To ban or not to ban opinion polls, that is the question. If the moves of India’s Election Commission, the main political parties and the ruling dispensation have a Hamletian ring, it is because we have been there before. Yes, in 2004, and as the political class has been wrestling with the problem for long, with Atal Behari Vajpayee’s NDA ducking the issue by settling for an amendment to restrict exit polls 48 hours before polling, the existing law. The proposal is that no polls can be published after state or parliamentary elections have been notified until after polling is completed.
Even the attorneys-general of the two coalition governments have given contradictory opinions. Soli Sorabjee was against banning opinion polls, viewing it as unconstitutional, and recommended regulation without restricting content because opinion polls were a tool of democracy and reflected people’s thinking. The present A-G, G.E. Vahanavati, on the other hand, has blessed the proposal for the ban.
Former CEC S.M. Quraishi was a great votary of the ban. Two years ago, he said, “I think opinion polls should be banned because of the paid news problem.” He was referring to the pernicious practice of dressing partisan propaganda as news. The 2004 general election, with the bjp’s pitch for a ‘Shining India’, was the twilight era as polls were banned. It was only after the Supreme Court made a pronouncement against the ban that the playing field was made level again, as the no-ban advocates suggest.
The arguments of the pro- and anti-ban advocates are well known. The pro lobby says polls are biased and influence voters, that they distort the playing field. The anti supporters raise the issue to one of freedom and a necessary antidote to the biased propaganda extolling the virtues of one political party over others. Besides, it is suggested that polls link voters to the electoral process.
The fly in the ointment is that nearly all political parties favour restrictions on opinion polls because the flow of their propaganda rhetoric is shortchanged by the harsh findings of an opinion poll if it goes against the castles in the air they are building. The mantra of a political party is to keep the momentum of a supposed winning streak going.
The problem, of course, is that no political party wants to acknowledge that it is afraid of facing popular rage, if polls suggest so. Therefore, we have had the amazing spectacle of political parties unanimously agreeing to a ban on opinion polls in 2004 only to be floored by the Supreme Court. And it is the persistence of the political culture of never say die that the dead house has been revived again.
The EC’s proposal banning opinion polls was sent to the UPA-II government, and although it was fortified with the attorney-general’s opinion, there were enough dissidents in the system to provoke second thoughts. And in a fine act of prevarication, the government has sent back the proposal asking it to check political parties’ opinions yet again.
Dutifully, the EC has asked political parties to come clean on banning opinion polls between the notification of elections and the last phase of voting. It has reportedly given a short time-frame for the answers, with an October 21 deadline.
Union law minister Kapil Sibal was at his ambivalent best when he suggested on September 24 that there was no move to ban opinion polls “at this time”. The Congress, it was put out, had not taken a decision because of the “too contradictory views”. Actually, the government has lobbed the ball back into the EC court so that it can share the blame, when it comes, with other parties, including main opposition BJP.
Indeed, the merry-go-round continues as no major party is willing to take the blame for opposing opinion polls. Legal opinions can differ, as they have, but the short answer to kicking the ball down the road is that no one wants to own the responsibility. Doing so would imply it is afraid of projections of its unpopularity, if that be the case.
India practises a rumbustious form of democracy with few holds barred. The ban on exit polls takes care of legitimate concerns of unfairly influencing voters. Elections in the country are great festivals of people, even as they decide the fate of candidates and parties. And opinion polls are very much a part of those festivals.
Of course, opinion polls can go horribly wrong, as they have across the world. But in India, pollsters are learning fast and recent polls in a string of elections, while perhaps not spot on, have been pretty convincing approximations.
The agony of the major political parties is set to last a little longer but they will not win kudos from the electorate if they succeed in engineering an end to opinion polls.
(S. Nihal Singh is former editor of the Indian Express and The Statesman.)