actually transpire, then no single alliance would emerge with a majority of its own to form a government when the votes are counted and announced on October 22.  

In other words, should the rival alliance mop up a rainbow post-poll alliance, they too would stand a chance but stability would be at risk. That is, the election is still open though the Congress-led arrangement appears to be the favourites for the first shy at forming the government.

But, by putting out these projections, several media organisations have put their neck out, depending on pollsters who say it is a reliable detector of trends and newsmen that they know what could happen. One could be right and one could be wrong. Till the cookie crumbles, one does not really know what would happen.

That is always a risk. In search of readers and eyeballs, the newspapers and the television networks take it and there have been occasions when these have fallen flat, injuring their reputations. But a reader or viewer gained now is better than a reader and/or a viewer lost later for there can be other tricks to woo them back.

Now, back to the exit polls and projections:

The common thread in these projections the likely superiority of the Congress in the polls, emerging as the single largest party. The NCP would more or less be lesser than what it was; that the BJP would remain a second fiddler to the Shiv Sena; that the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena would have less than 15 seats, and the Republican Left Democratic Front of Ramdas Athavale, would be spoilers.

That numbers cannot be precisely projected and there are always chances of five per cent margins of error. In closely contested elections -- that is how everyone sees because of the stakes involved for the contesting parties and individuals -- it is hard to call the polls. A fool alone ventures there when wiser would stay away but then, media presumes its wisdom.

In the context of what has been put out, albeit with small samples with usual caveats, only three surprises seem possible and it needs no wise man at this end to list them.

One, the Congress, and therefore the NCP in tow, could do better than has been hazarded, and resume power without any need for support from any independents, smaller parties including rebels.

Two, likewise, the Shiv Sena and the BJP, despite the latter's rough time in national politics with big leaders thumbing their noses at their bigger leaders and collective, speak their minds and walk their ways, do better and resume power after a decade's break.

Three, the MNS could put up a showing better than what was conceived possible by the common wisdom doing the pre- and post-poll rounds.

Frankly speaking, any of these three, with the last mentioned possibility emerging along with any one of the first two possibilities cannot be ruled out.

Why? Because, there is nothing in the past decade's rule of Maharashtra by the present ruling combine which offers the voters a compelling reason to vote them back to power. And, nothing that the BJP-Sena could do that is any different from what the Congress-NCP has done so why vote them back?

Also, because it is hard to guess poll outcomes, second-guess the voter who can flummox the best of questionnaires of the best of pollsters.

Therefore, isn't there a need for media houses to which credibility is vital to sustenance, to stay away from this gamble? There is. But who among the media cares? Few, but I recall a conversation with G Kasturi, then editor of The Hindu when I was part of the Mumbai team that covered the region for that newspaper.

It was the 1989 elections to the Lok Sabha and the newspaper had carried an opinion poll. A colleague referred to it as "The Hindu's poll" to be promptly corrected by Kasturi. "A poll for, not by The Hindu," he pointed out.

Such niceties as a means to protect one's credibility are not anymore an important feature of news mongering in India. Perhaps, only when readers and viewers desert the product in droves would they wake up, and not when the cash registers, economic downturn or not, keeps ringing.

Till then, the media organisations would play roulette making wild guesses that is possibly scientific but not enough to lay out the numbers that are closest to the reality in the making.

But one thing is clear -- the moment the outcomes are announced on October 22, all these speculations and wild guesses passed off as educated surmises and conclusions would be forgotten till the next round.

It is a question of the probable -- most likely to happen -- versus the possible. The can happen factor, as one can put it.

This explains why we read the whodunits, isn't it?

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based journalist and commentator.

Mahesh Vijapurkar