Punjab, polls and predictions

A large section of the media cannot wipe egg on its face

The Indian electorate are too diverse and heterogeneous to be gauged accurately by any sample survey

A good weather man is the one who makes accurate predictions. An even better one is that who can explain away what went wrong. The same holds true of the know-all psephologists and journalists who make predictions about election results. Almost unanimously, they had handed over the reins of power to Captain Amarinder Singh in Punjab and now that they have been proved dead wrong, all of them are trying novel ways of explaining away their dismal failure.

What they bandied about can at best be called an error of judgement, but is actually far worse. It would seem that everyone was on a wish fulfilment trip. Just because they thought in their own wisdom that the Akalis were definitely on their way out, they juggled the data in such a way that it appeared to be a scientifically foregone conclusion. Otherwise, how could the margin of error be so large? If at all these experts are willing to learn a lesson, it is that they must keep their personal prejudices completely out of the picture if they are to make reasonably plausible guesstimates. The voters will not oblige them blindly. 

Over the years, they have had only a handful of hits and a bagful of embarrassing misses. Even otherwise, it must be conceded that the Indian electorate are too diverse and heterogeneous to be gauged accurately by any sample survey. The hard fact is that in most of the cases, the sample surveys are confined to a few hundred, or at best a few thousand people, who are approached with a questionnaire and whose answers are then utilised to draw the larger picture. Gross distortions crop up during this magnification. Even if the size of the survey is reasonably large – which in majority of the cases it is not – the conclusions can be way off the mark. After all, the voters are not uniform like the peas in the pod. There are too many imponderables which just cannot be taken into account.

Not only that, many voters are wary of revealing their minds to strangers. So, at times they give totally wrong answers just to please the surveyors. Quite a large number of those approached think that official agencies are snooping on them and they will have to suffer at their hands later just because they voted for X or Y party. Others just want to have a good time at the cost of the surveyors and give irreverent answers. Even when such undependable fringe is factored out, the margin of error is too big for comfort.

What must also not be lost sight of is the fact that all various models of assessing the voters’ moods have been designed by people who are essentially city-bred, well-educated, logical and informed. That, however, is not true of the majority of the voters. They have their own way of reading the wind and making up their minds, which these city-bread surveyors are just not able to fathom. The voters cast their ballots on the basis of many local whims and fancies which just do not register on the radars of these fly-by-night-experts.

Too much stress is laid on “historical facts”. Just because Punjab had voted out the party in power during the previous elections many a time, it was considered a gospel truth that history will repeat itself. “Reasoning minds” just could not latch on to possibility of the voters doing a parting favour to Parkash Singh Badal, the grand old man who was contesting arguably the last election of his life and had only recently lost his wife to cancer.Ironically, newspapers and magazines also became a victim of their own exuberance. Since the ediotrs too came from the same milieu as the psephologists, they too reached almost equally wrong conclusions. At a time when some IAS officers aligned themselves openly with the “Chief Minister in waiting”, so did some of the editors who convinced themselves that the advent of the ‘maharaja’ was inevitable. They had every right to place their bets on one party or the other in their personal capacity, but should not they have made sure that they do not let their bias show in the printed word? The surprise election results were not only a personal loss to them but also eroded the credibility of their publications.That brings into question the very need of putting a blanket ban on voter surveys by publications as soon as the model code of conduct comes into operation. The intention is laudable, considering that there is a possibility of the newspapers and magazines influencing the minds of the voters. But it has been proved time and again that their influence is grossly over-rated. Even when the media tries its very best to promote a leader or a party, the voters spring a rude surprise.

The worst that the publications can do is peddling paid news. Fortunately, even that is a self-limiting disease. The public has the knack of sniffing out such tricks from miles away. Once the man in the street knows that a particular publication is plugging the line of a particular party, it becomes a suspect for ever and whatever it says is taken with an extra large pinch of salt. Even when a newspaper is not deliberately misleading the readers, its influence is not half as big as it is projected. The voters have given enough proof that they may be poor and only semi-literate, but they do have their own mind. They may read avidly what is carried by newspapers in their columns, but they are no rubber stamps.

Ultimately, they take their own decisions which are most of the time in sharp variance with what they are spoon fed. The biggest harm that the partisan editors have done is to themselves. Their duplicity stands exposed and it will be hard to regain credibility. They must realise that it is perfectly okay to rub shoulders with the movers and shakers, but it is dangerous to become their tools or a part of this band themselves. Perhaps it is time to go back to the old school of journalism where the goal of the editors was to present both sides of the coin without any distortion. That is also a lesson for the leaders who spent huge sums on buying the services of some journalists.


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Copyright © 2013 Amar Chandel