Today we saw the results of Exit Polls for the state elections which just concluded yesterday. The methodology of these “polls” is simple – take a sample of constituencies, take a further sample of polling station in those constituencies and take an even further sample of voters in those polling stations and make them do dummy voting. The results are then extrapolated and estimates are made. You could see how it can never go wrong.
As we have been taught in school, India is a land of diversity. This in addition to making it a fascinating place makes it a very frustrating place for researchers who specialize in surveys based on random sample. How do you decide on a representative sample taking into account all the caste, regional and occupational equations in this country?
My first exposure to such exit polls was in the 1997 general election. For Tamil Nadu, these polls indicated a landslide victory for the DMK TMC (Tamil Manila Congress, a splinter party then. Now merged back with the Congress. I guess.). The actual results showed a landslide victory for AIADMK. One jubilant AIADMK member said “these people doing exit polls should exit the business of doing exit polls.”
Exit polls are like dress rehearsals. Pundits discuss them as if their accuracy was a 100%. Then when counting began, the real discussion begins. Invariably the exit polls would be off in certain critical areas and the panel then has to improvise. Many a times you have the exit pollers on the panel trying to explain where they went wrong. If at that time, a person from the party which was written off in the Exits and are actually now winning is also on the panel, you get to see some hilarious exchanges all about “Na na na na na na, you were wrong, we rule (literally and figuratively”.
So why this huge hoo haa over Exit Polls. Mainly because it is something differant. Our news channels love elections. The amount of coverage the BMC elections got was itself too much. The battle for the states has been going on not only in the states but also in the studios. The ancors have been repeating the same thing (Rahul Vs. Akhilesh, Maya ka Jaadu, manifesto torn, reservation, quota, President’s rule) ad nauseum. In all this Exit Polls come as a breath of fresh speculative air.
So we have on 1 channel Arnab the Great bellowing on air asking the SP whether they have opened back channel talks with the Congress. SP you see is winning 180 odd seats as per the exit polls. The way he says it, it seems actual counting is just a formality. Also he thinks that his badgering will make the politicians reveal their strategies. Then we have Rajdeep Sardesai asking philosophical questions on whether Rahul Gandhi effect has been null. A day ago, the same channel was calling him the game changer. Again, all this based on a survey of not more than 5% of the total voting population.
Day after tomorrow, we have the real counting. The votes that matter will be opened, tagged and aggregating to give us the winners of the hundreds of seats in contest. This will be the real thing. We will again have the same discussion as today. The same words will be repeated. News will be broken, exclusives will be captured. And today’s drama will be forgotten. By all except the exit pollers. Their bloody lives run on days like today.