Are opinion polls rigged in India, or are they done by those who have no expertise? It is a very uncomfortable question, but the time has come to ask it. It is a tough question for a person like me who spent two decades dissecting the political climate, especially during elections. Nothing can be more engrossing than discussing which political party has an edge over others and has a brighter chance of forming the government, who is the most popular leader likely to be Chief Minister or Prime Minister, what are the most important issues that can shape the result. There was a time when opinion polls were keenly awaited, the political class observed them keenly, and very few agencies were used to conduct polls. Some did go wrong, like in the mid-80s, when opinion polls predicted the defeat of Devi Lal who in fact returned victorious. Except the occasional criticism, though, nobody questioned their veracity. The same cannot be said today.
The Devi Lal episode in 1988
could be compared to the victory of American president Harry Truman in 1948. Many opinion polls at that time had pronounced his "landslide" defeat, and when he finally won, he took the Chicago Tribune
paper and waved it at his audience; this is still considered an iconic picture for polls going wrong. Prestigious polling agencies like Gallup and Roper had predicted a win for Thomas Dewey. Even as recently as 2016, all the newspapers and opinion polls were dead sure that Donald Trump would lose and Hillary Clinton would win. But the results shocked every political pundit and Donald Trump declared his triumph over "fake news". But the credibility of the pollsters was not questioned and many admitted their mistakes.
In India, the situation has altered substantially since 2013, i.e. the run up to the 2014 parliamentary elections. Till then, three to four agencies carried out opinion polls, but in the second half of 2013, several agencies mushroomed and grabbed survey contracts from big media houses. Many of them did not have verified credentials. It was at this time that senior investigative journalist Aniruddha Bahal did a sting operation on polling agencies. He revealed the starling fact that some pollsters were up for sale and opinion polls could be manipulated. That news should have been taken seriously, but in the euphoria of the Modi wave, it was consigned to the dustbin.
The mushrooming of these agencies and the rise of the Modi phenomenon can't be a sheer coincidence. In my opinion, both feed off each other. Interestingly, AAP, who is at the receiving end of Modi's ire, and other opposition parties, have suffered every time. In 2013, all but one agency was willing to give AAP double-digit numbers for the Delhi election. AAP finally got 28 and emerged as the second-biggest party after the BJP. Similarly, in 2015, when AAP won 54% of the popular votes and 67 seats, yet again, all but one survey had given the BJP an edge or talked about a photo finish between AAP and the BJP. Similarly, in the Bihar assembly elections, the numbers were surprisingly stacked against the JD(U)-RJD-Congress combine. The BJP's numbers were again looked at with empathy, except for the CNN-IBN Axis poll which predicted the JD(U) combine as a clear winner, whereas the Zee News survey unbelievably gave 140 to 173 seats to the NDA. In the end, the JD(U) alliance grabbed 178 seats which was a landslide. The NDA was reduced to 58 seats. I refused to believe that pollsters got their numbers wrong at a time when there was a wave against the NDA in Bihar and also in Delhi.
In the recently-concluded Punjab elections, one witnessed another round of bizarre survey results, and though I concede that it's best to wait till votes are counted on March 11, it has been clearly visible that the Akali-BJP alliance is losing badly. And if there is any semblance of fight it is between AAP and the Congress. On the day of polling (February 4), Prannoy Roy and his team concluded
that AAP has 55% to 60% chances of winning Punjab while the Congress has only 30% to 35%, and the Akali Dal had no chance at all. But surprisingly, except for C-Voter, no agency could muster the courage to say that AAP is winning with a big margin. In the last days of polling, India Today-Axis had declared the Congress as the winner and AAP as the second-largest party. ABP-CSDS had gone a step ahead and claimed that the Akali-BJP could in fact form the government, and AAP would end up with 12 to 18 seats (of 117).
Anybody who went to Punjab in 2016 does not need to be told that AAP is unstoppable and that there is a massive anti-incumbency wave against the Akali-BJP alliance. The Congress did try and put up a spirited fight, but it was too late. I have no reason not to believe that opinion polls were used to influence voters' mind and turn them away from AAP, and it looks like that conspiracy was hatched at the very top and a lot of money changed hands. I have confirmed information that one leading news channel refused to air an opinion poll as AAP was winning the survey which was later published by Huffington Post
. In fact, a leading magazine had published another bizarre survey showing that after demonetization, PM Modi's popularity has sky-rocketed, and if elections were to be held now, the NDA could touch 360 seats in the Lok Sabha. I saw how their senior anchor fumbled while saying this on air.
If these polls are manipulated to influence voting behaviour for the benefit of a political party, alliance or leader, then it is an attempt to manipulate the great Indian democracy. This is politics of subversion. In a democracy, an attempt is always made to manufacture public opinion by other means, but if public opinion is manipulated by force, or by lure of money, power or position, then it is forgery - and forgery is a crime by law and should not go unpunished. The matter should be investigated. The real culprits should be brought to book. I say this because I believe that democracy can't be on sale and fraudsters can't roam free.(Ashutosh joined the Aam Aadmi Party in January 2014.)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.