Exit Polls and the Media

NDTV’s panel debate, the Big Fight, was chewing on the issue of exit polls. For once, the BJP and Congress panelists were on the same side: ban ’em polls. That’s the beauty of Indian politics. Politicians do agree on issues — okay, so what if those are the ones that involve their own fate?

Let’s take, one by one, the arguments against exist polls that we’ve heard recently

Polls Influence the Voters
It’s argued that the exit polls of previous rounds may discourage the voters from voting at all, or influence them (herd mentality). Any conclusive evidence for this claim? No. Assuming that there is, what’s the problem? In this country where voters are influenced by cast, religion, regional issues, money, violence, film-stars, cricketer, sympathy waves, family legacy and what not, what’s wrong with exit polls influencing the voters?

Polls are Inaccurate/Unreliable
Of course, I won’t dispute that. The point is, compared to what? Every news paper, magazine keeps on talking about possible outcomes of the election. Such reporting is: extremely prone to biases and pressures, uses much more unsound methods, etc. So do we stop the news-papers? And in any case, isn’t that what the media keeps telling you all the while — that they are unreliable. Why deny voter a closer to reality estimate about the current standings, while giving them all sorts of (more unreliable) info like trends, speculations, etc?

Don’t work in Indian conditions
This is a claim made by Abhishek Singhvi, the congress spokesman. My point is, okay, so what? Let’s assume that exit polls were perfect. Would then it be okay to declare the poll results in the interim? Exit polls are just another barometer of moods, say. They will get better over the time, once the specific Indian realities that cause them to fail are accounted for in some way. It may or may not happen. But still, voters have the right to that information, however inaccurate it is. Why? Because, anyways voters rely on various other inaccurate information to make his “reasoned choice” (or emotional choice). For example, say there is party A, B and C. A voter would have voted for C, ideologically but s/he sees that if s/he does that B will benefit, and as it is C has no way of coming to power (this is the trend/assumption s/he is relying on). So s/he votes for A instead. Now that’s the voter’s choice! And if exit-polls assist that choice, they are good for the voter.

Power to Media
In fact, that seems to be the biggest cause of concern for the political parties, that the information channel is not really controllable. With normal reporting, one can afford to be diagonally wrong, but the credibility of the media is not under threat. With polls, there are specific claims made, and the credibility is very much an issue. That is why it is unlikely that media will manipulate the polls, they’re themselves to lose. There are ten other guys publishing the polls…

However, a more important point is, how many people watch the polls? And who are these people? There is a curious paradox here.. The very people who watch the polls — the educated middle and upper-middle class, are the most apathetic of the voters! So pray tell me, how is this class going to change the outcome of an election? And if it’s not, then what is all this brouhaha about?

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