Much ado about nothing

Not very long ago, at the first election that came around after I had moved into my new home, my maid gave me an enduring lesson in opinion polls.

“The bow and arrow people (the Shiv Sena) has commissioned a survey, she informed me, “the milk man and the newspaper-wallah will be asking you some questions. Do not be taken in by their idle chatter. Just go along with everything they say and root for the bow and arrow.”

Are you actually bullying me into voting for the Shiv Sena?” I asked, quite incredulous at her audacity.

“No, I am just saving you the trouble of fighting back their bullying ways, if they realise you are not a voter. They will trouble you no end until the elections, hoping to change your mind. Just go along with them. Press whichever button you want at the polling booth. Who comes to peep over your shoulder then for them to catch on to what you have done?”

When I asked a few questions, it turned out that such opinion polls were routine at every election and the slum dwellers were past masters at pointing the noses of the pollsters in the wrong direction. Their vote was their sacred right and no one had the privilege to know who they would be voting for, my maid told me.

It only confirmed what I had learnt through years of elections coverage – the opinions of 8000 or 20000 people at any given time in any constituency, let alone the entire country, does not matter in a population of a billion or more – of which half might be voters and a quarter actually cast their franchise. But even presuming it did matter, my maid was now clearly telling me that they often do not tell the pollsters the truth and they are quite aware of who represents what interests – they then play along the people as they like.

I guess much also depends on how the questions are framed – if you give the people the choice between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi for Prime Minister, a majority might well root for Modi, But if that very majority is asked if they think Modi might make a good PM or not, the resounding answer might NO.

So I wonder what the fuss over opinion polls is all about – no wonder a majority of them go wrong though practically all of them then claim that they got closest to the actual results.

Another reason why I have less and less faith in opinion polls is also because they are conducted rather unscientifically and, worse, rather mechanically. During a recent foray into a poll bound state where I was visiting a friend, I was accosted by one such pollster who gave me a choice between Rahul and Modi for PM.

“What bearing do either have on who will lead this state,” I asked, flummoxing the young man in no uncertain terms.

“Give me a choice for chief minister between the main parties, I said/ He had no idea who these leaders might be.

“Ok, so give me a third option between Rahul and Modi,” I insisted.

Not allowed, he said. You have to choose one of the two,

“What if I want neither? I asked.

Not an option, he said.

“Well, I want Shashi Tharoor,” I insisted. He had no idea whether for PM or for CM – he hadn’t even heard of Tharoor at all. And, of course, he had no idea that Tharoor was not a state leader, either.

So who decides who will be CM or PM?

Clearly not the opinion polls. But, yes, they are a great pastime for both the pollsters and people like my maid who lead them on in the wrong direction and do as they please at the actual elections.

And I must devilishly admit I had great fun leading that poor young pollster on – asking for Shashi Tharoor as a choice for the chief minister of Rajasthan! May be my opinion might count and Tharoor might actually become one!

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