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Ban on Opinion Polls: CURBING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION, By Dr.S.Saraswathi, 6 Nov, 2013 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 6 November 2013

Ban on Opinion Polls


By Dr.S.Saraswathi


Some Parties including the Congress are in favour of banning opinion polls on elections. Recall, the Election Commission proposed this ban and has sought the opinion of different Parties.


Pertinently, the forthcoming election to four State Assemblies is seeing many pre-poll opinion polls.  Their timing is such that the results could be interpreted as revealing the mood of the nation towards the approaching Parliamentary elections also. 


Thus, the surveys have double significance to attract the attention of the two main contenders to power at the Centre. Equally, their allies and prospective members of Third and Fourth Fronts are interested in the prediction of pollsters.


Interestingly, the Congress in 2005 had dismissed the Commission’s similar proposal to ban opinion polls.  Its naked shift in stand today coincides with results of some recent polls forecasting bad times ahead for the Party, thereby giving rise to speculations of the Congress’s real intentions. 


The Party’s main plea is that opinion polls are not scientific or transparent.  Asserted a Congress spokesperson, “these polls give different opinions which mislead people”. While Opposition Parties demand the Commission convenes an all-Party meeting to discuss the issue before taking a decision.


Pertinently, opinion polls have been conducted since the 1960s, but increased and became popular on the eve of the 1998 Parliamentary elections.  Conducted before elections to measure the then prevailing mood and opinions and assess the chances of different Parties in the popularity of its leaders and their respective seat share.


The exercise is also repeated at intervals to ascertain changes in voters’ opinion.  In sharp contrast to Exit Polls which are conducted on voting day when voters come out of polling booths after casting their vote.


Notably, an opinion poll is actually a marketing research technique and is widely applied in many countries to ascertain and canvass public opinion on specific political, social and other issues.  Pollsters use the technique to forecast election outcome. 


Remember, opinion surveys began as part of academic pursuits by scholars interested in election studies.  Very soon, Parties realized the usefulness of the findings of such surveys to organize their electioneering. 


Interestingly, the EC prohibited publication of pre-election opinion polls and post-election exit polls by the media during the February 1998 Lok Sabha elections.  This ban was challenged in the Court as intrusion into the Constitutional right to freedom of expression. 


The Press Council of India, partly supporting the stand of the Commission, recommended certain guidelines for conducting and publishing poll surveys.  Under these, it is now mandatory to provide details of the survey, the sample, and the methodology in the reports of poll surveys.


Since then, poll surveys have become popular before every election to Parliament and State Assemblies.  They follow the prescribed guidelines.


True, many times public opinion has enormous powers to make and unmake leaders and organizations.  Given that power-seekers in any democratic society have a common desire to know the thinking of the common people.


Be it through reading, listening, asking and conversing which are simple but important means of acquiring knowledge and information necessary to remain in politics.  Also, men in politics must have the courage and wisdom to receive both palatable and unpalatable information with equanimity.


Undeniably, the stand of some Parties seems to confirm the suspicion that potential winners in opinion poll   favour such polls and losers want a ban.  There cannot be a more absurd situation than this in Party politics brought about by the politics of sycophancy.  At the most, the results can only create “elation complex” among prospective winners even before elections start, and defeatism among losers to drive them to frustration.   


A common objection voiced by many Parties is that opinion poll results may influence the voters.  An apparently strong argument but weak in principle.  As Parties use different techniques to drive home their message, one through election manifestoes to convey their policies and programmes including promises.


Two, conduct rallies and address public meetings and lastly issue advertisements on their achievements and ambitions.  Candidates even visit voters to personally canvass votes.  All these are openly meant to influence voters and we do not and cannot think of banning them.  Indeed, influencing voters is part of electoral politics in democracies.


Besides, the “bandwagon effect” that critics point out is rarely found to be persuasive.  Undecided and apolitical voters are more likely to support an apparent winner on matters important to him but not always.


Critics from some Parties including the Congress think that the random survey conducted “lacks credibility” and can be “manipulated” by persons with “vested interests”.  They complain that many times opinion poll results are falsified in actual elections and hence have the potential to mislead the public.


This argument is rather frivolous.  Opinion poll results may go wrong. So are our calculations on inflation rates believed to be based on abundant official data?  Population projections go wrong.  Millennium Development Goals are accepted but we are nearing the time frame but not the targets.  Expenditure in mega projects exceeds several times beyond the original allocations. These miscalculations and failures also amount to misleading the people.


Basically, opinion polls are not meant as a guide to voters to help choose their candidates.  They only try to mirror the   mood of the people at the time of the survey.  If they are far from reality, the psephologists have to answer the critics for the faults in their methodology and derivations. They have no particular responsibility to Parties to forecast accurately.


The Commission in asking the views of  various Parties and some outfits demanding an all-Party meeting to decide the issue of  ban on opinion polls seem to overlook the basic factor that these polls (except those sponsored by particular Parties as propaganda material)  are not conducted for the benefit of Parties.  They are conducted as academic investigation for the consumption of people.


The results may help Parties in the fray to redefine their policies, programmes, and priorities.  In fact, the losers get the benefit of knowing public opinion and opportunity to correct their ways and have to be thankful to the pollsters, organizers of polls and the media disseminating the findings.


Any restriction placed on opinion polls will be an infringement on the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution. 


The European Court of Human Rights observed that the right to free elections and freedom of expression operate to reinforce each other and “together form the bedrock of any democratic system” and for this reason,   “it is particularly important in the period preceding an election that opinions and information of all kinds are permitted to circulate freely”.


Australia, South Africa, Scandinavian countries and US don’t restrict opinion polls.  Some like Canada and France put a ban for a few days preceding polling day. In Britain, there is no restriction on pre-election polls. It is for Indian politicians to come together and resist short-sighted attempts to curb our freedom of expression.


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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