Recent move by the Election Commission (EC) of India to solicit views on banning opinion polls has virtually split not only the political class but the entire political conscious minds of the nation. At present there is a ban on opinion polls in India starting 48 hours before voting.
With elections round the corner –India’s 16th LokSabha (Parliamentary) General Elections will be held in May 2014, the EC has now sought views of all political parties on whether the ban on opinion polls should be extended – banning it altogether before elections. A senior official at the commission said about a dozen parties had responded positively in favor of a ban.
Most democratic nations across the world endorse opinion poll surveys especially in the run-up to the elections. While some nations like Sri Lanka, South Korea, Mexico, Russia among others restrict publishing pre-election poll and survey results, others like the US, UK, Japan, Pakistan do not.
Congress – In a letter written to the EC, the ruling Congress party has favored restriction on publication and dissemination of opinion polls during polls, noting further that the random surveys were “erroneous,” “lack credibility” and could be “manipulated” by vested interests.
BJP – The main opposition party BJP is not in favor of ban on opinion polls. BJP leaders say that stopping opinion polls will amount to muzzling freedom of speech and would be unconstitutional. They further added that the Congress is supporting the “unconstitutional attempt” as the current spates of opinion polls are predicting a gloomy picture for the party in the upcoming general election.
CPM –Though CPM said they do not have any objection on conducting opinion polls but added that the party is of the view that the result of the opinion poll should not be published for a reasonable period, say, from the date of notification of the election till the polls are completed. The length of this period, CPM said, should be decided by the EC.
JanataDal (U)- Trashing opinion polls as a “mockery” of democracy, JD (U) wrote to the Election Commission alleging money plays a major role in such surveys and stating that his party is “completely against” it.
BahujanSamajParty (BSP) - Articulating BSP’s stand on whether opinion polls should be banned, party MP Satish Mishra wrote to EC: “BSP has throughout been of the view that opinion polls should not be allowed to be published during elections as they do not and cannot reflect the correct opinion of the voter at large”.
Samajwadi Party (SP) – The Samajwadi Party is of the opinion that opinion polls are unscientific and subject to manipulation and is in favour of banning opinion polls. The party also said that said that the methodology of such polls and their source of funding are dubious and should be banned.
Other prominent regional parties, notably AIADMK, DMK, SAD and Shiv Sena, have also thrown their weight behind the EC’s proposal to restrict publishing of opinion poll findings during election periods.
AamAadmi Party (AAP) said prohibiting the pollsters would be unconstitutional, but demanded more transparency in the way these exercises are conducted. The party feels that that sometimes opinion polls are not conducted in a scientific manner and are doctored. So to assess the credibility of a poll, raw data on how a sample has been selected or the questions asked should be made public.
Trinamool Congress said that they are comfortable with whatever EC decides.
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 of pre-poll surveys.
In India, although the Indian Institute of Public Opinion conducted a survey before the 1957 LokSabha elections, it was the NDTV’s chief Pranoy Roy who popularised it in the eighties by his near accurate predictions.
Controversies about opinion poll are something which is not new. Many a times it has been proven that the opinion poll predictions and the actual results of elections were completely different from each other.
In the 2004 General Elections, opinion polls predicted that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) would again come to power. However, in reality, the Congress formed the government. In the 2007 Uttar Pradesh state elections, not a single opinion poll predicted that the BahujanSamaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati would form a government. But Mayawati came in power proving every opinion poll prediction wrong. Almost all the opinion poll predicted defeat of NarendraModi in 2002 and 2007 assembly elections, but in both the occasion, Modi won resoundingly. Even in recent assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, pre-poll surveys said SP would get 140-150 seats but when results came, it had got 224 seats.
There are numerous such examples in India where opinion poll predictions have gone wrong outwardly. And this has put a big question mark on the credibility of these opinion polls. Theory of “paid media” “manipulating” the exercise for “vested interests” to swing public opinion has made everybody skeptical about opinion poll.
In 2004, this skepticism and distrust even saw all the political parties of India unanimously demanding for a ban on the publication of findings of opinion polls until the last vote had been cast. EC statement after the 2004 meeting with all the political parties said, “The unanimous view of all the participating members was that conducting the opinion polls and publishing results thereof should not be allowed from the day of issue of statutory notification calling the election and till the completion of the poll.”
The proposed ban has led to a lot of protest by leading national dailies and broadcasters across the nation. A ban on opinion poll means a huge loss in business for all the media houses who conducts the pre poll survey.
NK Singh of The Broadcast Editor’s Association (BEA) had told that this is “an attempt to curb freedom of expression” and was undemocratic.
SagarikaGhosh, deputy editor of the news channel, CNN-IBN even went to the extent of saying that CNN-IBN will challenge such a ban in a court of law and are confident that the ban will not stand in court of law.
MukundPadmanabhan, editor, The Hindu Business Line described it as an attempt on restriction of free speech and outside the purview of the EC. He also argued that there is no ground for preventing people from predicting who will win or lose.
India’s senior broadcast psephologistDorab R Sopariwala told, “There is no evidence to show that opinion polls affect voting behaviour consistently in any one direction.” He also argued that opinion polls are in no way different from newspaper editorials, articles by journalists, political speeches and advertisements. They also may influence voting behaviour.
There is no denying the fact that most political parties in India view opinion polls differently at different times, according to the results being forecast!
The Congress which is now for a ban on opinion poll has supported pre-poll surveys during the 2009 General elections and 2013 Karnataka State Assembly Elections.
BJP which is now voicing concern that a ban on opinion poll is an attempt to muzzle “our right to free speech” held the exact opposite view, arguing for the banning of publication of opinion polls after the statutory notification for elections has been issued, during a similar exercise conducted by the EC after the 2004 general elections.
Though BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 general election, NarendraModi have termed the attempt to put a ban on opinion poll as utterly puerile but at the same time he also said that he is quite aware of the limitations of such pre-poll surveys and was quick to point out how it went wrong in Gujarat time and again.
From the above analysis it is evident that all the political parties at some point of time or other have felt the need for some kind of restriction on publication of opinion poll result. The way in which opinion polls have often erred in predicting wins or losses in Indian elections in the past has given rise to the belief that the exercise can be erroneous and manipulated and hence lacks credibility.
Before jumping into any conclusion one must take into account that Indian elections are held in phases which is not the case in most other countries. Besides different dates for different state elections, also several phases for one single state surely mean that opinion polls and exit polls about one phase can influence later phases.
A complete ban on opinion poll may sound ridiculous and an utterly undemocratic stand, but considering India’s phase wise election and the way in which the opinion poll result has went wrong time and again, there perhaps need to be some kind of restriction on publication of opinion poll results. Perhaps it will not be a bad idea to set some ground rules for opinion or exit polls and fix a deadline before which all opinion surveys must finish.
Also in order to improve the whole exercise and make it more transparent there is perhaps the need to disclose the raw data on how a sample has been selected or the result has been arrived.
About the Author: Rajesh Sen is a political analyst who happens to be one of the few to have retained the ability to analyze national and international issues from the point of view of common men. His writings are aimed to create awareness and alert the common people, about all that is happening around him. You may also like to read other sensational articles by Rajesh Sen on Global Trending News