With 17 days left for voting to begin in Uttar Pradesh (UP), one of the main political parties in UP, the Samajwadi Party, wrote to the Election Commission asking it to ban opinion polls on television channels on the grounds that these are merely campaign techniques in disguise to influence voters. They claimed that this was a violation of the Election Commission’s ‘model code of conduct’.
Over the past few weeks, as is the norm, pre-election opinion polls for the state elections of UP, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur have been published widely across print, television and digital media. It is tempting to dismiss the Samajwadi Party’s claim as sour grapes since they are not being projected as the winner. But there is ample scientific empirical evidence to support the claim made by Samajwadi Party about opinion polls.
As per empirical research published in the Lokniti National Election Study, of every 100 Indians who voted in the 2019 national elections, only 35 were committed voters who were sure of which party to vote for before the campaign began. The remaining 65 voters decided who to vote for just in the last few days or weeks before election day. That is, 65% of Indian voters make their voting decisions very close to polling day.
How do these large number of voters decide who to vote for at the last minute? Based on ‘hawa’ – the ‘wind’ factor. As per the same study, nearly 30 of these 65 last-minute voters decide who to vote for based on who they feel or think is winning. ‘Which way the wind is blowing’ is a significant determinant of voting behaviour in India. In other words, a significant 30 of every 100 voters vote for the likely winner and so, it is very important for a political party or a candidate to be perceived as the likely winner in an Indian election.
In less developed states such as UP, these numbers are even higher than in more developed states like Tamil Nadu. And in rural constituencies, a much larger percentage of people tend to consolidate towards the likely winner as polling day nears. This phenomenon, called the ‘bandwagon effect’ in political science, is also understandable in a developing country like India.
For a poor Dalit woman in say, Bangermau constituency in rural UP, the cost of not voting for the eventual winner in her area is much higher than it is for elite urban voters. She is acutely aware that for the next five years, she is dependent on her local MLA or leaders from the ruling party for her daily life such as getting MGNREGA work, hospital admission, school admission, old age pension and so on. This social order of ‘clientelism’ in rural areas renders the poor entirely at the mercy of the local elected representatives.
With the help of local networks and polling booth-level voting data, it is reasonably easy for political workers in a constituency like Bangermau to get a sense of which households did not vote for them. So the combination of ‘clientelism’ and a ‘not-so-secret’ adult franchise make it very expensive and vulnerable for the poor to not vote for the likely winner. Hence, the large number of undecided voters do not want to be on the wrong side and vote for who they think is likely to win.
It is this bandwagon effect that makes the ‘likely’ winner an actual winner in the election. It is in this context that a seemingly ‘independent’ opinion poll projecting a winner and published widely can have a huge influence on the outcome of the election. A rigged or a wrong opinion survey, disguised as a scientific study by a professional survey agency, disseminated to the masses by a compromised media, can be weaponised to influence a large section of voters in every constituency. Since these polls are portrayed as independent and carry a veneer of objectivity, voters are more easily misled.
Most opinion polls that are published in the Indian media are spurious and suspect. Let me clarify that these polls may well turn out to be right in their predictions of eventual winners. But that does not mean they were done in a scientific manner. Here are some reasons why.
One needs a well stratified sample of at least 1,000 voters in each assembly constituency to be able to determine a clear winner. Contrary to popular belief, the sample size does not depend on the total number of voters in a constituency but only on how well representative it is of all the different identity and demographic groups. As per prevailing market prices, it costs on average Rs 200-250 to survey one voter through a field study. Which means it costs roughly Rs 2 to 2.5 lakhs to survey one constituency and predict the winner. In a large state like UP with 403 constituencies, it would cost a total of Rs 8 crore to survey in a proper scientific manner.
When media publishes opinion polls, it is important to ask how much did these surveys cost and who paid for it. It is quite apparent that none of the media houses or any survey agency spends such a large sum to conduct these surveys. Which means either some other interested organisation has incurred this expenditure, or they did not do a rigorous scientific survey.
By these benchmarks, nearly every survey published by the Indian television media is suspect and dubious. A survey being right in some elections is not proof of its credibility or robustness, just as a broken clock is right twice a day. The broad field of empirical science, of which surveys are a small part, is an established discipline for which Nobel prizes have been awarded, not something that fly-by-night operators can replicate easily.
This is why Samajwadi Party is right in asking the Election Commission to take cognisance of opinion polls and regulate them. These opinion polls are not merely reflective of the opinions of Indian voters but a strong determinant of their voting behaviour too. The Election Commission of India cannot continue to turn a blind eye to this dubious practice.
(Praveen Chakravarty is a political economist and Chairman of the Data Analytics department of the Congress party.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.