News: Every election season, we find television channels flooded with opinion polls and subsequently exit polls after the casting of votes.
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.
- 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.
- Polls are simply a measurement tool that tells us how a population thinks and feels about any given topic.
- Polls tell us what proportion of a population has a specific viewpoint.
- Opinion polling gives people who do not usually have access to the media an opportunity to be heard.
- Critics have often questioned their authenticity. This largely manipulates the voting behavior.
- The media, on the other hand, invariably opposes the idea of a ban as seat forecasts attract primetime viewership.
- The exit polls largely disrespect public opinions inciting confusion regarding the election mandate.
- 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.
Presence in India:
- The Indian Penal Code and Representation of the People Act, 1951 do contain certain restrictions against disinformation. While the Constitution allows for reasonable restrictions on freedom of expression, its mandate to the ECI for free and fair elections is absolute.
- The Supreme Court (SC), in a series of judgments, has emphasized this requirement. It considers free and fair elections is the basic structure of the Constitution (PUCL vs Union of India, 2003; NOTA judgment, 2013).
- 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.
Call for Ban:
- Having seen “paid news” in action, it apprehends that some opinion polls may be sponsored, motivated and biased. Almost all polls are non-transparent, providing little information on the methodology.
- 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.
- 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.
- The polling agencies manipulate the margin of error, victory margin for candidates, seat projections for a party or hide negative findings.
- 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.
- 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