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Election ‘results’ out, day after day
- Rash of predictions as channels battle to grab eyeballs ahead of polls

New Delhi, Jan. 24: For pollsters like Yashwant Deshmukh, the countdown to capture the popular mood that may determine the outcome of this year’s general election will be far shorter than what Rahul Gandhi or Narendra Modi will get to battle for votes.

Deshmukh, the founder of a polling agency called C-Voter, is currently conducting public opinion polls related to the upcoming elections for two channels (Times Now and India Today group).

Over the past week, several polling agencies — tying up with media houses or television channels — have released result after result, predicting election outcomes in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and across the nation, even as their window of opportunity shrinks.

For, under the law, curbs on election-linked opinion polls will fall into place after India’s Election Commission announces the poll dates.

“We’re seeing a game of bonanza driven by three groups of players — media houses, polling organisations, and viewers,” said Neera Chandhoke, a professor of political science at the University of Delhi.

Polling agencies and media houses are scrambling to grab eyeballs through forecasts, the results of opinion polls that seek to predict who is likely to win or lose elections.

They often don’t get things right — but for their clients, pollsters suggest, speed is almost as important as accuracy in a game that is fundamentally about capturing the nation’s attention, one evening at a time.

“Often, two media organisations come up to the same agency seeking polls predicting the outcome of the same election,” Deshmukh said.

“When that happens, you just have to tell them that the company that came first gets the first poll, and the other firm has to wait.”

But the perils of participating in the scramble at times trap even pollsters. When Deshmukh predicted that the popularity of Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party had doubled in just two months, the pollster’s own credibility appeared to nosedive.

Two television channels in October 2013 broadcast results of opinion polls on the Delhi elections conducted by C-Voter the same day.

But while the results on one (Times Now) showed the AAP securing 18 seats, the other (Headlines Today) suggested Kejriwal’s party would win just nine.

Deshmukh wasn’t at fault. The two polls had been conducted two months apart — one in August, the second in October.

“But they didn’t bother to make that clear to their viewers,” said Deshmukh, whose agency has been surveying public opinion polls for about a decade.

“The credibility of both polls took a beating, and I was accused of scamming viewers for no fault of mine — that’s the way this business works.”

The proliferation of TV channels may have increased the market for poll agencies to tap, but a series of mergers and acquisitions brought about by the very forces of liberalisation that unleashed the television revolution in India has consolidated the market behind four key players.

AC Nielsen, the global market research firm that acquired Indian poll agency ORG Marg in 2002, Deshmukh’s C-Voter, GfK-Mode — a result of the 2006 merger between the German GfK and the Indian Mode — and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) now dominate the Indian poll prediction industry.

Officials of AC Nielsen told The Telegraph they, as company policy, are uncomfortable discussing questions related to the industry’s evolution.

“Polls help us understand what factors might influence people’s choices and how they change over time,” said Suhas Palshikar, professor of political science at the University of Pune, who is himself associated with the CSDS polls.