By Rajeev Gowda
Another day, another bout of anti-Congress media frenzy. Deepavali 2013 witnessed a firestorm of breathless commentary on mainstream and social media alleging that the Congress wants to ban opinion polls, particularly because they currently do not favour the party. A little fact-checking, a little analysis, a little sense of responsibility would have served viewers and readers better.
Consider the facts: the Election Commission (EC) wrote to political parties on Oct 4, 2013, reminding them that on April 6, 2004 it had convened an all-party meeting which resolved that exit poll results should be banned from being published until half an hour after polls closed and opinion poll results should not be published from notification to completion of elections. Note that the BJP concurred with this view and the Vajpayee-led NDA government was in office.
The EC has been concerned that opinion polls can have a negative, manipulative effect on voters and has been striving to ban them since 1999. Its efforts were stalled by the Supreme Court which felt that such a move would be in violation of the constitutional right to freedom of expression and difficult to enforce, thus weakening the EC’s authority.
The Congress, and many other political parties including the BSP, SP, JD(U), Akali Dal, CPI and CPI(M) have responded to the EC agreeing that opinion polls as currently conducted may neither be scientific nor transparent. They agree with the EC that “there could be several manipulated opinion polls which impact the voting pattern.” However, the BJP has changed its mind and now opposes the EC’s proposal.
The crux of the matter is to ensure that opinion polling meets certain standards. These include disclosing sample sizes, sampling methods, and the formulae for converting vote shares to seats. Only a couple of pollsters actually share some of this information publicly. Then, should opinion polling be regulated? By whom? The Election Commission? By the media that commissions and disseminates the findings? By the Press Council? Or by the polling industry itself?
Even if such information is disclosed, every technique and assumption can be questioned given the complexities of the Indian electoral context . For example, random sampling may not capture the nuances of geographically concentrated voting blocks. Voting percentages are lower for different classes and so opinions may not translate to actual votes. Opinion polls are often conducted before coalitions and candidates are firmed up, both of which shape a party’s electoral performance.
Opinion polls’ influences have been documented in other democracies. For example, the bandwagon effect involves people choosing to vote in favour of the party which is ahead in opinion polls so as to be on the winning side. A counter-effect involves voters coming out to support the underdog. In India, opinion polls may lead to polarization where groups of voters rally behind the one candidate they show as having the best chance to beat whoever they oppose.
Political campaigns and rhetoric clearly aim to influence voters and are allowed. Then why not opinion polls? Well, the EC already curbs divisive or hate speech. The EC probably sees opinion polls as wearing the garb of impartial scientific authority with the potential to sway less discerning voters. The deceptive potential merits regulatory intervention.
The EC has initiated numerous measures aimed at cleansing and improving the Indian electoral landscape and to create a level playing field. In the process, it imposes what it considers reasonable restrictions on the freedom of expression. My personal opinion is that the EC’s restrictions on posters during elections favor the incumbent (whose face was visible for five years). I also believe that the election expenditure limits enforced by the EC drive campaign spending underground and favour candidates with black money. Indeed, in the United States, curbs on election expenditures are seen as an unconstitutional curb on freedom of speech (for a detailed analysis on reforming India’s electoral laws, see http://bit.ly/GowdaSridharan2012).
We must debate these issues in a nuanced manner and come up with concrete improvements to opinion polling methods. The people of India should get access to unbiased assessments of what their fellow citizens are thinking. Careful analysis and discerning judgment are the need of the hour. Instead, we get pompous pontificators and media interlocutors jumping the gun and attacking the Congress, harking back to press censorship during the emergency in a knee-jerk manner.
It is worth jogging people’s memory that the last time India witnessed curbs on free speech and the free press was in 2002. As Rajdeep Sardesai pointed out, Narendra Modi’s Gujarat government banned some news channels when they exposed the ineffectiveness of the state police in curbing riots. In fact, Modi’s government argued that the media were inciting riots! The state government’s move was vociferously supported by then Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley. Today, in the context of the EC’s proposal to ban opinion polls both these gentlemen claim to be defenders of freedom of expression. Their record double speaks for itself!
To preserve the sanctity of our elections, we must do whatever we can to ensure that polls are free and fair. To achieve that goal, we must ensure that opinion polls are also fair and free of bias. Let us focus on that goal and find ways to add strength to the EC as it strives to implement its constitutional mandate.
M. V. Rajeev Gowda is Professor, Indian Institute of Management Bangalore and spokesperson for the Congress party. These views are personal