The ‘Polled Over’ effect

Print edition : May 16, 2014

THIS election, more than most, seems in the vice-like grip of pollsters and their inexorable forecasts. The prediction game becomes an end in itself, echoing the theme of the 2001 conference of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR): “Polling—now more accurate than the election itself”. The psychological impact of psephology, for those who dread the prospect of a Narendra Modi government, has been devastating even before the votes have been cast and counted.

The choice seems one between the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) dispensation with Modi at the helm, which is bad enough, and an outright Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win and government, not hedged by coalition partners or compulsions, with the party itself a mere appendage to Modi, which is downright unthinkable. Suddenly, one feels almost wistfully nostalgic about Atal Bihari Vajpayee; and guilty about being intolerant to his verse. Even the “rath yathri” par excellence, L.K. Advani, seems a mellowed vestige of his former self, force-merged into the background to centre plank the strident, the dyed saffron in the wool, unrelenting, unrepentant, political effrontery of Modi.

If these are the obvious signs of the shape of things to come, there are attendant and contributory signals that sharpen that trepidation. A scholarly book on Hinduism by a respected Western academic, Wendy Doniger, falls prey to a bigoted, petty and what the author calls “intellectually challenged” understanding of that grand and complex religion, and is banished, as against legally banned, from bookshops in India. A book by and about the experiences of a woman who spent years in a powerful and influential religious ashram in Kerala and which alleges traumatic inflictions on her body, including rape, and mind, is airbrushed away from the mainstream media and denied public discourse even before the court imposes a temporary ban on it. Before this Three Hundred Ramayanas by A.K. Ramanujan was removed from the academic curriculum. There have been similar attacks on scholarly works which diverge from a populist, accepted, lumpen, sectarian, blind or habitual faith in a creed or mytho-historical figures. Such biblio or curricular proscriptions and prescriptions have perceptibly gathered menacing momentum as the far Right moves in to become a central force in the emergent politics.

There is also a terminological onslaught to saffronise language and its hitherto universally accepted meaning. The first casualty has been the concept of “development”, which has become a celebratory synonym for the story of half-baked and lopsided growth in Gujarat under Modi. A concerted rhetorical campaign has been unleashed to wear down a cardinal value enshrined even in the preamble to the Indian Constitution—secularism. It began with a more circumspect, if devious, challenge that sought to generate some deliberate confusion about real secularism versus a so-called “pseudo secularism”.

But Modi, in his election campaign in Varanasi, has thrown all caution to the winds and literally stood the concept on its head —speaking to the legitimate concerns of minorities now becomes a divisive secular ploy in his moral dictionary; he would rather lose the election in Varanasi than adopt such a secular approach.

History, culture, economics and constitutional provisions are all sought to be revalorised in this Modi-cular perspective. At the same time, even when he delightfully throws the “remote control” metaphor at the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, he is defiantly blase about the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) pulling the strings (now not even from behind the scenes) of his own party, and his own ascendency in it; and makes no bones about acknowledging his debt to the Sangh.

Othering and exclusion proceed apace as an undercurrent in this saffron renarrativisation. The bit roles played by flunkeys of the Right add up to an orchestrated design. Someone pipes up with the outlandish comment that detractors of Modi belong not here in India but in Pakistan. The leadership then goes through the motion of rapping him on his knuckles. But the idea, and that is the idea, is already put out there for those who will savour it and, perhaps, see whether it generates any favourable traction. There is no need to be preemptively civil and considerate to your fellow citizens, especially the Modi sceptics. It is also time for the “other” within the party, much as it might have dismayed an Advani, Jaswant Singh or Murli Manohar Joshi. This “other” is also at once the alternative to the Nehruvian, dynastic legacy. Hence the huge political investment in Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, seen even in the Congress lore as the one at odds with Nehru, the iron man, the tall leader who will be epitomised by the tallest statue of a person in India and perhaps the world, which, in turn, is personified by this new son of Gujarat, Narendra Modi.

The demagoguery, the panoply and the symbolism of the campaign are unmistakenly proto-fascist. The last time, in the make-believe of India Shining, the visage of Vajpayee was seen for what it was: a benign mask—the mukhota or mask metaphor went viral—for the RSS. This time, the party and its prime ministerial candidate have no need for such pretences and disguises. The Modi mask that proliferates in election rallies and meetings is no substitute for anything. It represents the man as a willing and wilful creature of the RSS.

The RSS-speak is more direct and hardly disguised. Allies and constituents of the NDA front may, for their own ideological solace or to justify their Faustian pact, seek to invent a Modi with a human face. But there really is only one phenomenon out there, and that is a command performance of the RSS.

The opinion polls feeding into the Modi mania on the one hand and Modi phobia on the other—may be for a good part unwittingly and for the rest quite intentionally—represent what the German political scientist Kurt Sontheimer (whose intellectual endeavours were aimed at democratising Germany on Anglo-Saxon lines post the war and the traumatic experience with Hitler) characterised as “a structural insecurity of our democracy, whose representative character as prescribed by the Constitution is continually made to waver as a result of reference to widespread vulgar-plebiscitary notions”.

Apart from the evidence displayed on television screens of paid polls, much in the manner of paid news or fixed matches with which we are already too familiar, and the fact that polls have gone (for the pollsters) horribly wrong in the past, notably in the elections of 2004, and that they are today akin to betting on the horse-racing track, to TRPs and advertisement revenues for TV channels rather than an enabling democratic subculture, and the permanent bugbear of the vote share to seat conversion, there are the vagaries of polling and their impact on voters, which may yet stop this election going all the way in one direction. In his study Who’s Afraid of Election Polls, Wolfgang Donsbach lists some of these spoilers in poll forecasts. The “bandwagon effect” may be offset or countered by an “underdog effect” —and we can reasonably guess who is at the receiving end of which in this election.

The “defeatist” danger that supporters of weaker parties may just give up and do not vote has its “lethargy” antidote where the followers of the stronger party do not vote either, but for the different reasons of overconfidence or complacence. There is then the “guillotine” effect where those owing allegiance to a smaller party vote their second rather than first choice.

Closely related is “tactical voting” of all kinds but particularly in the context of this election, that of those of a party widely tipped to win voting their second choice to prevent a brute majority for themselves, giving credence to the rumours about the “160 club” (those who would rather limit the party tally to around that figure) in the BJP. Against the overt “mobilisation” impact of the front runner in the race are the undercurrents and countercurrents of consolidation along religious and ethnic lines. So the real elections may not quite be the pushover the polls bill it to be.

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