The August 27th, 2012 issue of India Today covers its usual Mood of the Nation Poll. Giving it a “circulation-enhancing” title of “UPA loses India”, it probably hopes its continuing poll forecasts will improve its revenues and bottomlines. In general, the India Today group is known to be critical of the UPA at most times – with its Hindi news channel Aaj Tak generally joining hands with the magazine in anti-UPAism. So when I read the magazine’s forecast, I thought an analysis of its past predictions was worth it. And boy, were the findings just what I thought they would be!
One thing that comes out is that the magazine excels at getting its election poll forecast exactly wrong. It’s record of the 1999, 2004 and 2009 forecasts is precisely that – exactly wrong!
But before that, its worth looking at what the magazine is forecasting at this moment. The UPA is expected to get between 171-181 seats; the NDA 195-205 and “others” between 163-173. According to the magazine, this is the 2nd time (the 1st one being in its forecast of Jan 2012) that the NDA is scoring more seats than the UPA. If the magazine’s forecasts had more credibility, it would have been a matter of concern for the UPA. Fortunately for it, the magazine’s forecasts count for nothing. If anything, it should heave a sigh of relief, given the exactly wrong nature of its forecasts!
Now let’s look at the magazine’s forecasts ahead of the 1999, 2004 and 2009 elections and see what patterns emerge.
The magazine did a poll in Dec 1998 and predicted that the BJP+ would get 135 seats while the Congress+ would get a huge 305. In fact, for the first time in a long while, Sonia pipped Vajpayee in the “Who will make the best PM” question by 31%:27%. I’ve got this from their online archives; unfortunately, I could not locate any poll done between Dec 1998 and Sept 2009 when the polls were actually held. But considering that the forecast was done just 9 months before the elections, one would have expected it to capture the mood fairly accurately. The sample size was a respectable 18960 eligible voters spread across 16 states and 79 Lok Sabha constituencies. But aaah…..the painful truth is that the magazine got it all wrong. Why? I believe it was the Kargil conflict in May-July 1999 which swung the mood decisively towards the BJP. With its aggressive nationalism, the BJP was able to smartly capitalize on the Kargil conflict, coffingate notwithstanding. The learning from this is that even 9 months is too long a period in India when it comes to forecasts…..and magazines should be overcautious if anything about them. India Today prefers on the other hand – commercial pressures or political agenda? – to title the cover the way they did it!
Let’s take the 2004 elections held in May. The magazine had a poll forecast in its April issue in which it predicted a huge BJP+ win with the alliance getting as many as 282 seats compared to the Congress+ alliance’s 165. In fact, Vajpayee was riding a high with a personal rating of 51% - his second highest after the 59% before the 1999 poll. The magazine to its credit – perhaps learning from the debacle of the 1998 poll – increased the sample size to 50000 eligible voters. If anything the results should have been even more accurate. And this time around, there was no “Kargil” explanation possible. Within a month, the magazine had to eat crow when the UPA romped home with 218 seats (enough to make it the largest formation) with the NDA relegated to just 181. So the poll was wrong by 101 seats as far as the NDA was concerned – an error of 36%! Seriously – how can one get the results so so wrong? And if they do get it wrong so badly, should they continue to be in the business of publishing forecasts at all?
Again in April 2009, the magazine’s forecast indicated that the UPA would be just marginally ahead of the NDA by 200 seats to 177. Again, the forecast was held immediately ahead of the elections; and nothing should have affected its results like Kargil may have in 1999. The Indo-US nuclear deal had been passed by Parliament in July 2008 and all the positive vibes it generated for the Congress and the UPA were well known. The entire middle class had swung towards Dr. Manmohan Singh’s side and “Singh is King” had become the most famous song in the aftermath of this vote. And yet, the magazine’s forecast failed to capture the mood of the nation. The reality was there for everyone to see. The UPA got 262 seats, with the Congress itself performing at its best level in recent times. The NDA was down to 158….
After three successful failures, shouldn’t the magazine have stopped doing the poll? Or at the very minimum, shouldn’t it have changed the name of the poll from “Mood of the Nation” to “Mood of the magazine” or some such thing?! But no, in the politicized media environment, every magazine has a job to do and every forecast has its wee bit to achieve. If nothing else, the poll will keep the BJP going for a bit!
So when I look at this time’s findings, I think of it as perhaps just an editor’s attempts at increasing circulation. The poll is anyways a half-hearted attempt with the sample size down to just 15000 odd. The research is done by The Nielsen Company – a research outfit recently sued by NDTV in a New York court for getting its TV viewership ratings totally wrong. Besides, there are still nearly 21 months left for the polls, and if its impossible to predict what will happen one month later, it is surely impossible to predict 21 months in advance.
If the poll results were more accurate, the Congress should worry about some things though. When the BJP outsmarts the Congress on questions like “Which party will best solve the problems of the country” and more importantly “Which party is most concerned about the problems of the poor”, it has reasons to worry. Also, corruption at 28% is the 2nd largest factor to have “adversely impacted” the UPA with price rise being the first at 53% (Corruption used to be the 3rd largest factor in the past with a score of only 9-12%. Unemployment used to be the 2nd biggest factor with a score of 34-41% but is down to just 12% now). Given the Congress’s core constituency of the poor, the inflation could hurt and given its hope of pulling in the urban middle classes, the corruption could hurt too. The lesson for the Congress is that it has to do something – something that changes the mood. Whatever the truth, neither 2G nor Coalgate is helping it right now. It needs bold economic reforms, Mamata Banerjee notwithstanding. Maybe it needs to bite the bullet and announce FDI in multi-brand retail. Maybe it should pass an amended Lokpal Bill. Or maybe it should give Rahul Gandhi a bigger role to pull in the youth. Whatever it does, the Congress should keep at least one eye on this flawed research.
The real truth is that in any case, poll forecasting is a very imperfect science. Add to this the political compulsions that drive the India Today group. Add again the recently sullied reputation of The Nielsen Company. Put together, one doesn’t know what to make of this “circulation-busting” magazine cover!