Q Why is it in News ?
A Every election season, we find television channels flooded with opinion polls and subsequently exit polls after the casting of votes.
Q What are Opinion Polls?
- Opinion polls are similar to surveys or an inquiry designed to gauge public opinion about a specific issue or a series of issues in a scientific and unbiased manner.
- This term has got wide recognition for assessing outcomes of elections in India.
- In most democracies, opinion and exit polls are common during elections.
- In India, the ECI allows the dissemination of the exit poll results half an hour after the end of polling on the last poll day.
Q How are they conducted?
- Interviewers/reporters ask questions of people chosen at random from the population being measured.
- Responses are given, and interpretations are made based on the results.
- It is important in a random sample that everyone in the population being studied has an equal chance of participating.
- Otherwise, the results could be biased and, therefore, not representative of the population.
Q What is Need of such polls ?
- Popular opinion: Polls are simply a measurement tool that tells us how a population thinks and feels about any given topic.
- Specific viewpoint: Polls tell us what proportion of a population has a specific viewpoint.
- Opportunity to express: Opinion polling gives people who do not usually have access to the media an opportunity to be heard.
Q What are Issues with such polls (in context to elections) ?
- Authenticity: Critics have often questioned their authenticity.
- Manipulation of voters: This largely manipulates the voting behavior.
- Sensationalization by media: The media, on the other hand, invariably opposes the idea of a ban as seat forecasts attract primetime viewership.
- Ridiculing the public mandate: The exit polls largely disrespect public opinions inciting confusion regarding the election mandate.
Q Why does it persist in India?
A Exercise of Free Speech
- The opposition to the ban in India is mainly on the ground that freedom of speech and expression is granted by the Constitution (Article 19).
- What is conveniently forgotten is that this freedom is not absolute and allows for “reasonable restrictions” in the same article.
Q What are limited restrictions that we have in India ?
- RP Act: The Indian Penal Code and Representation of the People Act, 1951 do contain certain restrictions against disinformation.
- Restrictions on A19: While the Constitution allows for reasonable restrictions on freedom of expression, its mandate to the ECI for free and fair elections is absolute.
- Supreme Court interpretations: The Supreme Court (SC), in a series of judgments, has emphasized this requirement.
- Basic structure doctrine: It considers free and fair elections is the basic structure of the Constitution (PUCL vs Union of India, 2003; NOTA judgment, 2013).
Examples of restrictions
- Restrictions are imposed in many countries, extending from two to 21 days prior to the poll — Canada, France, Italy, Poland, Turkey, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, to name a few examples.
- In India, all political parties too have opposed these polls, demanding a ban — except when they are shown as winning.
Q Why does the ECI feel that opinion polls interfere with free and fair elections?
- Prevalence of paid news in India: Having seen “paid news” in action, it apprehends that some opinion polls may be sponsored, motivated and biased.
- Opacity: Almost all polls are non-transparent, providing little information on the methodology.
- Propaganda: Subtle propaganda on casteist, religious and ethnic basis as well as by the use of sophisticated means like the alleged poll surveys create public distrust in poll process.
- Disinformation: With such infirmities, many “polls” amount to misinformation that can result in “undue influence”, which is an “electoral offense” under IPC Section 171 (C). It is a “corrupt practice” under section 123 (2) of the RP Act.
- Betting: The polling agencies manipulate the margin of error, victory margin for candidates, seat projections for a party or hide negative findings.
Call for a ban in India
- The demand for a ban on opinion polls is not new.
- At all-party meets called by the Election Commission in 1997 and 2004, there was unanimous demand for a ban.
- The difference of opinion was only on whether the ban should apply from the announcement of the poll schedule or the date of notification.
Moves by ECI
- In 1998, the ECI issued guidelines that were challenged in the SC.
- A five-judge Constitution Bench asked the ECI how it would enforce these decisions in the absence of a law.
- Realizing its weakness, the ECI withdrew the guidelines.
- Unfortunately, this left the constitutionality of the issue
Q What can be Way forward
- Independent regulator: Ideally a body like the British Polling Council would be a viable option. India could set up its own professional, self-regulated body on the same lines say Indian Polling Council.
- Mandatory disclosure: All polling agencies must disclose for scrutiny the sponsor, besides sample size, methodology, time frame, quality of training of research staff, etc.