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Why It’s Important to Look Back at 2004 Opinion and Exit Polls

It becomes evident how none of the surveyors were prepared for how much ill the elections bode for the BJP.

For politicians, the electorate can be a fickle friend. Especially today. Between the bluster at rallies and an inflated sense of self-worth (that has to be projected) on social media, one can hardly be sure of what might happen. In such cases, people look towards poll-pundits. These “wizards” with their number-crunching skills predict who would win how many seats (with a more-than-fair margin of error). But sometimes, these would-be kingmakers come out of the polls with more egg to face than leaders who perceived they weren’t facing anti-incumbency.

The 2004 Lok Sabha polls are a reminder of that. Most opinion polls, surveys and pundits were predicting a virtual walkover for then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA, none could foresee that the ruling coalition, with the Kargil victory under its belt, would walk away with only 180+ seats. None of these surveys even hinted at the possibility that the UPA would emerge victorious with 218 seats, and would go on to govern the country for 10 years.

Here is a look at the pre-2004 elections punditry, opinion & exit polls:

Taking about a series of opinion polls at the time, in his column for The Hindu, Yogendra Yadav had written about the opinion polls at the time:

“The big story that emerges from the latest round of polls is that the NDA juggernaut is now beginning to slow down. If one takes a simple average of all the five latest polls (NDTV-Indian Express, India Today-BhaskarThe WeekOutlook and Star News) the NDA’s tally works out to 271 seats, just below the majority mark in the Lok Sabha. That would bring no comfort to the NDA that was expected to win between 330 and 340 seats in the first India Today forecast in February. Since then, fresh polls have tended to bring NDA tally down, even if marginally.”

Also Read:  Survey Predicts BJP Will Get Only 16 Out of 132 Seats in the South in Lok Sabha Polls

Yadav had elaborated about the possible outcome of the elections:

“It is a difficult business to espy a trend across polls taken by different agencies with different sample sizes and designs.The first possibility is that the NDA secures a clear majority on its own. It looked the most likely outcome a few weeks ago and remains a possible outcome even now. The second possibility, that of the NDA falling short of a majority but still forming the Government by securing support from non-partners, now appears to be more likely than it did a few weeks ago. The third possibility, that of the non-NDA parties coming together to form the Government, was an outside possibility right from the beginning but receded into the background once the Congress-BSP alliance failed to happen. It still remains an outside possibility, outside the range of the most likely, after the latest round of polls. The Congress and its allies are still expected to fall short of the NDA tally by nearly 100 seats.”

NDTV-AC Nielsen exit poll, had predicted that the NDA would win 230-250 seats; the Congress,190-205 seats and other parties, 100-120 seats. Star News C-Voter forecast that the NDA would secure 263-275 seats; the Congress would win 174-186 seats, and others would win 86-98 seats. Aaj Tak ORG-MARG said the NDA would secure 248 seats, the Congress would score 190 and the others would feast on 105.

In a May 11, 2014 Rediff report,  Star News-C voter, Sahara-DRS and  NDTV-Indian Express exit poll predictions were mentioned. The report added that ZeeTaleem exit survey projected a hung House with NDA getting only 249 seats and Congress and allies were pegged at 176 while others were expected to reach 117 seats. Aaj Tak predicted that NDA will win 248 seats,  Star News-C Voter exit poll gave the NDA 263 to 275 seats and the Sahara-DRS exit poll put the NDA between 263-278. It is evident now that none of the surveyors were prepared for how much ill the polls bode for the BJP.

Also Read: 

On May, 13, the ruling-NDA conceded defeat. The Indian National Congress returned to power after a record eight years out of office.

Sonia Gandhi
Sonia Gandhi

Here is what the tally of major political parties looked like in 2004:

Party Seats Won Party Seats Won
Congress 145 TMC 2
BJP 138 DMK 16
CPI(M) 43 Shiv Sena 12
BSP 19 NCP 9
SP 36 JD(S) 3
TDP 5 CPI 10
RJD 24 BJD 11
JD(U) 8 SAD 8


No one was prepared for this. Especially considering how favourable the reviews for Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had been.

Also Read: Post-Pulwama, Analyst Predicts UPA Will Win 296 Seats, NDA 247 in Lok Sabha Polls

BS Chandrasekhar, writing for The Hoot on May 20, 2004, tried to identify the various reasons for the failure of these predictions. He argued that the exit polls were weak on the selection of a representative sample, developing a good questionnaire and properly conducting the fieldwork. Chandrashekhar reasoned that all the exit-polls had a “consistent bias” towards the NDA — while adding that he wasn’t suggesting that either the channels or the research agencies were biased. As per his research, one reason for that was that market research agencies in India seldom reached the far off places and the below-the-poverty-line section of the population. He also added, “The questions asked to the respondents should elicit answers, which are reliable or consistent and are valid or relevant to the context. In exit polls, only a few questions are asked but some of the poll discussions gave examples of questions, which prima facie fail the reliability test.”No one was prepared for this. Especially considering how favourable the reviews for Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had been.

Why are the 2004 exit poll results important today? The science of psephology surely must have evolved to avoid such a catastrophic misread. But have the biases changed? In the last five years of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rule, one thing has been consistently evident: the “outside -of-reach” population is unhappy. The farmers are angry. The workers are angry.

The white-collared folk may want to proclaim an eternity’s worth of fealty to Narendra Modi. But do the they  represent the whole demographic? No.

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