Millennium Post

Opinion polls are fiction

The many opinions on opinion poll in India may be broadly classified in two groups. Those whose opinion is to ban opinion polls and those who want continuation of the same. There seems to be no ‘perhaps’ category on opinion poll. In fact, those who do not spell it out clearly but say that in its current form opinion polls are unscientific, therefore, unreliable hence do not merit dissemination, are actually those who would love the polls to be banned but are careful in articulating it. From the communication angle this is the key message they like to admit it or not.

The second issue on ‘opinion polls’ which is equally critical is what kind of results are getting disseminated. If the contest is completely one sided and overwhelming majority of those who form the sample feel that the current dispensation must be thrown out,despite alleged fudging ‘opinion polls’ will conclude a wash out for the incumbent. Predictably the incumbent will voice its opposition to such polls. By the same token the opposition who feel that the public anger will see them elected will love more and more publicity of the poll results. This will convince the undecided voters to vote against the incumbent and propel the opposition’s chances to come to power. Had the scenario not been one sided there would have been supporting voices for ‘opinion polls’ from among the incumbents. Also, there would have been less euphoria among the opposition on the democratic necessity for ‘opinion polls’.

The current debate in India largely between the ruling Congress and the opposition BJP should be seen in this context. Between the two lie leaders of political parties like JD(U), CPI(M), CPI et al. who feel that ‘opinion polls’ should be scrapped since all are showing a surge of Narendra Modi their bete noire but are careful not to say so in no uncertain terms.  Outside the political spectrum are the members from media, the electronic media in particular. For them ‘opinion polls’ are panacea for TRPs, hence elixir for business promotion. If such polls are banned how will they attract eye-balls every night when the entertainment channels are busy showing Mahabharat or Kaun Banega Maha-crorepati? But here again the problem is such channels cannot claim to be supporting ‘opinion polls’ unabashedly from the commercial angle. So they adopt the democratic right route to lobby their case arguing that expressing opinion is an integral part of the democratic process.

Since the debates use the mundane arguments it is pointless to join the issues. Instead, let us see what is the actual action and reactions of political parties and leaders on opinion polls. All political parties engage professionals to gauge the mood of the voters. Such poll results are used to identify the right candidate after assessing their winnability. Many political leaders engage external agencies to know what are their prospects and what course corrections should be undertaken. They know well enough that the scores of hangers-on are not reliable when it comes to the critical most issue in a politician’s life – that of winning an election. So they opt for the views from ‘professionals’. Whatever may be the ‘public’ views of politicians and their parties on TV debates they all consult psephologists as regularly as they consult their astrologers.

The next issue for those who have no direct experience of how such opinion polls are conducted is the correctness of the sampling and of polling. A psephologist narrated his experience when he was a green horn in the business. He was in a village to conduct opinion poll with his team members. In the morning when he reached the target village he chanced upon the village head at the bus stop. The headman who was boarding the same bus welcomed him for selecting his village and promised to see him again in the evening on his return. When they met again the headman asked the psephologist what was the view gathered through his  poll? When told that a certain candidate will receive votes of majority the headman told that the villagers were wrong since he would recommend them to vote for some other candidate.  This incidence took place in the early nineties. Has India moved ahead much since then?

The point one must not miss is that psephologists are well aware of the issues impacting the conclusions and take suitable corrective measures. A psephologist will not like to stake her long term reputation on which depends her business. Also one must accept that many of the agencies that conduct these surveys have acquired a brand identity, which they will defend doggedly. Those who ridicule the polling agencies in TV debates will do well to accept it.

But the most critical issue on opinion polls is if such polls influence public opinion? While the polls reflect public opinion there is no denying of the fact that such polls may influence the undecided public. To test this hypothesis one may turn to the Lok Sabha poll of 2004.  Most of the polls predicted a landslide in favour of the then ruling NDA. Did the undecided voters get swayed? Clearly the views polled were misleading. Apparently those who were polled did not give their honest opinion. The other conclusion could be that they changed their opinion just before pressing the polling button. In any case opinion polls are an approximation that may or may not prove correct.

Should such unscientific polls then be banned? Certainly these should be proscribed, as should all storybooks, films and soap operas. Work of fiction pollutes the minds of innocent voters. After all our polls are secret. If anybody tries to capture our minds before we cast our votes it should fall in the realms of investigating agencies. Both, those who are polling and those who express their opinions, are guilty.

May we expect an ordinance? Let there be ban on all opinions, polled or unpolled.

The author is a communication consultant
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