Why ban them?

Opinion and exit polls
Last Updated 25 October 2010, 17:00 IST

There is a huge uproar against conducting opinion polls before polling after a news channel showed landslide victory for the Nitish-led NDA government in Bihar. Even the Election Commission is in favour of banning such an exercise, and the EC in a letter to the Law Ministry asked that an ordinance be issued urgently to amend the existing law on opinion polls so that it is banned.

The commission is of the opinion that such polls tend to cause prejudicial effect on the minds of voters. In 2009, Parliament amended the Representation of the People Act, 1951 by inserting section 126(b) for legally sanctioning a ban on exit polls during the poll process so that their results cannot be published or telecast till the last vote is cast. The opinion poll was left out then, but the Union cabinet had decided to ban it also in the next step.

The move to accord legal sanction followed a failed attempt by the Election Commission in 1999 to impose such a ban on the exit poll. It was subsequently set aside by the Supreme Court on the ground that it attracted the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression. It made a terse comment that the EC had no power to enforce such a ban and could do nothing if its ban order was not complied with.

However, the amendment to the RP Act, 1951 has not been challenged so far. There is a unanimity among political parties that opinion polls should be banned right from the date of notification of election.

The 1999 Lok Sabha elections had ignited an intense debate on the science of psephology as never before. The debate veered round two issues: credibility of these polls, and propriety of allowing them during the electoral process. These two issues are independent, but unfortunately they were mixed together. Conducting opinion polls is neither a new phenomenon nor a questionable exercise; even Roman emperors did it to ascertain people’s views.

But in a democracy it becomes suspect when it is done at the time of elections. The new phenomenon of ‘paid news’ has made the exercise more suspect. In the modern era, its history goes back to 1824 when two newspapers in the USA, ‘The Harrisburg Pennsylvanian’ and ‘The Raleigh Star’, organised ‘show votes’ to assess the political inclination of the electorate in the presidential election which was to be held that year.

In mid 1930s, a more accurate and scientific method called ‘sampling’ was developed. In it, a small percentage of people of a group are questioned and their responses are analysed to determine the whole group. The poll conducted by George Gallup using the new technique made accurate prediction that Roosevelt would win hands down.

Genesis of opinion polls

Public opinion polling as a journalistic exercise has its genesis in a syndicated newspaper column, introduced by George Gallup and Claude Robinson, describing the findings of sample surveys of American public opinion on various issues. All this became so popular that Great Britain and France also followed suit, and predictions made in the elections when it was used for the first time in Britain in 1937 and in France in 1938 were nearly accurate. Soon it spread to other democracies in the whole world.

In India, Indian Institute of Public Opinion, headed by Eric da Costa, hailed as the pioneer of public opinion polling in India, conducted such a national poll for the first time before the 1957 general elections. Since then it has been going on, and several new organisations have also started this exercise.

The question is how far does it influence voters, and whether is it legally permissible to ban it? The Election Commission banned the exit poll without genning up on the legal position and got rebuke from the Supreme Court. The right to freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of Constitution, recognised as a basic feature of the Constitution, can be curtailed only on specific grounds mentioned in Article 19(2), and this apprehension of influencing voters is not one of those grounds.

Holding free and fair elections is a sine qua non for any democracy, and it is likely that in a multi-phase election, results of such opinion polls may cause fresh polarisation of votes, and thus there is a need to regulate it. So, a law may be enacted to restrain the concerned agencies conducting such polls from declaring the results till the last phase of polling is over as is the practice in most of developed democracies. But it should also be kept in mind that exit polls also help democratic exercise.

Dick Morris, a political consultant who has worked with both Republicans and Democrats in the US, asserts that such surveys are “so reliable that they are used as guides to the relative honesty of elections in the third world countries.”

In 2003, vote tampering revealed by exit polling in the Republic of Georgia forced Eduard Shevardnadze to step down. And in November 2004, exit polling in the Ukraine -- paid for by the Bush administration -- exposed election fraud that denied Victor Yushchenko the presidency.

Additionally, the Election Commission should evolve methodologies for holding elections in a shorter span, not staggered in several phases over a long period of time.

(Published 25 October 2010, 17:00 IST)

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