Millennium Post

No point banning opinion polls

With the mushroom growth of TV channels and newspapers and magazines, exit and opinion polls have become part and parcel of election coverage although more often the predictions have turned out to be not correct. The frequency of opinion polls has also increased over the years.

The present move of the EC is not sudden, as it has been simmering from 2004 when most political parties complained to the EC about what they called misleading poll surveys.  Since then there have been attempts to ban the opinion polls. The EC had written to the government to amend the act. The government in turn had asked the EC to elicit opinion from all parties. The present controversy is a result of this exercise.

Historically, the origin of the opinion polls can be traced broadly to 1824 when two US newspapers conducted a survey on the presidential elections to assess the public mood. By the twentieth century, other countries had started following this method. Britain followed it in 1937 and France in 1938 and the results were nearly accurate. Most countries have no restrictions on pre-election opinion polls but some like Argentina, Sri Lanka, Spain, Canada and Mexico have an embargo while Russia Germany, Japan, UK and the US have no embargo. In India, although the Indian Institute of Public Opinion conducted a survey before the 1957 Lok Sabha elections, it was the NDTV’s chief Pranoy Roy who popularised it in the eighties by his near accurate predictions.

Political parties are split on the ban on poll surveys.  While it helps some parties, those projected as losers have always been skeptical about the opinion polls. The Congress, which is getting a low rating on poll surveys at present, concurs with the EC that they are not conducive to free and fair elections.  The party feels that their results are amenable to manipulation and that they are not scientific and transparent.

Akali Dal as well as BSP, SP and DMK, AIADMK and Shiv Sena want restrictions on opinion polls, while the CPI (M) and CPI favour regulating such polls.  Riding on the growing popularity of its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, the main opposition party the BJP is opposed to the ban. Supporting the BJP is the Aam Aadmi Party, which is also getting good ratings.

 Why should the opinion polls be banned? First of all, whether they influence the voters is doubtful and even if they do why ban them?  In a country like India where 70 per cent of the voters live in rural areas and almost 65 per cent live in juggi jhopdis how much can the opinion polls influences the voters is debatable. Perhaps it may sway the educated voters and those who are addicted to watching television. Even here, hardly 7 per cent of the people watch news channels while the rest prefer entertainment channels.  So what are we talking about banning opinion polls?

Secondly, those who are opposing the ban argue that it would amount to infringing on Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression.  Any ban on the opinion polls would prevent information reaching the public, they claim. To counter this others argue that the new phenomenon of “paid news” has already made the exercise a suspect.

There are apprehensions that some opinion polls are manipulated and the samples too small to reflect a correct opinion. Even if some surveys are fraudulent and not scientific, banning them cannot be the solution although there is a need to catch those engaged in conducting mischievous and misleading poll surveys.

Thirdly, the poll results would mostly depend on the last minute swing and also on the undecided voters or what you call fence-sitters. It is not clear how far these opinion polls can influence them. Of course, there could be the ‘bandwagon effect’ and that some voters might like to go with the perceived winner. However, as experience has proved that voters cast their votes mostly on caste lines and communal lines while the general perception is that Muslims back a candidate who can defeat the BJP.

Above all, the pollsters also know that the more they go wrong in their prediction, the less credible they become. The results of the 2004 Lok Sabha elections are a classic example when every conceivable poll predicted victory for the NDA and defeat for the UPA not understanding the undercurrent.

The Congress won Delhi state elections held three days after the Mumbai blasts despite the prophets of doom predicting a humiliating defeat. Even in 2009, the Congress got much more than its own expectations. Moreover, India is a mature democracy and has proved it every time when it dethroned Indira Gandhi in 1977 or bringing her back in 1980, making VP Singh, Deve Gowda and Gujral as Prime Ministers. Power has changed hands smoothly for 15 times.

Opinion polls may be unscientific, dishonest and sponsored as those oppose it claim, but they can have only limited influence on the voters. Therefore banning opinion polls would serve little purpose.

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