IN the run-up to the elections, the voter gets flattering attention from political parties and candidates alike. His views are indispensable and his voting intentions become a subject of scientific research by pollsters. His opinion is gauged by opinion poll, exit poll and post-poll analysis.
In their book, India Decides, well-known psephologists, David Butler, Ashok Lahiri and Prannoy Roy have described opinion poll as a tool of research that has only recently been exploited. The authors feel that although opinion poll results are fallible, especially in Indian conditions, they are the best means of deriving a more accurate picture of the voting intentions and political attitudes of the Indian electorate.
While opinion polls, psephologists admit, are fallible in Indian conditions, exit polls and post polls are relatively accurate. The difference between the three, according to noted psephologist Yogendra Yadav, is that of timing. He points out that other crucial factors include sample size and sample design and the representativeness of the sample ensures accuracy.
Naveen Surapaneni, a psephologist at the Centre for Media Studies, says that while the opinion poll gives the likely trend of the voting pattern, the exit poll gives a clearer picture as it is taken outside the polling booths. "From past experiences it is evident that voters tell the true and factual opinion about political parties and their intentions," he said.
Yogendra Yadav, a Fellow of the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, says post poll is an academic exercise in which a random scientific sample is drawn from each electoral roll. The researchers visit the house of the voters after the poll and talk to them in a relaxed atmosphere. The questionnaires used in the post poll surveys are extensive.
He mentions that post poll is not an instrument of forecast but a means of post-mortem for a long-term analysis. The exit polls are relatively less expensive as the respondents "come to you and you do not have to go to them".
He says that pre-election poll suffers from the uncertainty whether the person will vote or not. "Moreover, you cannot have a truly representative scientific sample and cannot truly randomise which is considered the best scientific method in statistics".
The commercial opinion poll in India is conducted by Quota Sampling. Yadav says that the CSDS State Co-ordinators are academics who engage their research associates and students for the opinion polls. "The exercise lasts about a week and involves up to 400 persons."
Titoo Ahluwalia, Chairman of ORG-MARG, one of the countrys largest market research companies, in an interview to a national daily has said that opinion polls in India have proved to be a pretty reliable indication of the way the political wind is blowing.
Talking of exit polls in the same interview, Ahluwalia informs that exit polls are a relatively recent phenomenon in India and "we are still at the steep end of the learning curve."
The first national poll was carried out by the Indian Institute of Public Opinion before the 1957 general election. Under the guidance of Eric da Costa, the father of opinion polling in India, the institute has covered almost all subsequent elections. News magazine India Today has also promoted professional opinion polling in India. Since 1980, it has commissioned market research groups and psephologists to conduct country-wide opinion polls.
Opinion polls collect information by interviewing a sample of the population whose opinion we are interested in. In a typical election survey, it means choosing sample constituencies and polling booths and the selection of a few voters who resemble the entire population. Their responses are then recorded. Some researchers use dummy secret ballots for sensitive questions on voting to encourage an honest response. All the responses are then collated and computed.
Election forecasting is essentially a game of numbers involving two steps. First, the pollsters conduct an opinion poll to find out the likely choice of voters. Under our electoral system, the percentage of votes has no direct relationship to the percentage of seats won by a party. The second step involves the translation of votes into seats through elaborate statistical techniques.
But do opinion polls influence the voters in their choice of candiadate or party? A survery conducted by ICSSR-CSDS-India Today in 1996 indicated that an overwhelming majority of ordinary voters had not read or heard about opinion poll-based election forecasts.
Yadav says his assessment after a post-poll survey done by the CSDS three years ago was that only 0.7 per cent of the voters were influenced in their voting decisions by opinion polls.
Psephologists state that some studies have suggested that there is a bandwagon effect --- people rushing to support the winner. Others claim that there is an underdog effect-- - voters backing the apparent loser. They argue that there is no consistent evidence to support the contention that opinion polls have a net influence on voting behaviour and added that most of the opinion polls are published in English-language press whose reach is quite limited.
Yadav says, "These terms have come from the West. In assessing the effect of the opinion polls, we dont have sufficient evidence in this country to prove such hypotheses.
Election analysts, however, admit that the opinion polls help in strategic voting. If the poll projects the candidate of ones preferred party as an apparent loser, the voters may cast their vote in favour of the second most preferred candidate.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao of the Development and Research Services (DRS) is of the view that opinion poll results cannot alter the party leanings which the electorate acquires over a long period of time. "The opinion polls, however, do influence the undecided voters and it does have an effect on the morale of the party cadre. The undecided voter influenced by the opinion poll may resort to tactical voting, thereby increasing or decreasing the margin of defeat," he said.
Naveen Surapaneni, psephologist at the Centre for Media Studies, agrees with Rao that only the undecided voters are influenced by the opinion poll results to some extent. He points out that sometimes voters change their views about political parties due to certain events that occur during campaigning.
Narasimha Rao says varying results thrown up by different opinion polls are the result of the sample size and their quantum. He asserts that opinion polls and exit polls are the most scientific methods of assessing the mood of the people and gauging their opinion on the strengths and weaknesses of the political parties.
One may ask whether these predictions can be taken as the gospel truth? Psephologists argue that opinion polls are better indicators of popular mood than cocktail circles, press club gossip or hit-and-miss headlines as pollsters try to speak to ordinary voters to find out how they might vote. They may or may not succeed in giving an exact forecast of the number of seats a particular party will gain, but they give a better idea than anyone else of the direction in which the wind is blowing.
Political commentator and historian Mahesh Rangarajan says that people ought to realise that political commentary is not "P. C. Sorcars magic."
Yogendra Yadav, while agreeing with Mahesh Rangarajan, says that election forecasts are unfortunately equated with black magic. "Either there is a sense of complete awe and unadulterated admiration, or poll forecasts are looked upon with hostility and suspicion. I would like people to look at them as attempts to develop scientific estimates," he said.
The most significant pitfalls that opinion surveys and exit polls have to steer clear of are those connected with sample size and selection. The question of size is addressed through a statistical formula applied to the electorate as a whole. Yet, even with the most careful system of selection, as by using forms of stratification by region, locality and class, poll samples often fail to reflect the bewildering complexities of electoral behaviour in India.
At another level, opinion surveys and exit polls are known to be fallible on account of the inherent questionnaire biases. Even the manner in which a question is posed can often influence its answer.
Viewed with "hostility, suspicion, unadulterated admiration and complete awe, poll forecasts, however, attract the attention of the voters and politicians alike.
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