Managing decisions?

Print edition : April 23, 2004

A case against election-eve opinion polls.

ONCE again we have a major media house tying up with a market research agency, conducting a nation-wide survey and coming up with what they predict will be the results of the coming elections. Some weeks earlier, there was a similar survey done by Outlook and ORG-MARG; now we have another survey from NDTV and AC Nielsen. There have been others, and no doubt there will be even more as the weeks pass.

All of them assure people in general that they employ scientifically derived methods that are accurate and a true reflection of the opinion of the people. They talk of the manner in which `random' sampling was done, are open about such things as `standard deviation' and so on, and in the end a great many people believe that they have done a wonderfully accurate job. That most - or all - of them were wildly off the mark in the last round of Assembly elections in Rajasthan may well be an aberration, but what is of real concern is the fact that these surveys are conducted at all.

They may be accurate; the analysts may well be using systems that have complex mathematical models that have demonstrated their usefulness over the years elsewhere; but what these surveys do not seem to take into consideration are the patterns of behaviour in this country, which vary from State to State. In some the word of the sarpanch is sacrosanct and he determines how a village will vote; in others tribal elders decide; in some places, communities vote in different ways.

David Butler, the guru of psephology, once said to a senior mediaperson who was interviewing him that the difference between Britain and India was that there the models assumed individual decision; here that system of assessing polling trends would not work because of the fact that individual voting was only a part of the way people voted - community voting, voting in blocks, was just as common. One wonders if the sociological dimension is assessed by the researchers and whether they try to reduce it to categories and numbers, because if they are doing anything of that kind, they would be doing something terribly wrong.

I have seen - though in a very limited manner - how such systems can work. After the Census of 1971 we were asked to prepare some tables on categories like occupation, education and so on by age group and sex. One of those specialists working on this showed me how it was possible, in a city like Durgapur, which has been built around a giant steel plant, to produce a sample which would show that the majority of those who worked in that city were doctors. Not that these market research organisations would do anything so crude and foolish; I mention it merely to point out that systems can go wrong or can be made to go wrong.

There is a second problem with these surveys. I am not sure whether these very intelligent and knowledgeable professionals who conduct the surveys have any awareness of the nature of the people of this country, whether social psychology, apart from sociological traits, are studied and accounted for in their surveys. If they do have that awareness and have studied the behaviour of the people in different communities and groups they will realise that one of the traits almost everyone in the country shares is that we are reluctant to share with others what we really think.

Very often, what is declared to be a person's opinion is really a posture. I am not saying that we are congenital liars; but we have, let us say, a fairly complicated notion of what the truth is, especially when it comes to our political beliefs. Except of course those actively campaigning for one party or another, who are not, taken together, a number that makes little difference when we consider the millions who vote. It is, consequently, rather fanciful to believe that what people tell our very intelligent and knowledgeable surveyors is what they actually believe.

A third factor is, of course, something that everyone, including those conducting the surveys, know only too well. A person may have an opinion today but change his or her mind just before the polls. This could be owing to a number of factors; a major event like a riot, or the passing through a community, a group or a tribe of the word that their votes should go to a particular political party. We have seen this happen in Spain recently, where the ruling party was all set to return to power and then, after the bomb explosions in Madrid, public opinion changed dramatically, and Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar lost by an overwhelming majority.

But none of these flaws in the system of surveying are as important as the fact that, taken together, they constitute a danger. That danger is the coming together of market surveyors and media agencies like a television network or a newspaper to say that a certain party is going to win and another is going to lose. This may be all right in other countries, but in India it seems to be a real danger for one major reason. The results are taken by the cadre of the party or parties for whom it is favourable and spread throughout the country - to villages, taluks, tehsils, districts and the remotest hamlets.

Now, while the well-educated classes will take these surveys for what they are and decide for themselves how they will vote, that will not be the reaction of those with just a basic education - that is, the vast majority of our people. They will, in all probability, be confused and befuddled; some may well feel that if the experts say that the National Democratic Alliance will win, why then, perhaps it may be best to flow with the tide; others may think that since the party they are going to vote for is going to win anyway, why bother to vote? Whatever it is, their decisions, irrespective of whether they are community-based or individual, will be affected.

IS this, then, what we mean by a `free and fair' election? Is the subtle conditioning of the mind, as opposed to the open, democratic election campaigns that party candidates organise, not a factor that clouds the ability to take a clear decision? These surveys are not conducted, mind you, by political parties, but by professional media agencies and professional market researchers; and that is what makes the surveys that much more dangerous. The political party that stands to benefit will tell people, `Look, we are not saying we will win; these experts, these knowledgeable people, who are not members of our party, they are saying we will win.' That is where the conditioning starts.

It is this that needs to be considered seriously by the Election Commission. Its code of conduct prohibits a variety of things; some sound quite odd but the Commission has included them lest they in some way or the other prevent the election from being fair and free. So the Commission should consider to what extent these surveys affect the basis of democracy, the casting of a vote that has not been manipulated - insidiously and indirectly, it is true, but manipulated nonetheless.

Exit polls are a different thing altogether. Those are surveys done after people have made up their minds and cast their votes. And even if the results of the exit polls are inaccurate it makes little difference. The persons who got most of the votes will have won, exit poll or no exit poll. But the surveys conducted before an election need, it would seem, to be considered seriously, given the incredibly diverse society we have, and the levels of credulity - most of us remember the sudden phenomenon of statues of Ganesha drinking milk. If the Commission has a code to ensure that elections are free and fair then it must look at every activity related to the elections and determine whether or not it subverts the very basis of the elections, the foundation on which our democracy rests.

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