Politicians pretend that they do not like exit polls, even when they are shown to be winning. It is not surprising. The politicians know that the real test is the actual outcome. Conjectures, however close and legitimate, are not satisfying. And the politicians who are on the losing side do not want to accept defeat until it really hits them.
The May 19 exit polls conducted by a dozen and more television news channels and professional pollsters mostly indicated Narendra Modi’s BJP-led NDA was the winner. The BJP leaders are maintaining a smug silence, and saying their tally would be better than projected by the most favourable poll. Those who are arrayed against Mr Narendra Modi’s right-wing politics — perhaps Mr Modi doesn’t care what his politics is called as long as he is winning, and he loves to win every time — are not only sceptical about the exit poll projections, but are positively negative about the findings. The hostility is understandable, especially if Mr Modi is to emerge the winner on Many 23, as predicted by the exit polls.
It would be necessary and interesting to look at the phenomenon of exit polls on their own terms. The exit polls are not part of any conspiracy because if the actual poll outcome were to prove them wrong, the purpose of conspiracy to hide the truth would be of no avail. The exit polls are to be seen as a legitimate media exercise. To get it right would be a bonus but getting it wrong does not de-legitimise them. An exit poll, like opinion polls and surveys, is a statistical exercise. And over the years, the methodology has been refined, and the sample size enlarged and attempts made to account for diversity. And if inaccuracies remain, it is not to be imputed to bad faith. It is also not right to argue that exit polls don’t serve any purpose when the actual results are but days away, as in the India case. Speculation is part of the media exercise, and it cannot, and should not, be given up.
The May 19 exit polls do indicate the general feeling among politicians and among people: Mr Modi’s likely return as Prime Minister for a second term. Even Congress president Rahul Gandhi didn’t rule out the BJP-NDA’s victory. He argued Mr Modi wouldn’t be Prime Minister even if the BJP-NDA won. So the exit polls showing a NDA win, by a small margin in some and big in others, is not going against current opinion.
Many of the conservative projections also show that the BJP is not scoring a spectacular victory and that it is getting back to office on the back of support that comes from its allies. All the exit polls show the BJP losing ground in Uttar Pradesh, in comparison with its 2014 tally of 73 out of 80. They show the BJP holding its ground in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka, all strong bastions of the saffron party over the years. So the exit polls haven’t really shown a pronounced bias in favour of the BJP.
The BJP-NDA win indicated by the different exit polls can’t be used to infer that it is the victory of Mr Modi’s charismatic leadership. It seems more likely the case that people have voted for what appeared to be a stable BJP-NDA. This is not a ratification of what the Modi government did in its first term, nor is it a stamp of approval for Mr Modi’s stylised personal politics. This is a vote for political stability and continuity. Very clearly, the Opposition parties gave no sign of being a united and stable formation. The talk of post-poll alliances has given rise to fears that things may not work smoothly.
The intriguing question then is whether the fact that the Opposition had no prime ministerial candidate made its case weak in the eyes of the people, and that Mr Modi as the unanimous PM candidate for a second term turned out to be an advantage for the BJP-NDA? One of the conspicuous facts of the 2019 election is that it has not been an election about Mr Modi, though the BJP and the Opposition almost made it look like one. There was enough evidence in the 2014 election that many voted for the BJP as they were impressed by Mr Modi. In 2019, most people voted for the BJP but remained critical of Mr Modi’s failures on the job front and his disastrous decision about the November 2016 demonetisation. Mr Modi’s claim to have proved his credentials as a strong PM by ordering the Balakot airstrike on the Jaish-e-Mohammed training camp after the JeM suicide attack in Pulwama did not turn out to be the key issue.
There were other things on the minds of the people. So if Mr Modi has been preferred, as indicated by the exit polls, it shows the people have come to the realistic assessment that Mr Modi is not the best, but he is the better one.
The truth or otherwise of the exit polls will be borne out by the results on May 23. As we wait for D-Day, the exit polls provide enough cud to chew about the seven-phase five-week general election process. The key issues did not remain constant through the protracted election schedule. People were not carried away by the Balakot rhetoric and they did not buy into the charges of corruption surrounding the Rafale fighter deal. They weighed many more issues and it seems that the verdict reflects their deliberative decision.
The exit polls also point to the fact that the Opposition has not been turfed out as the BJP and Mr Modi’s fanatical fans on the social media would have wanted. And the BJP has not really been given a carte blanche to do whatever they would want to.
The author is a Delhi-based commentator and analyst...