Bihar elections: Why TV channels declared that Nitish Kumar had lost - The Daily Reckoning

Bihar elections: Why TV channels declared that Nitish Kumar had lost

Nov 9, 2015

- By Vivek Kaul

Vivek Kaul
In Friday's edition of The Daily Reckoning I had mentioned that on Monday I will be discussing the recently launched sovereign gold bonds. Nevertheless, there is something else that I wanted to share today, in the aftermath of the Bihar election results.

Given this, the column dealing with the sovereign gold bonds will now appear tomorrow (November 10). Today I want to discuss the Bihar election results. Or to put it more specifically, the analysis that happened on TV and the social media after the counting started and the first trends (and not results) started to come in.

The counting started at 8AM and within a period of 30 minutes the first trends stared to come in. Over the next hour and a half, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was way ahead of the Nitish Kumar led Grand Alliance (comprising of Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal(United), Lalu Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal(RJD) and the Congress Party).

Experts on a whole host of TV channels and social media started offering reasons for this trend. Some experts and TV anchors more or less declared a BJP victory. One senior journalist surmised on an English news channel that Nitish Kumar's arrogance during the second term had cost him this election. He also said that Nitish had misread the youth.

On a Hindi channel an expert said that the "annihilation of caste had started in Bihar,"as Dr Ambedkar and Dr Lohiya had predicted. A senior Muslim BJP politician belonging to Bihar also said the same thing: "humne jatiya ganit ko toda hai (we have broken the caste arithmetic)."

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Within the Grand Alliance, initially Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) or JD(U), was leading in many more seats, in comparison to Lalu's RJD. An expert on a Hindi news channel explained this in a very interesting way, which sounded quite convincing at that point of time.

He said all of Lalu's voters (i.e. primarily the Muslims and the Yadavs) had voted for Nitish (in constituencies where a JD(U) candidate had been put up by the Grand Alliance), but the vice versa has not happened (i.e the Kurmis and the Extremely Backward Classes, who are supposed to the supporters of Nitish, hadn't voted for the RJD in constituencies where the RJD candidate had been put up).

An Indian American who is known to be a Modi bhakt (though in the recent past he has been very unhappy with the economic policies of the Modi government) tweeted saying: "Please don't feel bad, JDU+RJD. At least you won the exit polls."

After 10 AM the trend started to change and the Grand Alliance started to move ahead and ultimately overtook the NDA by a huge margin. The Hindi news channels caught on to this very quickly.

The English channels took some time. And that's how it stayed till the end. The NDA was washed out. The Grand Alliance got 178 seats and the NDA ended up with just 58 seats.

The RJD emerged as the largest party with 80 seats. The JD(U) came in second at 71 seats. And the BJP was third at 53 seats.

So that is the background to the issue I want to write about today.

Analysing on TV and the social media forces people to come up with instant analysis. There is no scope for nuance or words like possibly and maybe. The experts can't wait either.

The instant analysis can be shaky given that many times it's based on very small sample sizes. This leads to analysts and experts on TV and the social media, becoming victims of the law of small numbers. And this is precisely what happened in the first two hours after the counting of votes started yesterday.

As Leonard Mlodinow writes in The Drunkard's Walk-How Randomness Rules Our Lives: "The misconception-or the mistaken intuition-that a small sample accurately reflects underlying probabilities is so widespread that [Daniel] Kahneman and [Amos] Tversky gave it a name: the law of small numbers. The law of small number is not really a law. It is a sarcastic name describing the misguided attempt to apply the law of large numbers when the numbers aren't large."

And what is the law of large numbers? As Mlowdinow writes, the law of law large numbers essentially states that "a large enough sample will almost certainly reflect the underlying makeup of the population being sampled."

How does this apply in the context of the Bihar elections? When the first trends started to come in, only a few votes had been counted. Hence, this sample of votes was a small portion of the total votes that had been polled. And it showed that the NDA was well ahead. Nevertheless, it did not reflect the underlying reality.

As Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking, Fast and Slow: "Large samples are more precise than small samples. Small samples yield extreme results more often than large samples do."

The extreme result yielded in this case was that the NDA was ahead in many constituencies. This led analysts and TV anchors to declare an NDA win. But the votes that had been counted initially (the small sample) were not a correct representation of how the public had actually voted (the overall population).

A few hours after the counting started, when a large number of votes had been counted (a large sample), the Nitish led Grand Alliance emerged clearly ahead. And all the analysts on TV and the social media predicting an NDA win, ended up with eggs on their faces.

In any election analysis, the experts need to wait till a decent number of votes have been counted, so that these votes are a good representation the way the overall voting has happened. But in the days of instant analysis on TV and the social media, waiting is simply not possible.

To conclude, as Kahneman puts it: "We pay more attention to the content of messages than to information about their reliability, and as a result end up with a view of the world around us that is simpler and more coherent than the data justify. Jumping to conclusions is a safer sport in the world of our imagination than our reality."

