8-14 November 2013 #680

Pre-poll polls

Predicting the outcome of elections based on opinion polls is fraught with danger in India and Nepal
Ajaz Ashraf
An exciting aspect of India’s election season is the opinion poll that media houses conduct, staking their reputation to predict the seats political parties are expected to win.

Such opinion polls have a high degree of reliability in societies possessing a relatively uniform culture and are largely middle class, but in India and Nepal, where there are huge disparities in income, literacy, exposure to the media, and sharp cultural differences, opinion poll predictions have been wide of the mark at times, much to the embarrassment of those who commission them.

For instance, in 2004 none of the opinion polls in India anticipated the voting out of the government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The failure of opinion polls to always predict the eventual results of national or state results correctly has spawned suspicions about the motives of those conducting or commissioning them. Are they merely opinion-seekers? Or are they also opinion-makers, hoping their findings will swing votes for the party they are inclined to or are in league with? More importantly, do opinion polls influence the voting intentions of the electorate?

Nobody has ever tried to measure the effect opinion polls have on the voter’s decision. However, a clue to its possible impact was provided in India through the unprecedented decision of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is making its debut in the Delhi Assembly election of 4 December, to release all its in-house surveys. Most parties in India also commission surveys, but rarely disclose their findings at a specially convened press conference, preferring to utilise the data so generated for devising their poll strategy.

Why is the AAP utilising its own opinion surveys to hard-sell itself? For weeks now, it has launched a blitzkrieg of radio jingles citing its surveys to claim its leader, Arvind Kejriwal, is well ahead of others as the most preferred chief ministerial candidate, that the party matches the Congress and BJP in popular support.

These jingles never fail to mention that it was political scientist Yogendra Yadav, one of India’s foremost psephologists and now an AAP member, who had supervised the surveys, in the hope that the glow of his professional credibility would dispel the shadow of doubt from falling over their findings.

You can’t but conclude that the AAP’s strategy has been devised to fight the battle of perceptions, a fight traditionally tilted against emerging forces. Voters have their own perception of who is in the race to win an election and who isn’t, based on their own political understanding, past experience, and individual inclinations.

Unless voters are ideologically motivated towards one party, they prefer not to waste their votes in case their original or first choice is perceived to have no chance of winning. Instead, they cast their vote either for the party which they think is best placed to win, or for its rival, in case they are ideologically allergic to the likely winner. This phenomenon in political parlance is called ‘negative voting’.

For a while, there has been a campaign that the AAP means well and has invigorated Delhi’s politics, but it is essentially a ‘vote-katua’ or vote- splitting party. This perception could have spawned negative voting and damaged the AAP. For those potential AAP voters who are alienated from the Congress because of scams and mis-governance, the phenomenon of negative voting would mean casting their ballot for the BJP. By contrast, AAP supporters wary of the BJP’s communal agenda would rally behind the Congress despite their disenchantment with it. In addition, those not ideologically inclined or indifferent to the governance issue would line up behind the party which they believe has the best chance of winning the December poll for the Delhi Assembly.

?In this sense, the AAP released its surveys to counter the campaign that it can only split votes and not win on its own. Its surveys show it has gained a substantial momentum and is engaged in a neck-and-neck race with the national parties. Independent opinion polls also place the AAP a close second or third in the race, each predicting that Delhi is likely to have a hung Assembly. This has the AAP leaders smiling, for they believe the sharp edge of the phenomenon of negative voting has been blunted.

So yes, opinion polls do seem to have an impact in India’s sprawling capital where political awareness and media exposure is high. Its impact in rural areas is perhaps more questionable. In Nepal, opinion polls rating parties and candidates have been banned. Perhaps India should follow suit?


Tags: India election 2014, Nepal, Aam Admi Party, opinion polls

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