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India's Election Results Defeat Pollsters

The lesson of India is a bizarre one for American poll watchers. At a time when elections seem to turn into a mere validation of the opinion polls, there is a sense of cheeky delight in how an electorate can actually hoodwink the pollsters.
 
 
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"Stunning" is the word everyone is using to describe the Indian electoral results. The verdict in India, however, didn't stun Indians. It stunned the pollsters, who had all confidently predicted that the ruling BJP coalition would return to power. The only question was the margin of victory.

Watching the steady drip of Kerry-47, Bush-45 American polls here, I realize how much juice opinion polls suck out of the electoral process, becoming in the end self-fulfilling prophecies. At a time when elections seem to turn into a mere validation of the opinion polls, there is a sense of cheeky delight in how an electorate can actually hoodwink the pollsters.

Perhaps the pollsters with their fancy bar graphs and pie charts never actually asked the people who really voted in the slums of Mumbai or the dusty forgotten villages of India's cow belt. Some analysts now say the "India Shining" ad campaign by the ruling party, which touted India's economic boom, only served to highlight how much of India, in villages and small towns, felt left behind.

Others are pointing to the recent Spanish elections and the gains made by the communist parties in India to predict the grand comeback of the Left. What I see in the electoral victory, rather than sweeping trends and swings, is the quiet victory of old Jamuna.

Jamuna was our domestic help-nanny cum neighborhood gossip and repository of family history. She had presided over my father's wedding, potty-trained my sister and me and watched my sister's first child being born.

Barely literate, she was the object of our pitiless education campaign. While I tried to teach her to say "salt" "sugar" and "thank you" in English, my mother would try to teach her how to vote -- and who to vote for -- come every election.

Jamuna could not really read the names of the parties. She memorized the symbols they stood for. She listened to what my mother had to say, but, in the end, obstinately voted for whomever she felt loyal to. Every election, without fail, she put on her old white sari and trudged to the polling station with my mother and sister where they all stood in line to vote. At home, a strict class hierarchy could not be breached between her and my mother. But at the polling place, they stood in the same line. And in the privacy of the booth, Jamuna voted her mind, not her boss'.

I doubt any of the pollsters had asked Jamuna what she felt. In Shining India Inc., she did not matter. Luckily, the Jamunas of India don't read the polls either, and they still haven't lost faith in the power of the vote.

The lesson of India is a bizarre one for poll watchers here. It confounds Bill Clinton's famous "It's the economy, stupid" slogan, which has President Bush now touting every favorable tic in the economic index. India's economy was booming. There were no terrorist attacks as had happened in Spain, and the prospects of peace with Pakistan were more real than ever before. And Sonia Gandhi, who had led her Congress Party to its worst-ever electoral debacle in 1999, was regarded as an inexperienced, uncharismatic politician whose foreign origins (she is Italian-born) and stilted Hindi cut her off from India's vast electorate.

India's electoral turnaround will now be sliced and diced by all kinds of pundits. Who voted -- was it the youth or the housewives? Did the ruling party's more conservative Hindu voters stay home? Did the poor vote while the rich were watching the stock market? Was it just anti-incumbency vote? Did the electoral debut of Rahul Gandhi, the first in the newest generation of Gandhi children coming of age, galvanize youths?

But the lesson to me is simply this. Voters -- here or in India -- can tell pollsters that it's the economy they care about, or crime or the war in Iraq. But then they can defy every bar chart and just vote the way they feel on the way to the polling station.

"I thought you were going to vote for the party with the lamp symbol," my mother would tell Jamuna.

"I changed my mind," Jamuna replied, and refused to give any reason. Dead now for a decade, old Jamuna must be relishing the "stunning" victory that put the people back into the elections of the world's largest democracy.

Sandip Roy is an editor at Pacific News Service and host of "Upfront," the PNS weekly radio program on KALW-FM, San Francisco.