In fact, the NDTV India anchor Ravish Kumar summarised the situation the best when he said: "pal pal badalti khabron par, pal pal badalta vishleshan. Hum log chalak log hain (As the news changes minute by minute, so does our analysis. We are smart people)."

Vivek Kaul is the Editor of the Diary and The Vivek Kaul Letter. Vivek is a writer who has worked at senior positions with the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) and The Economic Times, in the past. He is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. The latest book in the trilogy Easy Money: The Greatest Ponzi Scheme Ever and How It Is Set to Destroy the Global Financial System was published in March 2015. The books were bestsellers on Amazon. His writing has also appeared in The Times of India, The Hindu, The Hindu Business Line, Business World, Business Today, India Today, Business Standard, Forbes India, Deccan Chronicle, The Asian Age, Mutual Fund Insight, Wealth Insight, Swarajya, Bangalore Mirror among others.

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9 Responses to "Bihar elections: Why TV channels declared that Nitish Kumar had lost"


Nov 14, 2015

In my opinion, exit polls are a joke not just for sample size alone. The underlying premise is that voters will honestly tell you who they voted for. That honesty is dependent on them and a host of other factors. Folks might not want to stick their necks out if they foresee a backlash on their exit poll choices.

So it is possible that folks didn't clearly indicate who they voted for. And this drawback can never be eliminated from exit polls, irrespective of sample size.

I think it is a far bigger drawback than the one caused by a small sample size.



Nov 9, 2015

More disconcerting is the explanations provided. First, seemingly rational explanation for BJP victory. Then, when that extrapolation was proven wrong, and just the opposite was the actual position, then another set of equally "rational" reasons why the victory for the Grand Alliance was rather obvious!!

In an Alice in Wonderland style, Causes don't determine results, Results determine causes!!!




Nov 9, 2015

In your previous post you advised us to switch off the TV on Monday. But you did not do that! And eventually you witnessed a drama unfolding on various channels.
Although I agreed to reasoning in your previous post, I din't follow your advise.
Keep up the good work. I like your views.



Nov 9, 2015

this is how our psephologists react to the news;one thing you forgot to mention TOI channel Arnold was shouting all the time as usual from where the other channels got the NDA leading news;there was also a mention that Rajya sabha TV was showing as if Grand alliance leading while Loksabha TV was showing as if NDA was leading;All these are usual Indian Tamashas ;



Nov 9, 2015

I happened to listen to the commentaries on the TV channels; each boasting that it was the best, the first, and the most accurate.
If BJP was in the lead, they praised it to the skies and pushed the GA to the depths of an abyss; When the trend reversed the praise and condemnation reversed.I WOULD CALL IT THE ARROGANCE OF THE ANCHORS - THEY WANT INSTANT ANALYSIS - INSTANT APOLOGIES - INSTANT REPLIES - DATA BE DAMNED. The colouring of the news by the media is best described by the headlines in the Paris Newspapers:- from "The peril has escaped from Elba"on the day of his escaped' after daily nuanced changes the last was "HIS IMPERIAL MAJESTY NAPOLEON BONAPARTE HAS MARCHED TRIUMPHANTLY THROUGH THE ARC DE' TRIOMPHE" The media has not changed in centuries


AB Pereira

Nov 9, 2015

People are used to the nonsense of the visual media with their pockets full. Fortunately, I was not part of this nonsense as I have stopped watching it about 2 years ago when they blurted nonsense during Delhi Assembly elections in 2013.
What was more shocking, and needs the author's investigation is, how did Today's Chanakya's exit polls were so drastically different from the mass, especially after it got the LS elections almost perfectly, contrary to all others. And this happened on a week day, a day when stock markets were operating! Even those who knew that NDA was losing started to suspect their judgement when they had to face such a different prediction! So, one can imagine, what would have happened on the stock markets (I for one, a die hard pessimist for world markets, closed my small short positions on the market on Friday!).


Subramanian M

Nov 9, 2015

Couple of days before I read an article advising people not to waste time watching TV on poll analysis but it became anti climax which witnessed wash out of BJP. I foresee disaster waiting for the central politics with no majority for BJP in Rajya Sabha. Hardly another two and years could be time available for BJP to establish and deliver which is next to impossible with no support from opposition. How this would be perceived by foreign investors needs to be seen. Not a very rosy future in my view

Like (2)

Amitava Chatterjee

Nov 9, 2015

The point to ponder for NDTV or Chanakya,is how they dealt with the small sample survey. One thing is apparent that the randomness that should be the guiding principle was perhaps not adhered otherwise the reality would not have been so different from the exit polls.In fact TV channels ought to get back to their data and check whether there was absolute impartiality. Too much analysis could possibly lead to a plethora of explanations for this goof up which would be quite unconvincing.

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Sanjeev D

Nov 9, 2015

The conclusion that intolerance is rising under current Central Govt, is also based on small numbers and 'magnified' anecdotes by certain vested interests !

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