“We have reports from the first two phases of polls in Bihar, and have a sense of who is best positioned to defeat the BJP. We will decide who to vote for on the basis of these reports,” an influential Muslim leader in Patna said last week. Almost to the cue, a BJP candidate in Araria told his supporters, “Look, there are reports of Muslims having voted as a bloc in the first two phases. It’s time for Hindus to unite.”
The Election Commission may have issued strictures against opinion polls in order to ensure that voter preferences don’t get affected during the polls. But attempts are underway to use the multi-phased polls to shape voter preferences on the ground.
SY Quraishi, former chief election commissioner, explains that multi-phased polls ensure availability of paramilitary forces and violence-free elections. But, he admits, “There is a downside. Whisper campaigns and disinformation can influence voting behaviour.”
While the entire election process – nomination, withdrawal, campaigning – for later phases begins late as well, voters in these seats do have an advantage because of “prolonged exposure and information”, says Quraishi.
Shaibal Gupta, a Patna-based social scientist, is a firm critic of phased polls, even calling it undemocratic. “In the first phase, people may have voted out of innocence. But towards the end, voting is no longer as innocent as it gets corrupted by rumours. There is an asymmetry in information.”
Veteran pollster Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, however, says there is no evidence to suggest that phased elections affect voter behaviour – neither is there any empirical data to suggest they don’t.
“But there is clear evidence that phased polls have helped make it free and fair. In the ’80s and ’90s, 100 people dying in a Lok Sabha election was usual. Now, you rarely hear of a single death,” says Kumar. He also sees another advantage -- a high turnout in a particular state or urban centre may act as a catalyst for other voters.
There is another side, admits Kumar. “The party seen as leading the race has some advantage, and through word of mouth and informal networks, the swing voters may tilt towards such a force.” It is perhaps to project this dominance that the BJP times its key poll events strategically to capture media space on polling days itself. Its manifesto was released on April 7, while Narendra Modi filed his nomination on Thursday, another critical day when 117 seats went to the polls.
Each party also changes the tone and tenor of the campaign over this period. Kumar interprets the sharpening of the BJP's Hindutva rhetoric in recent weeks to the shift in the focus of the campaign. “In Delhi, this would not work as much. But the focus now is on UP and Bihar with substantial Muslim populations, where the party is locked in multi-cornered contests.”
Other observers believe this is not yet a 'critical issue', and having clean polls should take priority over possible 'distortions'. But all agree the aim should be to keep the number of phases to the bare minimum, and shorten the duration of the whole process.