When Delhi surveys clash: India Today predicts BJP win

"The India Today Group-ORG poll shows BJP is poised to win the elections with 36 of the 70 seats," declares the latest Delhi poll survey, which touts BJP's Harsh Vardhan as new "squeaky clean middle class icon" on the block. Despite his late anointment, the good doctor was named by 19 percent of the voters as the best CM candidate, trailing a mere three percent behind Kejriwal's 22 percent. Sheila Dixit wins the personal popularity poll with 28 percent. (Results not available online)

The BJP-friendly results — underlined by the accompanying puff piece on Harsh Vardhan — offer a sharp contrast to other polls tomtoming the arrival of AAP. Arvind Kejriwal's party scored 18 seats in the latest C-Voter survey and a whopping 19-25 seats in the CNN-IBN/CSDS count. These other polls offer little hope of an outright BJP victory, predicting anywhere between 22-28 seats for the saffron party.

The BJP-friendly results — underlined by the accompanying puff piece on Harsh Vardhan — offer a sharp contrast to other polls tomtoming the arrival of AAP. AFP

The BJP-friendly results — underlined by the accompanying puff piece on Harsh Vardhan — offer a sharp contrast to other polls tomtoming the arrival of AAP. AFP

Who or what are we to believe then? To party loyalists, an unfavorable poll is inevitably the evidence of bias. Kejriwal supporters will view the India Today poll evidence not of BJP strength but of a pro-BJP bias, while BJP loyalists will insist that those other pesky surveys are skewed by the media's new found affection for AAP.  All of which, of course, gives credence to the Congress Party's claim that opinion polls  "lack credibility" and are "manipulated" by vested interests.

A view echoed by independent media experts such as Centre for Media Studies director Bhaskar Rao who tells Outlook magazine:

A quarter or more of news media is under control of political interests and corporates, raising the question of motives. What a poll survey brings out and projects is context-specific, and its relevance and even accuracy would altogether be different in a different context and at a different time, making the very exercise futile, even misleading. Taking recourse and linking the concern in this regard to press freedom or free speech is an industry perspective meant to divert the core issue.

Media and polling organisations withhold critical information about sample size or methodology in order to shield their results from outside scrutiny. As a result, it is impossible to figure out who is fudging their results.

But this lack of credibility — and more importantly, consistency —  also makes the very same surveys less of a threat to democracy. As Karthik Shashidhar explains in Mint, the key objection to dubious polling is the influence they may have on actual voting behaviour:

The theory goes that people like to be on the winning side. If a voter doesn’t have a strong opinion, he is likely to lean in favour of the side that he thinks is winning (unless he is Don Quixote). Hence, the undecided voter is likely to lean in favour of the party that is seen to be leading the race, thus bolstering its chances at the expense of the party seen as a loser.

But the strongest piece of evidence arguing against such decisive influence is — ironically — the UPA victory in 2004 when our nation's citizens blithely ignored the overwhelming pre-election data predicting an NDA sweep to vote the Congress and its allies into power. So much for following the poll leader.

There are excellent and persuasive arguments to be made for greater integrity and rigour in psephology. The righteous indignation of industry honchos such as C-Voter chief editor Yashwant Deshmukh rings hollow given the weak standards and blatant lack of transparency. But the one good thing about bad polls is that no one pays them much heed, except those paid to do so.

It is even more difficult to argue for a 'bandwagon effect' when pre-election polls wildly contradict one another. When surveys throw up disparate results — due to poor methodology or bias — we all tend to believe the poll we want to. As in the case of Delhi, all that dubious data merely confirms what we already know: In psephology, victory lies in the eyes of the pollster.

Updated Date: Nov 11, 2013 18:30 PM

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