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The Death of Exit Polls

Are exit polls dead in India? I think they are, or will soon be.

The move by Election Commission to ban the release of exit poll data during the elections seems to have sounded the death knell for exit polls. To understand why, we need to look at why exit polls exist in India.

The only real purpose served by exit polls in India has been to entertain the public, and perhaps to let 24-hour TV channels fill some airtime with little effort. It can’t really be about accurate predictions, because I can’t recall the last time when an exit poll actually predicted an Indian election with reasonable accuracy.

In fact, in a country like India, it is perhaps too much to expect exit polls to be accurate. The number of factors that influence voters in different parts of the country is huge. In one place it is the party, in another it is the caste, in yet another it is the religion, in yet another it is the lack of electricity, and so on. There is plenty of truth in the oft-repeated idea of Indian national elections being hundreds of different elections. In the absence of a national “wave”, there is no central idea that dominates an Indian election. And national waves are a thing of the past. The last mildly-influential wave was the “sympathy wave” after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991 (and even that couldn’t give a simple majority to Congress). Since then, there has been only one serious effort to start a wave – the BJP tried to start an India Shining wave in 2004, and failed miserably. In the current elections, there has neither been a wave, nor has anyone tried to start one in earnest. Despite all the talk about terrorism, even Mumbaikars didn’t come out to vote.

There are also serious logistical and technical problems in conducting exit polls in India. Getting a representative sample for the Indian electorate is a near-impossible task for any pollster. The sheer diversity of the electorate, the large number of options available on the ballot, and the huge number of voters – all are factors that add to the margin of error for such polls.

If an organization wants to conduct a reasonably accurate exit poll in India, it will have to conduct it at a very large scale. Perhaps at the constituency level. One can easily imagine what a nightmare that would be for the Chief Pollster, and the Chief Financial Officer will probably just veto the project. If it were to undertake such a huge exercise, the organization might as well conduct the actual elections!

There are, however, organizations that have existing capacity in virtually all constituencies to conduct such an exercise at virtually no extra cost. Off the top of my head, I can name three: Doordarshan, All India Radio, and Intelligence Bureau. All three have operations in virtually every district of India, and all of them have a central command that coordinates their activities. But there is one problem: all three organizations are controlled by the central government. Given the politicization of Indian bureaucracy, if they were to ever conduct exit polls, all three are likely to be easily manipulated by the political party in power. In the context of election forecasting, one of them already is.

Another alternative is for the corporate media houses to share their resources, so that they can cover more constituencies and create a more accurate picture for their audience. I doubt if they’ll ever manage to overcome their rivalries and do this though.

Leaving the matter of accuracy aside, let us come back to the idea that exit polls are essentially for entertainment.

With the Election Commission now banning the dissemination of exit poll results before all phases of elections are over, and the actual counting of votes scheduled to start within 72 hours of the end of the last phase of elections, there is very little time for TV channels to flaunt their exit polls and psephologists. The time window is even smaller if you consider how quickly the results are declared these days, thanks to Electronic Voting Machines. Gone are the days when Yogendra Yadav could endlessly slice and dice the data for us while the counting went on for many, many hours. Gone are the days when votes were counted in “rounds” and fortunes could swing after every round. Well, they still count the votes in rounds, but the rounds are too quick to have any meaning.

Knowing all that, are people still interested in knowing what the exit polls predict? I know I am not. I have barely glanced at them this time, and I couldn’t write down the numbers from any poll even if you waterboarded me. Thank you Main Stream Media, but I think I’ll just wait for the actual results (results will be updated live at that link, bookmark it).

PS: Aren’t you glad that the exit polls were banned this time? It must have saved the nation countless number of hours, which would otherwise have been wasted in discussing pointless exit polls. Good riddance, I say.

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  1. May 16, 2009 at 1:56 am
  2. May 16, 2009 at 8:54 pm

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