Right foot forward

In Bihari versus Bahari, exit polls have the last laugh

Irrespective of which alliance wins, the surveys offer important lessons for future voters.

 |  Right foot forward  |  5-minute read |   07-11-2015
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The "Ed Honcho" (as he likes to call himself) of this fine publication very perceptively tweeted - the only winners in "exit polls" are the pollsters themselves (paraphrased). I say, exit polls are "thinking" people's Satta-Bazee. Or voyeuristic foreplay before the final results come in (no pun in that). For, media, of course, it is a TRP generating machine - that makes armchair psephologists with three days' shelf-life.

Having burnt their fingers many times - many channels and newspapers now resort to quoting multiple surveys (including those of competitors) to hedge their bets (Heads I win, tails you lose formula).

It has been written - how difficult it is to predict election outcomes in a country like India by polling a few thousand voters (even if techniques and methodologies have vastly improved over time). Then - there are always allegations of "fixed" polls (though the utility of it has been eliminated with the Election Commission banning polls in between phases of the election). But, in a nation hooked on to political reality shows exit polls still remain a draw - even if the final results turn out to be quite different.

Yet, exit polls can have a utility of their own if viewers and analysts don't get too obsessed with predictions. The final results can be a function of many collateral factors in our "first past the post" electoral system. These could range from last mile and last day voter mobilisation and "booth management" (often an euphemism for "booth capturing" or "rigging" as it is referred to in some parts of the country). It is here that exit polls can throw up insights that aren't apparent even in pre-poll surveys. Therefore, TV studio political pundits would do well not to get too carried away with the projections and instead dwell a little more on underlying messages and trends.

It is for this the Bihar election exit polls are significant - irrespective of which alliance wins and finally forms the government. There are several key lessons and learning to be taken out of the current elections - some of which can become standards for future elections in the country.

Notwithstanding how many polls predict victory of which party - it is quite clear the contest at the ground level was intensely fierce even if the final tally is wider (which may indeed be the case) than what people generally expect. Contrary to popular theory, it was BJP that started with a disadvantage if not as an underdog. Amit Shah and the BJP election strategists could not have been oblivious about the "anti-incumbency" that had begun to weigh down Modi government's credibility.

BJP strategy was, therefore, based primarily on micro-planning and geo-mapping voter mobilisation by RSS cadres. The trump card was obviously Modi's star appeal. While BJP would surely have done their caste arithmetic - even after Lalu and Nitish joining hands (and with Mulayam - leaving the alliance) - they probably hoped that Lalu's "Yadav" votes won't automatically move en-masse to Nitish. Simultaneously - they would have been confident of their traditional vote bank of the Upper Castes remaining intact and Most Backward Castes (MBCs) swinging towards them aided by allies as Manjhi and Paswan.

The intention here is not to lapse into another electoral prediction. But, challenge a few premises - based on some of the trends that are coming to light. If voters went purely by caste considerations - Modi could never have made such a clean sweep in 2014 Lok Sabha polls. And, if indeed, there is some basis to the exit polls indicating traditional BJP voters have been lukewarm (especially in the 3rd phase - which was supposed to be BJP strongholds) - it does raise the question are voters willing to assert their voice and choice if not rising above but going beyond caste. So for the new discerning voter "Arhar (Daal)" prices take precedence over "Har-Har".

That despite the underlying rivalry and not sharing the dais in any rally - Lalu and Nitish didn't under-cut each other is because their respective constituents acted as the real glue.

In the same vein one begins to wonder - has the rural voter become much sharper not to be distracted by "manufactured" pre-poll controversies of cows and religion or promises of quotas and reservation. They have become much more realistic and wary of promises of development and governance - going by proven track record discounted for reasonable under-delivery and shortfall (2014 was perhaps - the lowest point in people's cynicism - when Modi arrived as a Messiah to sweep them of their feet. But, since then sanity has been restored).

With improved security and better electoral administration (including holding polls in staggered phases to allow redeployment of forces) rigging has become less rampant - even if not fully eliminated - in most parts of the country to majorly affect state level results.

Finally, technology, research and analytics have come to stay. Increasingly, parties will become more sophisticate in using media - especially social and digital media, viral word-of-mouth campaigns and ambush strategies. BJP might have had a first mover advantage in 2014 - but such competitive edge don't last for more than one election as professionals like Prashant Kishore don't have any political loyalties and in no time many more PeeKays will be born.

As a political wise-crack remarked - elections mean "Gol-Maal". Let's take the "Maal" (or essence) from the surveys and leave the "gol" for the losers. To mildly twist the quote of the prime minister - "Elections Ayega, jayega - aur exit polls be galat nikalte rahega".


Sandip Ghose Sandip Ghose @sandipghose

Sandip Ghose is a writer and blogger on current affairs. Views expressed are personal and does not reflect those of his employer

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