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History, hits and misses, controversies: All you need to know about exit polls

What are exit polls, what laws govern them, what are the hits and misses. Here are all your questions answered:

lok-sabha-elections Updated: May 19, 2019 16:55 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Exit polls are conducted by researchers asking voters how they have voted just after they have left the polling station after casting their ballot.
Exit polls are conducted by researchers asking voters how they have voted just after they have left the polling station after casting their ballot.(PTI/ Representative Image)

India’s staggered seven-phase Lok Sabha elections that started on April 11 concludes with the last round of voting on May 19. As soon as the voting closes, all eyes will be on exit polls, which have often proved unreliable in India, as indicators to which party forms the government at the Centre ahead of May 23 when the votes will be counted.

So, what are exit polls, what laws govern them, what are the hits and misses. Here are all your questions answered:

Here is what you need to know about exit polls:

What are exit polls?

Exit polls are conducted by researchers asking voters how they have voted just after they have left the polling station after casting their ballot. Such polls are aimed at predicting the result of an election based on the information collected from voters on election day. They are conducted by several organisations in India.

Read: How accurate are the exit polls

How is an opinion poll different from exit poll?

An opinion poll is a voter behaviour survey conducted in order to find out the opinion of the people, including those who may or may not vote, before voting takes place. An exit poll is done right after people have voted on an election day.

When did exit polls start in India?

In India, exit polls were almost indigenously developed by the pioneering Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in the 1960s.

Read: How other countries deal with exit polls

The first serious media poll surveys started surfacing in the 1980s, with psephologist Prannoy Roy teaming up with David Butler. Their studies culminated in the iconic book The Compendium of Indian Elections by Prannoy Roy, David Butler and Ashok Lahiri. Satellite television also lent exit polls blockbuster prominence, since the state-run Doordarshan’s commissioning of a countrywide exit poll in 1996 to CSDS.

Why are they not allowed to be telecast before polling?

Section 126A of the Representation of the People’s Act, 1951, bans exit polls from the beginning of the polls until half an hour after the final phase of voting has been held.

The section states that “no person shall conduct any exit poll and publish or publicise by means of the print or electronic media... the result of any exit poll during such period... In case of a general election, the period may commence from the beginning of the hours fixed for the poll on the first day of poll and continue till half an hour after closing of the poll in all the states and union territories.”

Anyone who does not follow the provisions of this section is punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with fine or with both under this section.

Also read: Finessing forecasts of Indian elections

Why are exit polls criticised?

Critics and political parties say the agencies that conduct the exit polls could be biased in terms of the choice, words, timing of the questions, the methodology they use, and kind of sample they draw.

The sample group’s demographic behaviour, its economic status and various other factors used in tabulating the survey are also questioned.

Political parties also allege that exit polls are funded by their rivals and may not reflect the sentiment or views of the people accurately.

Click here: Exit Polls 2019 Live Updates

When did EC first issue guidelines on exit polls?

The Election Commission issued guidelines under Article 324 of the Constitution prohibiting newspapers and television news channels from publishing results of opinion and exit polls between 5pm on February 14 and 5pm on March 7, 1998. The first phase in the year’s general elections was scheduled to be held on February 16, 1998, and the last on March 7.

Read: EC guidelines on exit polls

The poll body also directed newspapers and TV channels that while carrying exit polls and opinion poll results, they should also disclose the sample size of the electorate, the details of their methodology, the margin of error and the background of the polling agency which had conducted the surveys.

How were EC guidelines taken by media?

Media houses in India strongly protested the guidelines issued by the poll watchdog, saying they violated their fundamental right of free speech and expression. The order was challenged in the Supreme Court and the High Courts in Delhi and Rajasthan. The top court while hearing the matter urgently did not stay the panel’s guidelines resulting in the ban of both opinion and exit polls for nearly a month during the Lok Sabha election in 1998 — the only time when it happened.

Did EC attempt to regulate exit polls again?

The commission tried to invoke its 1998 guidelines again ahead of the Lok Sabha election in 1999. The poll body moved court after some sections of the media refused to follow it’s orders. The matter was referred to a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, which expressed concern over the constitutional validity of the commission’s guidelines. The EC withdrew its plans after bench observed that the poll body cannot enforce such guidelines in the absence of statutory sanction.

The EC approached the Union law ministry along with the endorsement of six national and 18 regional parties in 2004 as it sought an amendment to the Representation of the People Act for a ban on both exit and opinion polls during a period specified by it. Restrictions were imposed only on exit polls through the introduction of Section 126(A) in the act after the recommendation was accepted in part in February 2010.

In November 2013, the EC consulted with political parties for a restriction on opinion polls as well. All political parties, except the BJP, endorsed the suggestion to ban opinion polls from the date of notification of elections until the end of polling. The suggestion was sent to the law ministry, but no action has been taken on it so far.

Have they been correct in predicting the results?

Results of elections in India can be extremely hard to predict and there have been instances when predictions have gone awry in making the tricky conversion from projected vote share to the number of seat share. In 2004, pollsters had wrongly predicted a victory of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

When did they hit and miss?

At least four Lok Sabha elections show they have suffered wide inaccuracies, barring those in the 1998 and 2014 general elections. Two back-to-back flawed predictions — the 2004 and 2009 exit polls — had posed a question mark on their reliability.

In the 1999 elections, forced by an early collapse of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, most polls overrated the NDA’s win. They gave the NDA a thumping 315-plus seats, although it actually scraped through with 296.

The 2004 exit polls, however, were a glaring failure. All pollsters did not see the Congress clawing back. While some forecast a swing in favour of the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party, others saw only a minor dip in its tally. But all exit polls predicted a win for the BJP.

In 2009, the exit polls weren’t quite spot on. Although most predictions put the UPA ahead, they entirely missed the key trend: big swings in its favour. The UPA bagged 40 more seats without necessarily adding anything to its vote share.

What about exit polls in 2014?

In the last Lok Sabha election the BJP-led NDA had won more than 330 seats, the biggest mandate in three decades.

In 2014, the exit polls had put the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi on course to be India’s prime minister, with his BJP-led NDA predicted to get past the 272-mark — the simple majority needed in the 543-member Lok Sabha to form the government. The Congress was shown to be looking at its worst tally of below 100.

Most exit polls showed the BJP’s gain in seats rode on a rising vote share, overtaking that of the Congress for the first time. For instance, the CNN-IBN poll put the BJP’s vote share at 34%, up 20 percentage points, against Congress’ 25.5%.

The ABP-AC Nielsen poll gave NDA 281, but TimesNow predicted 249 for the centre-right coalition, while pollster Chanakya foresaw a decisive 340 seats. Another poll, by Cicero for the India Today group, showed the NDA gathering between 261 and 283 seats.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), whose chief Arvind Kejriwal electrified the contest by challenging Modi in Varanasi, was shown getting up to seven seats, according to CNNIBN-CSDS Lokniti prediction.

The ABP-Nielsen survey gave AAP, which made a sensational poll debut in Delhi last year, three seats — one in Maharashtra and two in the Capital.

The BJP’s previous best showing was in elections in 1998 and 1999 when it won 182 seats and ran the country until a shock defeat at the hands of the Congress in 2004.


First Published: May 17, 2019 11:44 IST