Millennium Post

Opinion poll as campaign tool

Soon after his resounding defeat in 2005 assembly polls in Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav blamed the media houses for orchestrating the departure of his party from power using the tool of exit polls. With polls staggered into five phases, Yadav claimed that the build-up by the media houses, using the tool of exit polls, about his party losing from phase one itself, demoralised his supporters and influenced public opinion that led to the defeat of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).

The Indian media, especially the news channels, over the past few years have developed the tendency to dominate discourse through manipulated debate to suit their marketing interests. While it is a matter of discussion how much television has influenced the course of history, but through gimmickries like opinion polls it has certainly helped itself to some profit in a highly competitive market.

Howsoever much the Indian intelligentsia castigate the political class, the fact remains that it too wants some space in power structure. This is most evident among the journalists and a new breed called psephologists. While the professional ethics of both would require that they should not seek privileges from those on whom they report but an increasing trend towards journalists seeking assignments from political parties has come to become part of the system.

Similarly psephologist, who in India function less as political scientists and more as media professionals, too have made a queue to suck up to their political bosses.  Yogendra Yadav’s is not the first case of an established psephologist using the tools of his ‘objective’ trade as barter to buy political influence. Before him we had the case of GVL Narasimha Rao, who is now part of BJP national executive.

The rise of this tribe of psephologist-politicians is a very dangerous for healthy functioning of democracy. It seeks to undermine the established process of seeking votes on the basis of a party’s declared manifesto and political programme. It rather coaxes voters by holding out a veiled threat of a particular party emerging as victorious in the polls even before actual voting has taken place.

Likes of Yogendra Yadav have tried to showcase their predictions as ‘honest and scientific’ projection. This is not the truth and it should be treated by the referee that is the Election Commission as a poll malpractice. While Yadav is using opinion polls for the purpose of skulduggery, the Delhi BJP leadership, apparently rattled by Yadav’s predictions of the main opposition getting just 10 seats, to utter surprise of many quickly released a survey claiming that it was coming to power. This move showed that a cadre-based organisation like the BJP too has fallen prey to the politics of dealmakers and are using tactics like unsubstantiated opinion polls to promote individual cases.

These pollsters interpret the collected data as per their convenience. Thus the ‘honesty’ claimed by Yogendra Yadav is at best limited to the posting of the raw data of his recent field survey on AAP website. However, it’s an undeniable fact that it can be interpreted in as many ways by as many analysts. It should also be pointed out that the data posted on the website is not verified by an independent agency.

Soon after the loss suffered in 2008 assembly polls and in the run-up to the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, my friends in Delhi BJP kept coming back with a ‘survey report’ indicating that the BJP did not lose Delhi to Sheila Dikshit with a huge margin as the number of Assembly seats won or lost indicated.
They pointed out that if the number of votes polled in each of the constituency were added up, it would indicate a close fight in six parliamentary seats and a clear lead for the Congress in the seventh — East Delhi. Well everybody is entitled to their views especially on the basis of ‘an unquestionable data collected from the Election Commission’.

For the records, BJP lost all the seven seats in the Lok Sabha polls that followed. Any politician worth his salt is capable of analysing a particular voting figure without the aid of a ‘professional agency’. If he or she is not capable of doing so, they are not worthy to lead a party or participate in an election. The leaders can depend on survey reports to get an understanding of prevailing issue but certainly not as a tool to hawk their point of view.

Under the model code of conduct, the Election Commission considers the Opinion polls and or Exit polls as publicity material and bans its publication/broadcast till about 48 hours after the polls have been concluded. The Election Commission must undertake to educate the voters that such poll results are publicity material and that they have the potential to influence a voter’s mind like any other publicity material issued by political parties.

 The polls should be fair and may the best win. For this we have ample tools of healthy public contact. The media has a role in encouraging such healthy practises rather than get into the gimmickry of polls and in the process confuse a voter by pedalling something, which is grossly unscientific and unreliable bordering on to match-fixing.

 It’s a difficult call to make and with media houses in the race to take credit for deciding national discourse, it’s unlikely that this tamasha or nautanki, christen it to your convenience, would see an early exit. Media has a role of the watchdog and this role is best played when the media persons go out and report from the heat and dust of the constituencies. Such reports any day are more authentic than those ‘evaluated’ by the pollsters.

The author is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is Consulting Editor, Millennium Post

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