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A recent sting operation conducted on some agencies which undertake pre-election opinion polls has found that some of them were willing to manipulate the results of the polls and ready to produce findings which suited the needs of those who sponsored the surveys.

This has affected the credibility of such surveys and the pollsters and given rise to calls for a ban on such exercises before the elections. The positions of political parties have been ambiguous and inconsistent in the past on the issue. They have opposed  pre-poll surveys when they felt the trend of opinion was against them and have supported them when they felt it favoured them. This time the Congress has sought a ban on them and some parties have asked for monitoring of the polls. The Election Commission has not been very supportive of such polls. It has already banned exit polls.

Opinion polling is difficult in India because of its large diversities, profusion of parties and many other uncertain factors like voting percentages. The choice of sampling, loaded questionnaires, wide margins of error and wrong tools of analysis can distort the conclusions. Some agencies were found to compromise on them. The danger seen in such manipulation is that voters may be tempted to support parties or candidates who are seen winning. Since opinion polling is considered to be based on facts and first hand data and scientific methods of evaluation, the polls may influence voters more than the campaigns before elections. This may even be seen as an unfair form of campaigning.

It would still be wrong to impose an outright ban on opinion polls, because the right to conduct them is part of the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution. The Supreme Court has clearly said in the past the Election Commission cannot ban them but may choose to frame some guide lines on them. Polling agencies may be told to present all details of their sampling and methodologies and all other relevant facts along with the conclusions.

Identification of the sponsors of the survey is also important. In a democracy it is better to leave the exercise and the conclusions to the judgment of the voters. Agencies which misrepresent data and distort conclusions will lose their credibility and reputation and will not be taken seriously. The debate should be on what are the elements for mandatory disclosure and how best a regulation process can be implemented.

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