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Exit Polls : An Exercise in Futility

No sooner did the elections end than the news channels went on an overdrive publishing their exit poll results. All of them were united in forecasting a conclusive pro-NDA verdict and most believed that a Modi wave was sweeping through the length and breadth of the country. But such prognostication is all for naught – the people of India have surprised us in the past. 2004 and 2009 are striking instances of how exit polls can be fallacious.
All the exit polls give the NDA a sweeping majority in Parliament
Keep in mind the fact that the exit polls mostly have an error margin of up to 3%, a decisive swing in multi-cornered races like the sort of which we have witnessed in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Further, the broad indications coming out of these polls could also be proved to be utterly erroneous as was the case in the last two general elections.

An election exit poll is a poll of voters taken immediately after they have exited the polling stations. The sample size of the average exit poll in India is large in absolute terms but when juxtaposed with the sheer size of the Indian electorate, it turns out to be insufficient. Many exit polls are not even conducted in all the constituencies of a particular state but projections are made for all seats. 

To illustrate this point, let’s look into this particular exit poll which has a sample size of 1800 voters for Maharashtra. Since projections have been made for all of the state’s 48 Lok Sabha seats, we shall assume that it was conducted in all the constituencies. Do some math and you shall find a sample size of less than 40 voters in each constituency! 

Further, while all of the exit polls are unanimous in predicting a BJP landslide, the state-level scenarios painted by them are in conflict in a varied range of vital states. This can spawn some sweeping surprises on counting day. For example, Times Now expects 14 seats for the Congress in the desert state of Rajasthan while the CNN-IBN survey projects a drubbing for the same party. Similarly, in Madhya Pradesh,Times Now reckons a 16-11 breakup favoring the lotus, other surveys have indicated washouts for the Grand Old Party.

All exit polls have thrashed the ruling Janata Dal (United) in Bihar. Times Now gives it as many as 10 seats while calculating Lalu’s prospects to be a big zero, contradicting everyone else. The Times Now claims that a BJP surge is sweeping Assam, handing it 8 out of 14 seats. CNN IBN gives the INC a 40% vote share with the saffron party lagging behind at 22%. In Telangana, polls claim that the Congress might have been thrashed but civic poll results have gone the party's way.

If state-level scenarios play out differently, we could see a stronger UPA and a tamed NDA. Conversely, it could also propel the saffron coalition to 300+seats. Let us also not forget that such polls also severely underestimate regional and sub-regional parties. Thus, even if exit polls are all projecting thunderous majorities for the NDA, tune on to the television on 16th May. The verdict might differ.

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