WHO’S AFRAID OF OPIN­ION POLLS?

India Today - - UPFRONT - YASH­WANT DESH­MUKH Yash­want Desh­mukh is chief ed­i­tor of Cvoter

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.

SAU­RABH SINGH/ www.in­di­a­to­day­im­ages.com

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?

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