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Elections are not just a test for political parties these days, but also for the media and the pollsters. Now that assembly elections to five states are halfway through, people should also pay attention to how well their favourite media ‘experts’ and pollsters are doing. This would give an indication of how close they are to the pulse of the people. It would also show whether the ‘new’ media, which depends a lot on internet based information, has acquired the necessary reach among the ordinary people, who make all the difference in the elections. This would also encourage those who utilise this new media to influence the polls, particularly those functioning in other countries, including those inimical to India’s interests.

It has been seen that opinion and exit polls have not been as ‘exact’ in the past as one would ordinarily expect. They tend to predict every possible outcome from one extreme to the other, which is why media outlets have begun to hold a ‘poll of polls’ to get closer to the average. Only when there has been a clear wave, have they managed to get it right, though the exact extent of the ‘wave’ is still missed. One reason for this is that a number of the polling agencies are actually trying, through opinion polls, to influence the people, instead of reflecting their opinion. Many lack the expertise to build proper statistical models based on the plethora of factors that influence elections. In the case of the 2017 Uttarakhand Assembly polls, for instance, nobody could get anywhere near the actual fifty-seven seats the BJP eventually won.

Why is this important? Too often, of late, politicians have begun to quote these polls to claim they were denied victory by the EVMs, and question the credibility and impartiality of the Election Commission. This cannot be good in the long run. It should be necessary, therefore, for all such polling agencies to be registered with an independent body that ensures they have the necessary skills, staff and resources to conduct polls. It should be made mandatory that they employ trained psephologists and statisticians who have no overt political affiliations.

Another reason why opinion polls might be off the mark is that those surveyed might not actually go and exercise their franchise. It has often been seen on TV channels, for instance, that middle class youngsters on the street are asked their views on political issues and conclusions drawn from what they say. It may be noted though that this is the section of society that exhibits the least inclination to actually vote. It is when the voting percentages rise to the maximum possible level that democracy will actually become an expression of the people’s will.