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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Published at Eastern Chronicle on dated 19-04-2014 

Do opinion polls affect voters?

By Dr. Devajit Mahanta

In the last few months, there has been a lot of discussion about opinion polls ban or restriction ahead of elections. The Election Commission has pressed the Law Ministry to take a call on ‘restricting’ opinion polls by writing to it just days before the Lok Sabha polls were announced. An all party meeting was called by the Election Commission (EC) of India on April 6, 2004, seeking their opinion on whether opinion polls should be banned or not, a perusal of views expressed by various parties on the issue of opinion poll reveals that barring BJP, almost all parties have sought a ban or restriction of some kind on the dissemination of result of opinion poll ahead of elections. In a communication to the Secretary Legislative Department in the Law Ministry the EC referred to its proposal to amend the law for restricting publication of results of opinion polls. The Election Commission has said that a total of fifteen political parties, including five national and ten regional parties, responded to its proposal on opinion polls and a majority of them supported the ban. Prominent parties which sought a ban or restriction on opinion polls ahead of elections include Congress, CPI-M, BSP, NCP, SP, AIADMK, DMK, JD-U, Shiv Sena, SAD, TMC, DMDK, IUML and KJP have favoured a ban/ restriction on polls during elections, saying it affects the voters. The BJP, however, says there should be no ban as this would fall in the realm of a restriction on fundamental right of freedom of special and expression.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national election cell convenor R Ramakrishna has written in the letter on November 6 to the Election Commission of India (ECI) on why opinion polls should be allowed while exit polls banned. The sample which is used in the opinion poll consists of people who may or may not vote, whereas exit polls consist only of persons who had actually participated in the voting. On the other hand, any restriction on opinion polls would fall in the realm of a restriction on the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed in the Constitution. The saffron party held that the grounds on which the ECI was considering restriction on opinion polls did not get covered by the postulates prescribed in Article 19(2) of the Constitution, which permits restriction for the sake of security and integrity of India.

Law Minister Kapil Sibal informed the Lok Sabha on February 12 that government will take a final call on banning opinion polls only after consulting stakeholders and after the Law Commission submits its comprehensive report on electoral reforms.

Opinion polls ahead of any elections are considered as one of the weapons of the political parties to change the mindsets of voters. Now, it seems that ECI`s possible decision of banning polls might impact a few political parties ahead of Lok Sabha election which is due by May 2014. Several things are being said in support of the demand to ban opinion polls; some of the main ones being first, the polls are not scientific as they are based on the opinions of a very small fraction of voters. Second, the voters are influenced by the polls and thus it is possible for the media to manipulate public opinion using opinion polls. Third, this influence is either illegitimate, for most of the forecasts are not correct, or undesirable anyway as it adversely affects the level-playing ground in politics. Not everyone makes all the three arguments. And not every critic of the impact of opinion polls questions the professional integrity of the pollsters. Yet all these are arguments are widely deployed. Some countries where polls are allowed freely are Belgium, Denmark, Germany and Ireland. On the other hand some countries where there are embargoes on Exit Opinion Polls are China, South Korea, and Mexico. 

Opinion polls are recognized around the world as a legitimate exercise. One section of the journalistic in India raised the question, are they being banned because people believe them and may be influenced by them, or because they are motivated and designed to mislead? It is not only an assault on our democracy, which prides itself on a free media, but an insult to the wisdom of the Indian voters who has often surprised both pollsters and politicians. According to them if the opinion polls can be legitimately banned in this country, the next step would be to ban political commentators from giving assessments favourable to some and adverse to some others. A potential loser in an election cannot seek to alter the rules of free speech.