WHO’S AFRAID OF OPINION POLLS?
There is an attempt by the Government to ban opinion polls ahead of elections. There are three aspects to this move: Hypothetical, practical and legal. The Election Commission of India ( ECI) and India’s political parties, that rarely agree on much, are in lockstep on this issue. It is being hypothesised that, on the one hand, the credibility and the methodologies of opinion polls are dubitable, and, on the other, that they unfairly influence voting choices, promoting a herd mentality in favour of the predicted winners. But it is contradictory to argue that opinion polls impact voting patterns, and, at the same time, that their methodologies are suspect. Common sense and logic says it can only be one or the other.
Moreover, if opinion polls push voters towards the winners, how do they go wrong at times? And what about the times when rival opinion polls throw up opposite predictions? It is stunning that the votaries of a ban on opinion polls, which include the Indian Government’s most senior lawyers and mandarins at the Election Commission, have absolutely no empirical and quantitative data to support what best can be described as prejudice. Moreover, whatever little data is available from political scientists on this subject, shows that voters aren’t automatically drawn towards yesterday’s poll-winner. If at all there is a “bandwagon effect”, it can be argued that surely, its countercurrent, the “underdog effect”, cancels it out.
But suppose for a moment that the hypothesis is correct. Pardon me for asking, but how is that unfair or illegitimate? Democracy is built on informed choices. People are free to base their decisions on information from varied sources. If they are free to consume news from television, newspapers and the Internet, and views from political analysts, they certainly have a legitimate right to consume the information derived from an opinion poll. How is it right for a news reporter to offer insights into electoral trends after talking to a mere 10 people in a particular constituency, but wrong for an opinion poll to do the same after talking to 1,500? Indeed, it can be argued that prohibiting opinion polls would actually infringe upon a citizen’s right to free speech, as guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.
Then, the argument that opinion polls are unscientific and inaccurate is even more absurd. If opinion polls are really untrustworthy, why does the Government of India run India’s biggest survey agency, the National Sample Survey Organisation ( NSSO)? Founded in 1950 and currently under the Union Ministry of Statistics, the NSSO is India’s largest socio-economic survey organisation, whose findings are the bedrock of innumerable government policies and schemes. Ironically, even the Election Commission, which is pushing to ban opinion polls, carried out an all-Indian opinion poll on “Voter’s Knowledge, Attitude, Behaviour and Practices”.
It was INDIA TODAY which brought opinion polls to India in a big way with the 1984 Lok Sabha elections. Since then, almost 125 elections to the Lok Sabha and state Assemblies have been held. The accuracy rate of opinion polls has been almost 95 per cent. Those involved in the profession survive on the basis of their credibility, which is established by the accuracy of their predictions given on the basis of their survey. Why would anyone involved in the business compromise on the credibility while carrying out opinion polls?
Conducting surveys to know public opinion on varied issues is not a new phenomenon. In India, opinion polls were conducted for the first time before the 1957 General Elections by the Indian Institute of Public Opinion, headed by Eric da Costa, who is often hailed as the pioneer of the exercise in India. When the ECI asked the government to ban opinion polls a decade ago, then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government dropped the idea. Opposing the ban on opinion polls, the then attorney general Soli Sorabjee in 2004 had opined that such a sanction would be rendered unconstitutional. He recently stressed that “at the bottom of it all, it betrays the lack of confidence in the average citizen’s capacity to judge the reliability of the different opinion and exit polls and the effective exercise of her franchise. Do not underrate the average citizen”. N. Ram, the former editor of
The Hindu, who took the ECI to the Supreme Court in the historic 1999 case, recently tweeted: “Acting on the ECI’S highhanded demand and banning opinion polls post-notification of election dates would be obscurantist and anti-democratic.” I agree with Sorabjee and Ram. Hope we all do.
How is it right for a reporter to offer insights into electoral trends after
talking to a mere 10 people, but wrong for an opinion poll to do the
same after talking to 1,500?