Do exit polls make us any wiser about electoral results? Or are they just number-fluff aired or printed during election time to make us more aware that there’s an election on? If one goes by the slew of exit polls conducted after the first phase of Lok Sabha elections, the NDA has got anywhere between 69 and 73 seats, and the Congress alliance between 41 and 53 — depending on your exit poll of choice. That’s quite a wide ‘anywhere’ for any sort of scientific prediction! Things get much more confusing when one takes a look at the various exit polls conducted on an individual-state basis. While there has been a variance in projected numbers in states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat, there’s a complete either-or situation when it comes to the exit polls in Maharashtra and Bihar.
According to the NDTV exit poll, the BJP and its allies have managed to get four seats out of the 11 in Bihar that went to polls this week. The Congress, according to the same group of psephologists, has got seven. The moment one takes a look at the Aaj Tak exit poll, one finds the BJP managing nine seats, with the Congress having to do with two. The exit polls undertaken by the two agencies come up with a similar tale in Maharashtra. So why this variance and, in some cases, total difference in exit poll results? Even without such major confusion in the data/inference in various exit polls, there’s, of course, the known fact that past exit polls have gone embarrassingly wrong. So is this exit poll business nothing more ‘scientific’ than astrology or reading tea leaves in a cup?
A proper exit poll consists of the voter being asked to mark the symbol of the party he just voted for as well as his choice in the previous election. The past and present data are mapped on to the last election’s actual results and a trend emerges. By this logic, every exit poll should be showing the same trends. Except, as it has become apparent once again this week, it always doesn’t. While such psephology seems closer to the old theological debates about how many angels can stand on the head of a pin, rather than a ‘scientific’ predictive study, in the end, we gain some insight into the electoral cauldron through exit polls. Every voting citizen has the right to these bits of information during every election — however conflicting and chaotic they may be. As for the truth behind the piles of figures and analyses, there is always the actual result.