My former editor Vinod Mehta was a great believer in opinion polls till they began to go wrong, in fact horribly wrong, with their projections based on skewed sample surveys. He now believes only those given to foolish bravado stick their necks out with predictions pegged on opinion polls on the outcome of elections.
Frankly, opinion polls conducted in India have never yielded accurate results. On occasion, the overall outcome sort of tallied with the assessment of opinion pollsters, and we were impressed. In a multi-party system with infinite variables (in which other half-decent democracy would the price of onions emerge as a key factor during elections?) moulding voter opinion, it could not be otherwise.
Election officials check the Electronic Voting Machines ahead of the polls next week. When it comes to the question of who will emerge the winner, the decision ultimately rests with Maharashtra’s voters. Pic/Shadab Khan
Yet, at the same time, it would be silly to write off opinion polls as mere speculation. Nor does the argument that small samples, comprising less than a minute fraction of voters, cannot provide a reliable clue to overall trends hold good. If anything, opinion polls do indicate the mood of the voter, and if analysed properly, broad projections can be made with a degree of certitude.
With Maharashtra going to the polls next week to elect a new Assembly and a government, it is only natural that the question uppermost in everybody’s mind (excluding that class of our citizenry which shows amazing indifference to the electoral process, but screams the loudest about rights and entitlements while finding fault with politicians) should be: Who will emerge the winner? And, related to that, who gets to govern one of the most important states of India?
The second question may seem superfluous because the winner gets to form the government; after all, that’s what elections are about, isn’t it? Not quite. If the results are not decisive, in the sense that no party gets a clear majority of seats, then though the winner is the party with the largest number of seats, it may not get to form the government.
The most recent example of the winner coming second is the Delhi Assembly election. The BJP got the highest number of seats, but it could not form the government. There are numerous absurdities that have resulted from a flawed electoral system that often fails to provide a clear verdict. For instance, Madhu Koda had neither party nor group in the Assembly, yet he became Chief Minister of Jharkhand. What happened subsequently does not merit repetition.
We will revert to this point about numbers in a short while. Before that, let’s take a quick look at the projections made by three opinion polls this week about the potential winner in Maharashtra. The CVoter-NewsX poll has given the BJP 105 seats. The India Today-Cicero poll has predicted anything between 125 and 144 for the BJP. The Week-Hansa Research poll has projected a clear victory for the BJP and its minor allies, with 154 seats for them.
If the BJP were to cross the halfway mark on its own, then there would be little or no scope for debate and discussion. Maharashtra would have a BJP government. More important, it would mark an ignominious defeat for the Congress, which has, until now, considered Maharashtra its last fortress.
No less significant would be the end of the era of debilitating coalition politics in the state. Last, though not the least, it would be a strong message for regional parties: they must not presume that the age of national parties is long over and regional parties are here to stay forever.
There is, however, the other possibility that cannot be ruled out entirely. Elections do tend to throw up surprise results, and we need not look farther than 2004 for evidence. The decimation of the Congress in the summer of 2014 will serve to further underscore this point.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, veteran of more elections than can be counted, once told me that an election is like a game of teen patti, or the Indian version of poker. “Till someone says ‘show’, you don’t know who’s got what cards, who gets to sweep the stakes,” he had explained.
So, what if the BJP were to notch up the highest number of seats, yet fall short of the halfway mark? Would others then gang up to stop it from forming the government? Would the deserving winner come second? Or would the recently separated partners, the BJP and the Shiv Sena, team up, thus extending the era of coalition politics in the state? The choice, and the decision, ultimately is that of Maharashtra’s voters. Let them vote wisely.
The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta