The pioneer of political opinion polls in India says he has good reason not to trust them: he has been asked to rig them on more than 10 occasions over the past two decades in return for envelopes of cash.
N. Bhaskara Rao, who has conducted surveys for Robert F. Kennedy and Indira Gandhi, said he once fired his right- hand man after discovering the person accepted a political party's money to doctor a poll. That's why he wasn't surprised when a local broadcaster last week exposed employees of 11 polling firms for offering to fix results for money.
"I used to think there were one or two respectable polling agencies, but not any more," said Rao, 73, who helped develop India's polling industry in the '70s and remains chairman of Marketing and Development Research Associates.
Investors are grappling with how much faith to put in surveys showing Narendra Modi's opposition Bharatiya Janata Party winning elections, results of which are due on May 16, after they failed to predict the outcome of the last two national votes. Election officials have urged lawmakers to ban opinion polls during the campaign period and asked police to look into News Express' claims.
CVoter, Nielsen and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies - the three largest agencies conducting national political polls - project Modi's BJP to emerge as the biggest party, an outcome investors favour.
"The corporate world is betting on the BJP and the Modi phenomena," said Satish Misra, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. "There is a lot of suspicion that money is exchanging hands, and some of these survey companies are not all above board."
In 2004, the Indian National Congress won even after the polls suggested the BJP would retain power, leading to the biggest one-day sell-off of stocks. Five years later, after most surveys predicted a close fight, Congress won with the largest tally in two decades, boosting the stock market by a record 17 per cent as investors bet a stronger mandate would allow the party to ease foreign investment rules.
The News Express report showed polling firm staff telling undercover reporters they could fix results for a price.
An employee of CVoter was caught on film saying it charges a separate fee to use a larger margin of error to manipulate poll results. Its founder Yashwant Deshmukh denied any wrongdoing, claiming his firm was being smeared by politicians who want to discredit its polls.
In another incident, Quality Research Services' Arun Behuria told News Express that it had released a poll showing the BJP would win 200 of 403 seats in a local election in Uttar Pradesh even though employees knew it would fail to win even half that number.
Behuria later said he made the comments to impress the clients so he could win the contract.
"Generally, I think the polls are wrong because of dishonesty and manipulation," S.Y. Quraishi, India's former chief election commissioner, said.