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INDRAJIT HAZRA
POX INDI KA

Indrajit Hazra is a writer and journalist. His latest book is 'Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata' (Aleph)

How I learned to stop worrying and love exit polls

t's been two whole days since we came to know. Not only are we no longer in the itchy, scabby dark, but since Friday we haven't even needed the usual bunch of theologians to tell us that this is what will happen on May 16. May 16, stripped of all the data it contained, is some 36 hours behind us. What we are now left to enjoy is a variation of a post-coital smoke.

The life span of India 2014 under the thrall of various exit polls was three-and-a-half days, if you count the evening of Monday, 12 May after the final bout of polling stopped, and the early afternoon of Friday, 16 May, when the composition of the 16th Lok Sabha was known. (Just to give a random reference, the average life span of the mayfly, a cricket-like winged insect, is four days; this period — the whole of it, essentially — utilised for the purpose of procreating.)

More than the seemingly decades-long period over which votes were cast across various nooks and crannies of the country, these three-and-a-half days of Monday evening, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were marked by a certain kind of excitement that only pseudo-certainty can provide. Confirmation is very reassuring. But not knowing much is a vast playground for those gifted with imagination. There is, however, no ground quite as fertile as the one in which the semblance of knowledge is hitched to the pony of ignorance. Which is exactly what the time-space between exit poll results and actual poll results amounts to.

With the confirmation of election results, our biggest national spectator sport, there is a collective sigh. Not of relief, but of a kind that signals the end of excitement in our otherwise overwhelmingly boring civic life. Swirling theories, predictions, cause-and-effect models, analyses in the field of pop mass psychology some fifty shades less seductive than the kind trotted out in How to Win Friends and Influence People, random numbers from 200 to 280, and banshee qawwalis, suddenly flopped to the ground on Friday as if gravity was back. All those were replaced by the far less exciting business of post-mortem analyses.

nd yet, short, sweet and life-affirming as the time under the thrall of exit polls was, those exit poll results don't serve any purpose apart from filling up television air time and newspaper-magazine print space. Which is no mean thing, I suppose, throwing up as a by-product some interesting facets of election-time politics, not to mention the whirrings of the brains and personalities of the country's most visible political commentators.

This is what happens in an exit poll: a voter coming out of — exiting — a polling booth is asked, by a person who has been trained in the art and science of asking such questions, which party and/or candidate he voted for. The idea is that fresh out of casting one's vote, a voter is bound to commit (unlike in a pre-poll survey where one can be still hemming and hawing about one's choice).

On the part of the participant of an exit poll, he has the option of telling the truth or lying. The latter happens not out of some Dadaist leanings but from possible worries about not voting "correctly" — which means either with "the herd" for those bent on voting for the "winning side" — or out of consternation, since intimidation is a factor for many voters who may have voted for the 'wrong side. Many exit poll surveyors, we are told, are trained to spot such lies.

But even with the answers truthful, what did those number-munchers do with the data? They did the maths and did the maths again and threw condiments of political science in the form of blocs and swings and sample sizes and vote-shares-to-seats algorithms into the pot. But even if everything fitted to the tee and an exit poll got it pat, so what? Three days later we got to know the results anyway. In those three intervening days, armed with the knowledge of what will be the final outcome, what do exit pollsters aim to achieve? Sell that data to various channels (that the print blokes usually just pick up as fodder for their next day's edition) that the channels run for three days.

Big money is exchanged in the sa le-purchase of data, an industry thrives on a different diet for some 80 hours, and we get to play a more sophisticated parlour game for three days than the dodgier version we played before the exit poll board game was brought to the table. With the results being out since Friday, there's an emptiness during lunch and dinner chit-chats across the nation. Post-poll alliance predictions will fill a tiny amount of this gap. If for nothing else but the entertainment and for providing everyone the opportunity to behave like "political animals" for a few days, I request the Election Commission to consider making the duration between the last polling date and the announcement of results at least a month. Oh, for the joys of bull-s****ing as one rides bareback the great bull of exit poll results.

 
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