There is one exit poll which no Indian election commissioner can ban. It is called word-of-mouth. This word does not come out of the mouth of politicians on the stump, or journalists on the fly. It emerges from those with feet firmly planted on the ground, voters, who have protected their treasured franchise with jealous secrecy till the day of decision, but now that it has been made are happy to discuss it at their familiar community focal points, the teashop, or perhaps over a warm fire on a cold evening that breathes some life into the night.

Novices, amateurs and outsiders [which means 90% of us] wait for a formal declaration of results. Professionals, that thin slice of activists entwined around the greasy electoral pole, know what has happened by sunset on voting day. Sincere party functionaries can get upset and vocal if the news is bad for their side; the grubby money-soakers simply slip away, laughing all the way to their cash holes. Candidates, understandably, are reluctant to accept the truth if the prognostication is negative. They have invested too much emotional capital in the process. It is best to keep your eyes shut for as long as possible when your dream has splintered.

The voters of phase 2 will know in 48 hours how parties and candidates have fared in the areas that polled in phase 1 — through the bus and train routes that are vehicles of word-of-mouth.

If the purpose behind the present ban on exit polls during the election process is to prevent the presumed result in one sub-region from influencing another a week down the line, then it does not work, particularly when polling is spread through a month in a province as large and complex as Uttar Pradesh. Voting begins this time in the north, in the arc below the Himalayas and north of the Ganga, and shifts, in stages, east and centre before completing the circle in the west. The voters of phase 2 will know in 48 hours how parties and candidates have fared in the areas that polled in phase 1 — through the bus and train routes that are vehicles of word-of-mouth.

How much does this influence voting patterns? There is certainly some collateral benefit for any party on the upswing. A sense of victory can be contagious. But equally it can energize those behind to put in an extra effort, while the frontrunners spend their time in premature self-congratulation. The classic instance was in 2004 when the Congress-led UPA crept up from behind in the third and fourth round of the general election to pip a dazed NDA by a short head. UPA capitalised brilliantly on good fortune; NDA is yet to recover. At a micro constituency level, when the middle class of Varanasi realised around noon on voting day in the 2009 elections that Murli Manohar Joshi was trailing behind a recognised mafia don, it woke up and went to the booth.

Dropcap OnThe key to democracy is simple, but often misunderstood. Voters do not vote for parties; they vote for themselves. They select a party which is the closest approximation of their self-interest at that point of the political calendar. Voters have a mind of their own. Democracy gives them the right to change it. The primary instinct is personal, not partisan, which is why elections are such a vibrant and pulsating phenomenon. An election result is a flood that builds up one raindrop at a time.

The voter is driven by context. The UP or Punjab voter today does not really need an impressive judgement from the Supreme Court or a special trial court to conclude that the UPA government in Delhi is drenched in corruption. But he is voting for the next government in Chandigarh or Lucknow, not Delhi. He will take a call on Delhi when that opportunity comes. In January and February 2012 he has been asked to decide the fate of Parkash Singh Badal and Mayawati. Groups like Team Anna get it wrong when they campaign for a cause that is certainly vitally important but secondary, at this time, to the voter’s larger concerns. Surprisingly, fulltime politicians make the same mistake. How Rahul Gandhi does in UP will offer no substantive clue about how he will do when he, inevitably, leads the Congress at the national level. In that sense it does not matter, beyond media gurgling, whether he is triumphant on 6 March or mildly depressed. Wind back to 2004. The BJP swept the states some months before it lost the national elections. Being elected leader of India is quite a different matter from being a provincial champion. I doubt if Dr Manmohan Singh could get elected Chief Minister of Punjab, but he did get the mandate for PM in 2009. Apples and oranges may sit on the same stall, but they are quite different fruit.

Polls are a small part of elections; governments fell or remained when polls were part of the news narrative without qualifications. They are a touch of spice in a huge menu. The Election Commission is doing heroic work protecting the electoral diet from the many poisons we have injected, but it could restore some of the old flavour.


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