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Millennium Post

Exit polls matter, as do our votes

The latest brouhaha over whether or not to ban opinion polls in the pre-election season has kicked the proverbial hornet’s nest, as it were. With the Congress and JD(U) registering vitriolic attacks against the ‘unscientific methodology’ used in conducting the exit polls thereby sending supposedly ‘wrong messages’ to the general public, the terms of the debate have been framed in utterly shifting sands, with the Election Commission’s 25 October letter landing on the national public sphere like a question bomb. It seems, however, that the EC this time has misconstrued what it means to have a free and fair election, since voicing opinions and commenting on the political theatre have never been the least democratic weapons in a volatile, pre-poll season. Naturally, while the EC is right to heed the caveats issued by the likes of Congress and JD(U), which, not unjustifiably, contend that opinion polls are often biased, driven by monetary interests and frequently inaccurate, still, putting a blanket ban on the practice is tantamount to issuing a gag order on dissenting voices within the media and public sphere. Even if it’s fundamentally flawed, the premise of opinion polls lies in the health of the democratic machinery, which includes rousing and enthusing the uncertain and unconvinced voters to go out and cast their ballots. Opinion polls, with all their discredited approaches, are always a ‘work-in-progress’, and disclaimers are sounded as part of media ethics such as mentioning the sample size, location and other factors, so as not to appear as the ultimate verdict on the actual elections.

Clearly, the debate is an intriguing one, since on the one hand, exit polls are being positioned as an assault on democracy and people’s right to vote freely without undue influence from any quarter, and on the other, seeking out and publishing such surveys are equally entrenched in the democratic fundamentals of the constitution. To assume that banning the opinion polls would be a sure-shot way of bringing in the much desired ‘purity’ in the elections, is a misplaced notion in the first place.

Under no circumstances can pre-poll doles, such as freebies and empty and infeasible promises, be compared to opinion poll surveys, since the latter do not assure any returns and only try to gauge the situation as it stands, even if only in theory. While it’s true that many times political parties with enough monetary muscle and electoral clout try to maneuver the results of the poll surveys, that is not a reason enough to scrap the system altogether. Rather, what needs to be done is to tease out the better and more accurate models to arrive at conclusions that, even if proved wrong once the results are declared, would at least be declared after conducting free and fair surveys, taking into account as many factors as possible. Also, banning exit polls, like any censorship debate, is inherently defective since it infantilises voters by assuming that such surveys would push them towards or away from certain political camps irrespective of the presence or absence or (anti)-incumbency build-up. Moreover, a ban on opinion polls would also run against the Article 19 (1) (a) of the Indian constitution that grants citizens right to freedom of speech and expression.
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