There are moments in history when society is engulfed by what can best be described as the Great Fear. Usually born of a combination of real apprehension, wild rumours and dollops of mischief, these momentary convulsions, while quickly forgotten, do add a dash of colour to the footnotes of history.
How many people, for example, remember the great scare of 1962 when the saffron-robed precursors of today's Dharma Sansad proclaimed the end of the world? For more than a month they conducted an extravagant Maha Yagna to scare the daylights out of ordinary souls.
Going further back, there was the great exodus of 1943 when nearly the entire elite of Calcutta fled the city fearing massive air-raids and the imminent arrival of a Japanese occupation army. And remember the time in 1976 when panic-stricken parents rushed to pull their children out of Delhi's schools on the strength of a rumour that an inoculation drive was actually a ploy to inject a sterility-inducing drug?
The people of India will have to wait less than a fortnight to know whether the Exit Poll turbulence of last week was like the doomsday prediction of 1962 or a scientific early-warning of future political uncertainty.
It does not matter that the track record of exit polls in India has been less than inspiring. The pollsters may have gone all wrong in forecasting last December's assembly election in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. They may have miscalculated horribly in gauging the cyclonic storm in favour of Narendra Modi in Gujarat, two years ago.
Notwithstanding this inglorious history, there is no doubt the NDTV exit poll triggered complete panic in the investing classes. The panic gained momentum as the rest of the television channels and the print media went into a race to sex up the possible uncertainty that would face the country after May 13.
Mulayam Singh Yadav and Amar Singh even realised their ultimate objective -- to make it to the cover of the English edition of India Today.
While post-exit poll turbulence is a testimony to the astonishing credibility of Prannoy Roy and his ability to set the agenda single-handedly, the magnitude of the great scare is intriguing. If the Sensex recorded a record fall of more than 200 points after NDTV deemed the NDA as incapable of winning a majority, it is because such an outcome was unexpected.
It was unexpected not because it did not correspond with the personal voting preferences of the moneybags but because it was at variance with the anticipated outcome of the 14th general election.
It needs to be stressed that there is a difference in the way the markets anticipate a development and the methodology followed by the media. Past experience has shown that market calculations tend to be ruthlessly dispassionate. When people put their money on the line, they go by a clinical assessment of what is likely to happen rather than what should happen. If the global markets went for a tailspin after 9/11 it was precisely because the terrorist attacks were not in anyone's calculations.
Had investors had even a remote inkling of Osama bin Laden's sinister plans, they would have taken positions accordingly. Like intelligence failure, sharp volatility in the bourses is always a function of the unexpected.
The reason why the possibility of a hung Lok Sabha was not factored into market calculations was because it did not match all available information and assessments. The NDTV poll caught everyone by surprise precisely because it did not correspond to the actual experience of citizens. "I can't believe it," was a familiar refrain of ordinary people to the exit polls. Yet, there was some hesitation about dismissing the exit polls outright because these are invariably packaged in a pseudo-scientific garb.
Markets go by instinct and information; the exit polls claim to be led by actual sampling of real voters. By definition they should be more accurate. Therefore, it is not surprising that in an exercise that involves speculation, one took precedence over the other.
At the end of the day, the question arises: why should the instincts of the market take a backseat to the conclusions of pollsters? There is no reason why it should. Opinion polling in India is neither science nor astrology. It is another variant of the horribly subjective enterprise called journalism.
This is why organisations like the BBC have a rule never to report opinion or exit polls as independent stories but treat them as political opinions and political interventions.
After all, the whole speculation about the NDA's future rests on varied interpretations of the outcome in Bihar and the scale of the Telugu Desam's setback in Andhra Pradesh.
A general election in a country as complex and varied as India is never easy to predict. Yet, it is presumptuous to believe that voters are guided by factors that have no bearing on ordinary sensibilities. The vote is guided by a combination of logic and emotion. Logic says that people by and large prefer stability to instability. Their emotion is guided by either satisfaction or anger. If both these yardsticks are applied, it is difficult to not conclude that what was witnessed in the aftermath of last week's exit polls was another bout of irrational exuberance.
In a fortnight's time, who knows, we may be talking of the Great Fear of 2004 that ended when common sense prevailed over perversity.
If that happens, will we still persist in calling the exit polls innocent miscalculations?