ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Psephological Fallacies of Public Opinion Polling

Opinion polls in India capture electoral snapshots in time that divulge information on political participation, ideological orientation of voters and belief in core democratic values. The survey data provides for crucial social science insights, validation of theoretical research and academic knowledge production. Although the media’s obsession with political forecasting has shifted to electoral prophecy, psephology continues to provide the best telescopic view of elections based on the feedback of citizens. The ascertainment of subaltern opinion by surveys not only broadens the contours of understanding electoral democracy, but also provides an empirical alternative to the elitist viewpoint of competitive politics in India.


The terms survey and opinion poll in India would have remained a professional jargon of market research industry, had it not been used for predicting election outcomes. The green shoots of opinion polls to study Indian national elections emerged in the 1950s, but it caught the imagination of the people and became clichd in the closing decade of the 20th century. The popularity of election surveys stems from the political socialisation and crystal ball gazing curiosity of Indians to foresee the outcomes of hustings before the pronouncement of formal results. The electoral inquisitiveness of the stakeholders created a large canvas of opportunity for opinion-polling industry and scope for scientific forecasting of Indian election competitions. The proliferation of electronic media and the rapid monetisation in the 1990s provided momentum to polling agencies to venture into opinion polling on national electoral politics and state election contests. The opinion polls captured panoramic snapshots and divulged the socio-demographic characteristics of Indian voters and their nuanced voting preferences, as well as reasonably accurate vote estimates of political parties for predicting elections. The fixation for survey-based election prediction turned a host of political scientists and television anchors in India into psephologists. The media election soothsaying became so definitive and encapsulating that it overshadowed the announcements of election results by the Election Commission of India (ECI) to a mere formality of medal distribution ceremony. The success of mediatised election prophecy was short-lived, however, as the erroneous prediction of the national election results in 2004 led to widespread public criticisms and calls for a blanket ban of pre-poll, exit poll and post-poll election surveys during elections in India.1

The media-opinion polling industry, facing an existential threat, resorted to course correction, but the election polling ecosystem turned from bad to worse between 2005 and 2013, as political parties were caught manipulating in-house election survey data for mobilisation of the electorate. This marked a tectonic shift in purpose, as initially political outfits commissioned election surveys to gauge the mood of voters, collect grassroots feedback for selection of winnable candidates and formulation of election strategy and manifesto. Between 2014 and 2019, the correct election forecast of state elections by opinion polls led to rebuilding the confidence of people in quantitative analysis of election and balloting. The polling industry, with increased accuracy in election forecasting, faced a crucial litmus test in general elections 2014, as the incumbent Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was up against a resurgent and combative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The election prediction of most market research agencies correctly fathomed the direction of the 2014 mandate, but none of them (except one poll) could forecast a BJP majority of seats for the first time in the lower house of Parliament. The Lok Sabha elections in 2019 once again posed a major challenge for polling agencies, as most Indian and foreign media could not find the prevalence of the Modi wave and predicted with aplomb that it will be a waveless national husting. The exit poll findings were diametrically opposite of the media narrative of the fading saffron wave, as it revealed that the BJP-led right wing alliance would do an impressive electoral rebound with a bigger mandate. The political forecast by pollsters proved correct, but barring two polling agencies, none could prophesise that the BJP would win more than 300 out of the 543 Lok Sabha seats. The prediction of the peoples mandate by election surveys was in the right direction, but most of them once again failed in correct assessment of the magnitude of the BJPs political triumph.

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Published On : 20th Jan, 2024

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