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8 ISSUES AND INSIGHTS > MUMBAI | THURSDAY 23 MAY 2019 > CHINESE WHISPERS B y the time you start reading this column, the actual final results of the Lok Sabha elections may not yet be fully out. Exit polls are loud and clear (perhaps more loud than clear) in terms of which way people have chosen. All exit poll outcomes (barring two) have returned a sweeping runaway victory for the NDA and a rout for the UPA. The exit poll results have led to extensive airing of firm views on the real deal with India’s politics. Even a seasoned poll pundit like Yogendra Yadav has said the Congress party must die for a change in the political situa- tion. Despite being a politician himself, he is usually dispassionate enough to keep his aspirations and hope out of his assessment of the reality. However, are exit polls adequate for such firm con- clusions to be drawn? Response to questions put to a sam- ple of voters, forms the basis of drawing inferences and statistical conclusions as to the outcome of elections. While this exercise may feed the insatiable curiosity of the human mind, even with the best standards of integrity in the conduct of exit polls, astrology can remain a close competitor. There is many a parallel in the real business world, and in particular, in business regulation, where similar extreme conclusions get drawn and policy choices are made, based on con- jecture and surmise akin to exit polls. While exit polls results may at worst lead to some shooting of blood pressure in television studios, in the real world, expensive choices get made despite similar lacunae. Just two facets are worth noticing. First, our ballot is a “secret ballot” for a reason. The law guarantees the secrecy of the vote cast so that the citi- zen casting her vote does so without any fear of reprisal. A citizen who is then asked to confess who she voted for, can only be expected to volunteer and waive the right to secrecy. Of course, a diehard loyalist would proud- ly declare her choice. Indeed, many could answer truthfully, only because they are asked — computer hackers will tell you that the easiest way to get some- one’s password is to simply ask for it. But those strong-minded or fearful about their secrecy being violated are bound to recoil. Often, speculative con- sumer choices are sought to be dis- cerned by competition law regulators, say, when they have to consider if they should approve a merger of owners of two competing brands. They are prone to making the same mistakes as placing much in store by exit polls. Second, the mere peppering of sta- tistical tools that can give a semblance of science would not result in the out- come being more than conjecture or surmise. There could of course emerge realities in election outcomes that match the exit poll outcomes — but these would be more in the realm of being fortuitousness than in the realm of a scientific cause-effect relation- ship being established. Factors other than truthfulness too matter — for example, how one selects a sample, what size of sample is selected, how

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