People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 45

November 10, 2013






On Opinion Polls


A BIG hue and cry has been raised over the central Election Commission’s exercise of seeking opinion of all political parties on the question of banning opinion polls before an election.  The principal opposition party – the BJP – and sections of the media are terming this exercise as an outrageous attack on the freedom of speech and media freedom. In this context, it is necessary to consider certain points.


First, this is not the first time that such an exercise has been initiated by the Election Commission seeking political parties’ opinions.  Over a decade ago, it was as a result of such consultations that exit polls were banned to be published, once the polling process had begun, till they ended.  This is because polls take place in different phases and the publication of exit poll results, correct or incorrect, would result in influencing the voters in the next phase.  At that point of time, the question of opinion polls was also discussed but no decision was taken on this matter.


Secondly, it is, indeed, strange that the BJP should now decry this exercise as denying the people their basic right to information.  In the first place, opinion polls are not information.  They are, as the name suggests, opinions.  And, opinions are meant to influence. By definition, opinions are not neutral information, or, objective news.  Further, in a similar exercise conducted by the Election Commission after the 2004 general elections, the BJP held the exact opposite view arguing for the banning of publication of opinion polls after the statutory notification for elections has been issued. The Election Commission issued a public document stating: “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” (Proposed Electoral Reforms: An Election Commission document, July 2004).


Clearly, therefore, the BJP is seeking to influence the voters in an undue fashion before the elections through manipulated opinion polls and if that fails as it did in 2004, then plead for the banning of the publication of such polls!  This, in itself, betrays the reality that opinion polls are often used as tools for electoral propaganda rather than being news that conveys objective opinions of those surveyed. 


Thirdly, sections of the media argue that why should the Indian people be denied the right to such knowledge when most Western democracies permit  such opinion polls.  This is not correct.  In many Western democracies, a practice is followed where the central idea is to allow  a period of silence or reflection to permit the balancing out of opinions and views before the ballot day.  In Spain, such a blackout period is actually called a period of “reflection”. In Italy,  such a prohibition exists  for 15 days.  New Zealand even blacks out  social media on election day.  Every Western democracy has a period  when campaigning is banned before the day of voting.   In India,  as of today,  campaigning ends 48 hours before the polling.  The model code of conduct applies 40 days ahead  of the polling date.  During this period, the governments cannot  announce new sops  to unduly influence voters neither can any party indulge in inflammatory propaganda  aimed at unduly influencing the voters. Therefore, restrictions are nothing new.  They are aimed at protecting the voter from being unduly bombarded by propaganda and thereby distorting his/her rational voting behaviour. 


Fourthly, intrinsic to any concept of freedom is that the concerned right is free.  If there is a price to be paid for the concerned right, then  there is no freedom.  In today’s India when the scourge of `paid news’ is on the rampage, the concept of freedom of expression and  the media freedom to disseminate objective news is gravely distorted.   To the extent that at times  all objectivity  of news is sacrificed at the altar of unscrupulous profit making.  In such conditions,  the scope for manipulation of opinion polls  to unduly and wrongly influence the electorate is immense.  Hence, `reasonable  restrictions’ on a particular freedom in this Indian context  needs to be very seriously considered. 


Under these circumstances, it is fair to suggest that while there should be no blanket banning  of opinion polls, this should not be  published  for a reasonable period, say, from the date of the statutory notification of the election  till the polls are completed. The length of this period, however, would have to be defined and announced by the Election Commission after  serious consultations and deliberations. 


Finally, apart from the fact  that almost every poll in the past was proved to be wrong  by the electorate, may be due to the unscientific methodology or too narrow a base, any judgement on the Indian voters’ mentality is fraught  with  many risks.  Recollect, when psephology and opinion polls began in India, the inimitable R K Laxman drew a cartoon.  Those were the days before the EVMs were introduced. In the cartoon, a hapless husband comes home to tell his wife that he had stamped the wrong  box on the ballot paper.  Seeing his wife’s indignation, he promptly adds  that she should not worry as he had corrected  this mistake  when stamping the ballot paper for the exit poll!  So much for the practice of opinion and exit polls in the Indian context.

(November 6, 2013)