Opinion polls were introduced in India in the late 1950s.
Eric De Costa is known as the father of opinion polls in India. He also founded the Indian Institute of Public Opinion.
It was the spring of 2004. India was Shining, at least according to the media blitzkrieg by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government. The alliance had several months left for it to complete its five-year term. But the party was on the upswing, it had won three assembly elections and thought it best to strike when the iron was hot. It announced early elections. And lost so badly that it took another ten years for it to scramble back to power. Meanwhile, Sonia Gandhi, whose fledgling political career always faced the wall of her Italian origin, metamorphosed into a Mother India-like figure. She’d led the party to victory, but then her “inner voice’’ told her not to be PM. India was wowed. Stunned, the BJP retreated to opposition benches.
More recently, Amit Shah, the man who boasted a record of not losing a single election he had managed, suffered the most humiliating defeat of his career when Delhi had a re-election in 2015, managing only three seats in the legislature. Just a few months earlier, it had won 32 seats in Delhi, just a whisker short of absolute majority. Shah’s rout came even before he had finished exulting over placing Narendra Modi on the prime minister’s chair.
“Unpredictability is the greatest characteristic of a democracy,’’ Congress leader Shashi Tharoor once sagely observed. Elections are that one time when even the poorest and least influential Indian gets power on his fingertip. He makes the best of this ephemeral power. Politicians can woo the voter with promises of free rice, bicycles and television sets. The electorate now actually expects all this and more as part of the election ritual, but makes no assurance in return. When he’s in that little kiosk, he knows he may not be king, but at least he’s kingmaker. This knowledge can thwart the best-run campaign.
The Indian vote is cast along predictable lines, or at least that’s what psephologists tell us. There are vote banks carved on the basis of religion, caste and other demographic verticals. The women, it’s largely assumed, do as their men tell them to. Then how is it that results often spring rather big surprises? A state may send one party to rule at the Centre, choose another for the legislature, and local body elections have a mind of their own. A party that’s doing everything right faces rout and the dark horse grabs the throne.
Here’s a little secret. The voter is not unpredictable, it’s mostly analysts who get their numbers wrong on such occasions. Literate or unlettered, rural or urban, male or female, the voter does not behave irrationally. “There is a method and logic to the voting, according to whatever issue is relevant at the time,’’ says psephologist-turned BJP leader G.V.L. Narasimha Rao. The voter, keeping in mind caste, party, personality and the myriad other considerations intrinsic to Indian elections, comes up with a decision that should be rather obvious. But in the noisy drumming of political parties and argumentative discourses of experts, the voter’s mind is sometimes wrongly read. This is especially so when the contest is close. “Predictions and analyses are based on sample surveys. If surveys were 100 per cent accurate all the time, why would we need to go through the lengthy and expensive process of holding full elections, we could just place a government on the basis of the survey,’’ Rao justifies, adding that pollsters should refrain from giving definitive results in tight contests. That, however, will be a mortal blow to the business of predictions, and Indians, as we all know, love to hear a juicy prediction, its accuracy is often immaterial. Else why would we sit opposite tota pundits and get all excited about the parrot drawing a prophecy from a pre-written set?
Stephanie Tawa Lama-Rewal, in a paper in the South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, says the popularity of surveys is that their supposed ability to predict results makes them indispensable to the entertaining aspect of elections. Also, by showing election after election that the turnout is high and results unpredictable, it gives credit to the idea of democratic choice.
PS: For those who swear by the voter’s rationality, here’s something to ponder. A woman I interviewed during one election was convinced about the promises of a particular party, but cast her vote for another, only because at the election rally, the campaigners gave her estranged sister-in-law more attention. Hell hath no fury like a woman slighted.