New Delhi: Poll punditry is a hazardous business, if ever there was one. A sought after community of soothsayers, who ply their predictions as the election season approaches, suffer unanimous cynicism from all the contestants when it gets over.
Raj Liberhan, director, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi
As the participating parties seek to get a fix on their poll prospects, this learned and serious crowd, propelled in the belief of pursuing a noble cause end up, more often than not, making an ass of themselves.
Indeed there is an ever increasing belief that the distinction between pollsters and pranksters is only artificial, and not superficial. And in the aftermath of the Gujarat election results, the psephologists had to eat crow yet again, instead of being feted.
This is not for the first time though. Psephology, to begin with, was never an exact science and in our country we have turned it into a near fictionalized form. The conclusions our experts draw have nothing to do with the sample size. Even if the sample is of the entire electorate, the predictions will vary with the real results.
It is a lot to do with the kind of people we are. It also has something to do with the kind of people the samplers are and eventually it has a lot to do with the kind of people our political scientists and psephologists are.
Political configurations cannot be easily foretold. Sometimes the price of onions will sway the voters, sometimes it can be the fundamentals of living like sadak, bijli and paani (roads, electricity and water) and at other times the voter can be disenchanted by a boring face.
Perception is everything, irrespective of the truth. An election in India is not the culmination of the triumph of ideology; very often it is the triumph of competitive pedagogy.
If you have ever been accosted by an eager and young but unknown face in a market place wanting your five minutes, you would may suddenly become short of time. If the young man wanting to ascertain your opinion is persistent, and assuming you have a gentle streak in you, you are apt to provide irritated off-the cuff responses which your underpaid interlocutor transcribes while keeping in step with you.
Then having peeled him off, you regain your composure with nary a thought about the questions asked and answers given. This is approximately the fate of the sample taker. If he meets two such cranky, or insufferable characters, which is more than likely, he would find the task of collecting poll samples quite arduous.
It would be far more pleasant to retreat into a shady corner with a cup of tea and fill in the sample forms yourself under different names. The job thus done, the social scientist then analyses this wealth of data and presents his conclusions. Little wonder that these closely resemble the kind of fiction normally associated with government’s full page advertisements containing their achievements. Well, allright, not quite that bad. The poll predictions look better than governments ads all the time.
The fictional element gets further compounded by the nature of people we are. At the best of times we rarely say what we mean and certainly not to strange data collectors, and never on a public platform. In fact, at other times we do not even mean what we say. Between those two extremes, there is rarely a moment, when we know what we are going to do. The laws of probability naturally go haywire when so much of an individual’s predilections are factored into the poll predictions.
By and large, our astrologers have fared better than the psephologists and hence the preference among the political leaders to rely on them in planning their electoral gambits is more pronounced than any known inclination to go by the psephologists’s readings. Those, who want to appear rationally propelled and not astrally dependent, use the bookies’ odds as ready indicators to show the buoyancy of the voter’s mood.
All said and done, the Indian voter is zealous about keeping his electoral preferences secret. He takes the secret ballot vote decreed to him by the constitution, very seriously. The confidence in the political system is modest, and there is an underlying apprehension of getting marked, if his voting preference was to become public, yet his faith in the election process is abiding. It is this faith of the common man that has kept the democratic aspirations alive and vibrant.
Seen in the context of the economic and literacy level in the country, and the general ethos of the geographical neighbourhood, our voter wins admirers everyday, listening to everybody, psephologists, astrologers, analysts, political scientists and the political parties, but he makes his choice on the strength of his native instinct. This instinct has remarkably evolved with time and very visible in the kind of poll results that are coming through confounding the best predictions.
This is the assertion of the individual citizen’s right to think independently. It is also the assertion of his ability to make a choice and hold that choice to account subsequently. It also, at the end, is an assertion of his hope in the country’s democracy and he will have no other way of government.
As the Time Magazine wryly pointed out in the context of the uncertainly of the US Presidential election, the saga cannot be forefold, it must only unfold. So too in our own land.
Raj Liberhan is Director of the India Habitat Centre at New Delhi. Send your reactions to firstname.lastname@example.org