Don’t crush the heart of ‘Democracy’ for political considerations
Congress and many smaller parties have written to the Election Commission in favour of banning opinion polls in a reply to a query. The recent opinion poll predictions may not be very melodious to some political parties as they are going against them. There are also serious concerns about the impartiality and authenticity of some poll predictions. However, we need not forget that freedom of political opinion, its expression is the heart of democracy, and we need not crush it for political gains or losses. Unfortunately, Election Commission and the ruling Congress are taking the discourse on electoral reforms in a wrong direction.
The debate on banning opinion polls is not new. In 1998 and 2004, efforts from Election Commission were struck down by the Supreme Court based on Constitutional validity and authority of the Election Commission on issuing such directions. At present, there is a ban on displaying election survey results through the electronic media, and not to the print media. There is also a ban on conducting or publicising an exit poll from the commencement of poll hours for the first phase till the end of poll for the last phase. But extending such ban on print media will be disastrous in the end for a democratic polity.
The main criticism against the opinion polls is they are manipulative and influence the public opinion. This is irrational and insulting to the wisdom of public opinion at large. Most of the people in India form their voting preferences on local or ideological considerations and leadership issue. These are formulated well before the elections; so it is absurd to think that their voting get influenced merely by poll predictions.
More importantly, though due to upsurge of private media has made surveys visible, it was always prevailing in the form of intelligence inputs, political analysis and opinion articles. The only difference was that intelligence inputs were available to the ruling party and inputs from opinion articles and party machinery were the option available to the Opposition. The opinion surveys and discussion on them have brought a level playing field in political strategising. We as a democracy should understand and appreciate that opinion surveys is not only about numbers but they also address crucial issues pertaining to political behaviour and factors that influence voting. It is an important feedback mechanism for political parties and vital instrument of political education of the masses.
We should certainly ask why surveys are proliferating and becoming important instrument of campaign strategy. With the model code of conduct in 1990s and limiting the campaign period to 2 weeks, the space for campaigning through corner meetings and banners-posters is taken over by other media tools. It has not curbed the expenditure during elections but changed the medium.
The real issues that need to be addressed about opinion polls are transparency and credibility. There can be independent review mechanism by the Election Commission to verify the methodology, normalisation and standardisation procedures and monetary aspects involved in the surveys.
We cannot ban political advertisements and news because some media houses follow menace of paid news during elections. Similarly, all opinion surveys cannot be and should not be banned if some surveys are paid one. Past experience suggests that the non-credible surveyors will lose their credibility and die their own death. Therefore, the debate on opinion polls should be focused on regulatory mechanism and not on blanket ban.