The Politics of Exit Polls: Money, Fear and Misdirection


Exit poll results started trickling in shortly after the clock struck 6:30 PM on Sunday, May 19, 2019 and news anchors turned into the most enthusiastic cheerleading squad for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, predicting that he would retain power with an even greater number of seats in the Parliament than last time. The following day the stock markets surged leading some to wonder if there was a connection between the two events. Senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, who is best known for taking on crony capitalists, said the following in his FB post:

Meanwhile, it is important to remember that exit polls have missed the mark on several previous occasions, getting it wrong during the Assembly elections in Bihar and Delhi in 2015. While it is possible that some mistakes may be genuine, one cannot ignore another more sinister possibility… one where a toxic cocktail of money, fear and misdirection, sets the agenda and falsehoods end up being peddled as actual results. Let’s examine each of these aspects:

Flexing money muscle: Stock market being manipulated?
Paranjay Guha Thakurta, isn’t the only one who feels that false exit poll results are being deliberately released to create an artificial buoyancy in the market that can be subsequently exploited. INC’s Saket Gokhale also suspects the same. In an exclusive interview to Sabrang India, Gokhale says, “Close on the heels of the exit polls, the stock markets on Monday saw a remarkable spike with a rise of 400 points in the NIFTY and about 1400 points in the SENSEX. The Sensex recorded its biggest single-day rise in the last decade.” He finds this rather suspicious given the state of the economy.

Gokhale alleges that a BJP-controlled cartel sits at the head of the markets hedging the finances of the party and helping them recoup any money spent. He also claims that trading is often based on “stock tips” (a euphemism for insider information) than financial models.  He feels the surge on Monday is likely to benefit the BJP and might even be used by traders sympathetic to the party to make a fortune short-selling stocks. He thinks this could be a plan B of sorts in case the party ends up sitting in the opposition. “The truth of Indian politics is that parties in the Opposition struggle to get funding and donations. Having spent a whopping amount of money on its campaign, the BJP needs to replenish its Treasury in the event that it sits in the Opposition. The money made off the markets today will help them fight yet another day. In the next 2 days (and especially on the 23rd), expect major volatility in the markets. We might even see the markets going back to their pre-Monday numbers and resetting the gains of today. That’s when the cartel will be short-selling the markets in order to make more money from the downward fluctuation,” he says.

He cites a previous example, “The last time we saw this cartel at work was during the 2017 Gujarat Assembly Elections when the first few hours of counting showed the Congress taking a lead. A major meltdown happened in the markets which stabilized once the BJP started getting a lead around noon.” Gokhale points to the stocks that gained the most on May 20, 2019 – Adani Enterprises, Reliance Power and Reliance Industrial Infrastructure. “The links of these companies and their owners with the BJP and Narendra Modi have been written about extensively in the last several years. They were the biggest gainers today,” he says demanding a thorough investigation by the Securities and Exchange Board of India.

Fear factor and the silent voter

One factor that exit polls often fail to take into account is fear. The voter exiting the polling booth might claim to have voted for the leader whose goons are lurking in the vicinity. These responses are therefore untrue and should be discarded, but pollsters have no way of knowing who is telling the truth. This fear driven false answer therefore gets recorded as a genuine exit vote.

Then there is another kind of silent voter, a person who may not be vocal about his electoral decision because they like their privacy. Pollsters can only get results from people who want to share their voting decisions.

Deliberate misdirection for securing alliances?
Another possibility is that polling agencies and media houses conducting the exit polls may have their own agendas that may be dictated by their political masters or benefactors. Thus they might deliberately broadcast false results to maintain the image of one party as a winner and leader in a bid to manipulate public perception as well as opinions of potential alliance partners. Politics is after all a PR battle and projecting one party as the leader helps in securing the confidence and eventually alliances in case of the possibility of a coalition government.

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