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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 111

Exit the opinion poll…?

By Tukoji R. Pandit - Syndicate Features

With the country preparing for a long poll season, from early winter this year to next summer, it is not surprising that the controversial move to ban the opinion and exit polls has been revived. The government and most political parties are in favour of the ban while others see the move as another of those attempts to ‘gag’ the media.

The government might introduce a change in the Representation of People’s Act 1951 in parliament when it meets in October to impose restrictions on pre-poll forecasts. It will require the major opposition parties, which support the move, to desist from playing the customary role of opposing whatever the ruling party does.

There is reason to believe that major political parties favour a ban on the opinion and exit polls because it affects them all equally. But the chances are that a ban move will encounter more trouble in the court than in parliament.

The forecast of poll results, based on sample opinions of a cross section of voters, has not and does not always come true. In fact, most of the time the pollsters get it wrong. The party that loses questions the credibility of the opinion/exit poll. The winning combine however cannot exhibit too much enthusiasm for these forecasts either because in the unpredictable game called elections, a party that wins today can be decimated in the next round and then it will be necessary to condemn the pre-poll predictions. No party likes the idea of a survey broadcasting its ignominy in advance.

The attempt to prevent the media from releasing the poll ‘result’ before the voting exercise has been completed is not new. In 1999 the election commission had to withdraw its ‘guidelines’ on opinion/exit polls after the apex court ruled that the election commission was not empowered to issue an order banning opinion/exit polls.

During the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance rule, the election commission had made a similar suggestion. The then government was, of course, all for it. But realising that the Supreme Court, if challenged through a petition, might not uphold the law, the matter was referred to the attorney general, Soli Sorabjee. He did concede that due regard has to be paid to the nearly unanimous view of the political parties, but he thought that a law in support of the ban might not find constitutional validity. That was in 2004, the year in which the architects of ‘India Shining’ were defeated in the polls.

In 2004 there was hardly any pre-poll (opinion) survey that had not announced that the BJP-led alliance would return to power at the centre. Encouraged by such a rosy outcome, BJP’s Lauh Purush, L.K. Advani, had become so confident that he started telling his audiences during the campaigns that the Congress would not cross even double digits.

When the results went totally against his own predictions Advani was shocked beyond belief. He and his party are yet to come out of that shell. Clearly, they were let down by the pre-poll survey, many of them conducted on behalf of the party. The BJP may still support a ban or restriction on the media from broadcasting or releasing the pre-poll surveys even when it again fancies itself returning to power in the summer of 2009.

The exit polls have many times led to unrealistic hopes among politicians and their parties. The exit poll results are followed quickly by the actual results. Any sense of euphoria or dejection based on the exit poll results is then overtaken by the outcome announced officially, which may be contrary to the forecast.

In the days (long since disappeared) when both the state assembly and parliament elections were held simultaneously and, what is more important, completed in a single day, exit poll results would have had no impact on the final outcome. As far as the electorate is concerned, there was no question of their being influenced by the exit poll surveys. They would have exercised their right to franchise (on a single day) ahead of the exit poll results.

For the past many years the situation is different. The Lok Sabha and state assembly polls have not been clubbed together. In fact, the state assembly polls have become almost annual or biannual affairs. The polls are also conducted over several days. In this day and age of TRPs and readership reach it is difficult to see the media being happy to welcome any restriction on opinion/exit polls because that could prejudice the mind of the voter.

Many in the country are not convinced that all voters are influenced after the exit polls are released in the media. A contrary view is that exit polls do influence the voting patterns because one of the peculiar traits in the country is that voters tend to lean towards the victor—and shun the loser.

A ban on pre-poll surveys and exit results will not make India the first democratic country to do so. In countries such as Britain and Germany it is a criminal offence to release exit poll figures before the close of polling. New Zealand has imposed a total ban. In the US exit poll results have to wait the conclusion of voting in the state of California. But then these are countries where polling is a one-day affair.

It has to be assumed that the election commission had initiated the move to ban the release of exit polls before the conclusion of voting because it felt that it would unduly influence the voters who cast their votes in the second or subsequent rounds. As a constitutional agency that conducts polls, the election commission also knows that it will perhaps not be possible in the foreseeable future to see that the assembly and Lok Sabha polls are held simultaneously across the country and on a single day.

Polls are staggered to ensure that adequate security forces are available to conduct trouble-free polling in various states. The security and law and order situation in most of the states is very different from what it was during the initial days of freedom when polling was a one-day event coming after a gap of five years. Also, it can no longer be assumed that a state assembly or even the Lok Sabha will be able to complete its full term of five years. This too prevents simultaneous polls across the country.

While may be as many reasons to support the ban as there are to oppose it, a factor that also needs to be taken into account is how do the people, the voters, feel about the issue. There is little to doubt that the majority of people, the ‘unattached’ voters, look forward to the forecasts made by pre-poll surveys and exit polls. The forecast may influence their decision at the polling booth, but they would not like the government to take away their fun from knowing in advance the fate of the candidates or the parties in fray.

- Asian Tribune -

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