An Indian National Congress (INC) supporter reacts to general election results in New Delhi, India, June 4, 2024. Image Credit: Reuters

Done, not quite dusted, the Indian elections have one big loser — the exit polls. Tuesday’s results will long jeer pollsters and equally, news editors who commissioned them only to bask in their confirmation bias. The predictions were a joke on the Indian voter who had the last laugh.

Narendra Modi and the incumbent BJP entered counting day with euphoria, exit polls across all compliant news channels peddled a thumping third-term victory for their NDA alliance.

The polls projected the BJP singularly breaching the 300-seat mark, and collectively in line to keep its promise of abki baar chaar sau paar, this time more than 400 seats. In the House of 543, it won 240 seats and will now be part of a coalition government ending a decade of single-party rule.

Exit polls predictions of the Congress-led INDIA bloc have also turned on their head. A well-known pollster gave NDA between 385 to 415 seats while he forecasted a maximum of 118 seats for the opposition.

Others bolstered the trend, not a single exit poll predicted the INDIA alliance to be within touching distance of 200. It defied soothsayers, psephologists, naysayers, and a craven mainstream media to cross the number.

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Prime-time news and reality TV

Opposition parties claimed that exit polls were misleading and a ‘psychological trick.’ Aam Aadmi Party leader Sanjay Singh demanded a ban on them saying they were a ‘wrong attempt to influence the people of the country, the administrative system, and the election commission before the poll counting.’ He wasn’t wrong, in a ruptured nation.

Newsrooms exulted in their master’s voice salivating at TRPs and the government’s blessings.

A nation was misled. There was hardly any difference between conspiracy theories and memes or for that matter between prime-time news and reality TV.

News anchors breathlessly promised in glee that the powerful BJP will return to power with an overwhelming majority. Not one vote had been counted and this further build-up of a one-sided narrative was the final nail in a rancorous election.

Psephologist and activist Yogendra Yadav was a rare voice that went against the tide projecting the BJP as the leading party but with significantly reduced power.

He and other veteran journalists who travelled around the country spoke of unemployment, inflation, and local issues that big news studios refused to acknowledge. They had plenty of opportunities, unlike in 2019 when nationalism was a big emotion this time the field was open.

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Sharing the truth

Immediately after the exit polls, the markets mirrored the euphoria of misguiding newsrooms. Dalal Street, India’s version of Wall Street had the best trading day in almost three years.

On Tuesday as one pollster wept on national television for getting it so wrong, markets tanked. But their tears need accountability, it is not as simple as doing badly in an exam. Exit polls have been responsible for the volatility in the Sensex.

Poll predictions have been off in the past as well, but this was not an ordinary election. For one, a fractured democracy was looking to keep afloat, and it was confronted by a flexing media that did everything to build an ending without the middle.

INDIA bloc was confronted not just with the might and machinery of the ruling party but also a media that unofficially boycotted it. Were the exit polls then really a surprise? It was once again left to the people. In Banswara where the PM used inflammatory language, the BJP’s candidate lost.

On the ground, did fear factor stop voters from sharing the truth? Did they mislead the pollsters by speaking in two different voices? As the world map finds more shadows of the right-wing, in the past not all Trump voters in America preferred to disclose their choice, openly. Also, did issues of livelihood especially unemployment matter more than was being projected?

Assembly polls in the states of Bihar and West Bengal to name just a couple have been called wrongly over the years. The biggest learning should have been from the 2004 elections when the Vajpayee-led NDA was certain to win a majority and India was shining, only not for the party.

Results give hope

Exit polls gauge voters as they leave after polling, however, several factors go into making predictions where the error margin despite the scientific methodology is narrow especially when vote shares are tight. The inaccuracies were almost an ocean this time around.

That the NDA was poised to return to power was not in doubt, but a democracy without opposition is weak, constitutionally and otherwise. The exit polls did a number on India’s voters for whom it remains sacrosanct. Has the country turned a corner; the results give hope.

As for exit polls, it is time for media houses to go beyond TRPs and corporate greediness to accept the damage they do. It is not just the pollsters who got it wrong, journalists and editors who invite them into their studios are equally complicit in making a tamasha that has grave consequences. But will Indian media houses introspect, I wouldn’t hold my breath.