Journalists struggle to get political opinion polls right

01 December 2013

ON THE MORNING OF 27 JANUARY 2004—the day after India’s 55th Republic Day—Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee drove to Rashtrapati Bhavan to meet President Abdul Kalam. He was carrying a letter from his cabinet, which recommended that the Lok Sabha be dissolved so that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government could face elections eight months before the expiry of its term. The decision was bolstered by the confidence gained from its stellar performance in the state elections held the previous month; the Bharatiya Janata Party had defeated the Congress in three crucial states: Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh.

Four days later, India Today published an opinion poll predicting that the NDA would win a whopping 330 seats. No party or alliance had achieved such a victory since the Congress won 415 seats in 1984. A reassured Vajpayee called on the president again, on 5 February, and told him that all consitutional formalities—including passing a finance bill that would allow the new government to pay for essential goods and services while it drafted a new budget—were complete. Kalam dissolved the 13th Lok Sabha the next day, and on 1 March the Election Commission announced that voting would begin in April, six months earlier than it was due.

Following the announcement, at least five more polls by major news networks and pollsters projected that the NDA would win somewhere in the region of 270 Lok Sabha berths. The Congress and its pre-election allies were predicted to get anything between 150 and 170. With no outliers, everyone in the media was confident that they were more or less right. In mid April, Vir Sanghvi, then an editorial director for HT Media, which publishes the Hindustan Times, wrote in that paper, “I don’t know of a single person who thinks that the Congress will get more than 120 seats and most people say it will get even less. Plus, I suspect that Vajpayee as Prime Minister is probably unbeatable.”

Krishn Kaushik  was formerly a staff writer at The Caravan.

Keywords: elections media election results political parties CNN IBN journalism CSDS Prannoy Roy
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