The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- It is a myth that the herd instinct operates only among the vulnerable

Given the three-hour time difference, the counters do not even close in San Francisco or Los Angeles when, not just the outcome of exit polls, but actual results, start filtering out along the eastern seaboard. Opinion and exit polls are at present run-of-the-mill affairs in the United States of America, and nobody particularly cares whether early voting trends available from Connecticut or Maine affect the mindset of voters yet to exercise their franchise in California or Oregon. Some umbrage is expressed now and then about the allegedly adverse impact of exit poll results from the eastern states on later voters in the west, but the complaints have not been of any formidable nature.

It is currently the second coming in India of the colonial hangover, psephology naturally has emerged as a craze. In the thick of this election season, opinion and exit polls are choking the air. Some groups have sought a ban on the publication of the results of such polls since this, they argue, could colour decision-making on the part of voters elsewhere who are yet to make up their mind, or who might be persuaded to change the mind they had earlier made up. While the judiciary is yet to offer its formal verdict in the matter, the nationís attorney-general has been quite categorical: Article 19 of our Constitution guarantees freedom of thought and expression and therefore, in his view, opinion and exit polls, howsoever unsavoury to the taste of some citizens, cannot be legally proscribed; the authorities may at most set a few regulatory guidelines for ensuring the objectivity of such polls.

The attorney-general has made a point whose legitimacy is beyond dispute. We have given unto ourselves a Constitution which enshrines the noblest of democratic sentiments, and we should be jealously protective of our democracy. At the same time, a number of other realities deserve to be taken into account. In this democracy we have given unto ourselves, the basic of democratic dictums, equal opportunity to all, is flouted with impunity. About one-half of the citizenry remains illiterate even after the lapse of more than five decades since the Constitution became effective.

A majority of the population continues to suffer from other disabilities which grievously affect their life and living. In the circumstances, many amongst them are in no position to form views on crucial issues on the basis of their own intelligence. That is to say, they are incapable of exercising rational judgment. In most matters, they are influenced by the judgment of others, such as those who wield social and economic power over them. Equally noteworthy is their instinctive propensity to stay together in all seasons. Visit any small rail station in the deep hinterland of rural Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or Jharkhand. A flock of rustic wage-workers sits huddled together on the platform, waiting for the train which will take them in search of livelihood to Haryana or Punjab. The train lugubriously steams in and comes to a halt for a brief couple of minutes. A yodel belonging to the waiting crowd rushes to the compartment which catches his eye, because it is right in front of him. The compartment is already overcrowded, but our rustic son is still determined to make his way inside it. Since he had provided the lead, the rest of the waiting group are equally determined to thrust their way into the same compartment. The next two compartments are practically empty. These may be practically empty, but the herd instinct has taken over, the lot feels safer to be together and enter the overcrowded compartment, whose incumbent occupants are equally determined not to yield an inch of space to the intruders. Chaos descends, and do not be surprised if a few heads get broken.

Herd instinct is a relevant datum in the context of the pattern of voting by the Indian electorate. Since the current Lok Sabha elections are staggered over four or five dates, the outcome of the exit polls indicating how voters in regions going to the polls on an earlier date have voted may indeed influence the nature of polling in regions voting on later dates. If one is poor and feels vulnerable, one likes to lean on others. And if one is told that neighbours in some parts of the country have voted in a particular manner, the weak and vulnerable in another part could tend to follow that lead. There is, besides, the aspect of supposed security in numbers; nervous innocent voters could well choose to vote unitedly. As pundits would put it, a poor, economically immature country is characterized by a people with immature minds, minds that depend on others to reach decisions, including decisions on how to exercise their franchise.

A democratic system is admittedly imperfect where people constituting the democracy depend on others to reach their political judgments. Considered from this angle, exit polls are as uncomfortable a phenomenon as the so-called vote banks are. The Constitution does not, however, allow us to clamp down on either vote banks or exit polls. To that extent, precisely because we are a democracy, this democracy of ours is imperfect.

Look at the cheerier side of it though. However sophisticated the sampling design might be, conclusions derived from a very limited sample covering an electorate of close to 70 crore and, at the same time, marked by intense heterogenities, is bound to be subject to a wide margin of error. Because public relations firms are these days doubling up as sample survey specialists, a fair number of opinion and exit polls competing for attention are available to the nation. As long as these are not carbon copies of each other, the impact of one such poll may be at least partly countered by results emerging from another poll.

Good, bad or indifferent, we have to take these sample polls as almost a species of natural occurrence, and hope that the unwholesomeness of their impact will be of limited significance. Others may even gather consolation from the fact that, with one-half of the electorate comprehensively illiterate, they will remain outside the orbit of influence of these polls.

A separate danger nonetheless lurks on the horizon. Consider a situation where by the evening of May 13, when all results are out, it is found that the Bharatiya Janata Party has won, say, 165 seats and the Congress 100 seats, or that, despite the exit and opinion polls, the final results have Congress obtaining 165 seats and the BJP ending up with 100. The president, to be impeccably correct, must invite the leader of the BJP to form the government in the first hypothetical instance, but the leader of the Congress were the second hypothesis to emerge as reality. Do not be surprised if the herd instinct exhibits itself here in full glory, or, if you will, inglory. Once it gets known that the president has invited the BJP/the Congress to form the government, the herd instinct will begin functioning at a furious pace. In the first eventuality, allies, till now milling round the Congress, will start to scramble on the BJP bandwagon; in the reverse instance, where the Congress leader is invited to prove his/her majority in the Lok Sabha, even many hitherto devout constituents of the National Democratic Alliance will experience a sudden change of heart; they will rush toward the direction of 10, Janpath proclaiming themselves to be fervent believers in secularism.

Psephologists from European or American shores may feel superior and write patronizing tracts on themes such as the Role of the Herd Instinct in the Determination of Electoral Outcome in Underdeveloped Countries. Their sense of superiority is however altogether misplaced. The sophisticates in western Europe and the US too are, more often then not, victims of the herd instinct. They however call it by a more pompous name, it is the Isolation Paradox: nobody on his/her own is prepared to jump in the lake, but he/she will take the plunge provided he/she has company. Bull surges and bear dips in the stock exchanges are explicable in terms of the Isolation Paradox. Civilized people buy or sell shares together; the rustics in the dark continents vote for, or against, together.

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