The pendulum, as is the case in most state assembly elections, swings between the two principal opponents with one or the other party taking turns to rule the state. As soon as the tenure of one party would come to an end, it was almost a given that the rival would win the next election. In recent years though, the situation has become interesting with the emergence of a third force as was the case in Punjab in 2017. This was the election when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) entered the fray with a bang.
Back then, political circles in Punjab were absolutely clueless about which way the wind was blowing - just as is the case now with the Karnataka elections, counting for is scheduled for May 15. For Punjab, the exit polls did nothing to help matters. To the contrary, these polls further muddied the scenario. Some polls predicted that the Congress would win and many others placed theirs bets on the AAP. The buzz created by the AAP and its unconventional ‘never-seen-before’ election campaign misled many experienced journalists to write that the rookie party had a good chance of winning. The only unanimity was on the Akali-BJP combine being booted out of power.
Compare that to the events in Karnataka where this crystal ball gazing has become more obscure after the first few exit polls were released on the evening of May 12. In fact, it prompted many to joke on Twitter that the exit polls themselves were hung! This was because the first two exit polls done by major news channels - India Today-My Axis and Times Now-VMR - put the Congress in the lead, whereas two others - News X-CNX and ABP-C Voter - put the BJP ahead.
As at least half a dozen other exit polls came out soon after, the BJP was said to be leading the poll of polls. However, the one thing many pollsters seemed to be agreed on was that Karnataka would throw up a hung house scenario where neither party will get a simple majority of 113 in the 224-member house, requiring the help of the third player, the Janata Dal (Secular).
In Punjab, if anyone came close to predicting the result, it was the India Today–My Axis poll which almost got it right when it predicted that the Congress was likely to win 62-71 seats followed by the AAP. No one really gave the outgoing Akali-BJP alliance much of a chance, but it did much better than what pollsters and journalists predicted. The AAP floundered with just 20 seats and no one was kingmaker because the Congress won a handsome 77 seats in the 117-member house. The Times Now-VMR exit poll and the C Voter India poll, both said that the AAP would win close to 60 seats, way off from the 20 it eventually won.
Although pollsters see their work as serious business, in hindsight it is apparent that most polls should be taken with a pinch of salt because their reliability is questionable. The entertainment value of different polls, do, of course, serve to reduce the anxiety and nail-biting tension in the days leading up to counting of votes, but what really matters is getting an adequate sample size and giving equal representation to all areas. Methodology and budget constraints are big factors and possibly a reason why agencies share very little about how they conduct their exit polls.
Today, as political observers eagerly await the result in Karnataka to see if any party gets a clear majority or whether a 'kingmaker' will indeed be necessary, they could well take a leaf from the Punjab experience which went through similar throes of uncertainty in February 2017.