History of India’s opinion polls and why their predictions fail most of the time…

A much needed research piece from Praveen Rai of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. 

The piece is on opinion polls around elections and the hype around it. He also points whether these polls are any useful:

Contrary to their foreign couterparts, media opinion polls on elections in India have focused more on predicting the number of seats major political parties are going to win or lose in the elections rather than understanding the key issues facing the electorate. A recent sting operation on polling agencies have also revealed that seat prediction figures are manipulated in favour of their clients. 

Thus election surveys have been reduced to a media gimmick of only predicting the election results that are quite often wrong or off the mark. As a result election surveys are seen as covert instruments used by political parties for making seat predictions and influencing the electorate in India. Therefore, the Election Commission should ban forecasting before the elections but not the opinion polls.

The author starts with a brief history:

The popular media surveys started in the 1980s when media baron Prannoy Roy conducted opinion polls during elections to find out the mood of Indian voters. The proliferation of electronic media in the 1990s made the election surveys and exit polls popular in India, and it started capturing the imagination of the people. Pre-election surveys and exit polls have become a regular feature in the last one and half decades.

At the very beginning, most of the poll results were published only in news magazines like India Today, Outlook andFrontline. Slowly and gradually, the leading newspaper groups also started showing interest in publishing results of election surveys. The demand from the print media further increased the number of opinion polls being conducted in the country. What added to this growing demand of surveys was the advent of various television channels. With a large number of news channels competing against each other, the race for conducting elections surveys and airing them as quickly as possible after election dates are announced has become the norm of the day in India.

While the election polls are of different kinds, it is the pre-poll and the exit poll, which catches the attention of most of the people. The reason is simple ‒ people are eager to know which party or alliance is likely to win the elections, and how many seats they will win. Exit polls became very popular in the year 1996, when Doordarshan, the government owned television channel, commissioned an all India exit poll. The fieldwork and data collection for this poll was done by the team at CSDS, and its findings were reported and discussed in  a five hour programme aired live on Doordarshan. Since then, there has been no election in India when the exit poll results have not been televised  the day polling gets over.

He goes onto show why the methodology for most such polls is heavily biased towards urban and hence the predictions often go awry.

Something similar is the case for economic forecasting too…Way too random and hyped..Wondering how did this industry start? Historical research suggests Irving Fisher was one of the first people to start this forecasting business the way we have it now…

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