ByÂ Mahitha Kasireddi:
“If the critics are right that I’ve made all my decisions based on polls, then I must not be very good at reading them.”- Barack Obama.
Do you get a feeling that one day we would fight elections only to prove the opinion polls wrong? I’d compress the entire issue of ban on opinion polls in a single sentence, “the EC has underestimated the capacity of an Indian voter”. Past 30 years had gone by with not a single party gaining majority votes. Where is the evidence that opinion polls bring about a bandwagon effect or generate a swing? If this was true then majority would have voted for either UPA or NDA in the previous elections. The fate of a political party is the consequence of its actions but not opinion polls. Polls are not the ultimate measuring system but only a way to satisfy the urge to find out in advance. In the era of RTI, banning polls would be illegitimate and unconstitutional.
The EC has submitted a report to the law ministry showing that majority parties have favoured the move to ban polls, but has the commission surveyed to find out what the voters, political analysts, psychologists and civil societies at large think? Our democracy is built on popular opinion, not just of a particular section. If the EC is seeking a ban on opinion polls, does it also include banning political parties from conducting polls for their own good? How else would one find out the pulse of the nation? Wouldn’t banning lead to dissatisfaction among the public that nobody asks them if they are happy or not with the government or who would they want to elect in the next elections? America has been conducting opinion polls since 190 years and banning polls there would be an offence to civil liberties. We call ourselves to be the oldest and strongest democracy yet ironically defy our own principles.
The argument put forward by the protagonists of ban on polls is that they are unscientific and dubious. A renowned psephologist, Sir David Bulter said “studying elections is not science at all, it’s rather pompous”. How do expect an exact number while studying the voter behaviour? It is the most dynamic feature which cannot be determined with a constant answer. This obvious detail cannot be ignored before demanding a ban. Due to lack of transparency in the method of drawing conclusions the process looks more like a gimmick than science. The reason the Election Commission has sort to this is that opinion polls influence voter’s decision. People are all aware, well informed about leaders and governments, they are mature enough to possess their own opinions and make choices. A survey, a poll, a questionnaire shall not undo the fact that a particular party has not delivered justly.
Not denying that opinion polls can be bought and sold these days. It is a business of its own kind. Parties own media houses. Agencies have tie ups with corporate houses and political parties. Anyone can get a poll done in their favour. The samples are small and the process is opaque. Media groups do not disclose the method they have used or the questionnaire. As there is no restriction on who can conduct, there are many of these. Each time a poll is published a counter poll appears proving the former one wrong. There is no institution or method which could validate them. Apparently a lot of ambiguity prevails over the issue.
Why is banning ridiculous? Not just polls, but anything that is banned always finds underground ways to continue activity. There will still be secret surveys conducted which can never be scrutinized. Acquiring data shouldn’t be difficult for either parties or media even during prohibition. Rather legalising the process, implementing transparent methodology, validating statistics through a regulatory body, licensing and self regulations of pollsters and media houses etc. are a few measures which could be brought about.
The EC has been urging the parliament to legislate a law to ban opinion polls rather than constituting a regulatory body that prescribes best practises and conduct. In Britain, the British Polling Council (BOC) had been functioning since 2004. Pollsters and organizations need to first register with the BPC by complying that their sampling methods and procedures are accurate and represent adults and all voters in the given area. This organization ensures the complete disclosure of statistical details and techniques to the public and advices on how to read polls and interpret results.
The EC is no doubt concerned about conducting free and fair elections in the country. The commission has to focus on issues bigger which are a direct impediment upon fair elections. Imposing a ban on forecasting polls would be like barging into every coffee shop and drawing room to stall discussions on elections. This is a democracy and it runs on dialogue and discussion. In fact, the speculation on who would govern us next is very much legitimate. If the EC feels that we shall be influenced by opinion polls, then we have every right to draw upon our voting choice through discussions, polls and forecasts. Our freedom of expression and right to seek information upholds this.