Opinion and Exit Polls Are Okay if Their Integrity is Beyond Doubt

Exit polls flout the very spirit of fair elections. It’s time India considered setting up a regulator.

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Opinion and exit polls during elections in India have been a matter of public debate for nearly two decades. All political parties, at different points in time, have opposed such polls and demanded a ban on them except when they are shown as winning. The same parties join the demand for a ban when the polls show them losing. The media, on the other hand, always opposes any proposal for a ban as it provides them good TRPs.

Also Read: Election Commission’s Fatwa to Media: Face Jail for Exit Polls


Opinion and exit polls by themselves, like all research, are useful to gain insight into what people think of the policies, programmes and products. But the Election Commission opposes these polls because it strongly suspects their integrity having encountered the ugly reality of ‘paid news’.

As public opinion plays an important role in the political sphere, particularly voting behaviour, special interest groups often seek to impact electoral outcomes. German social theorist Jürgen Habermas observed that opinion, in western democracy, is highly susceptible to elite manipulation. And media is an important player in this.

Also Read: Ban on Opinion Polls: Neither EC Nor Govt Wants to Bell the Cat


Restrictions in Other Democracies

In most democracies, opinion and exit polls are common at the time of elections. However, restrictions are also imposed in many of these countries – Canada, France, Italy, Poland, Turkey, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, to name a few – extending from two to 21 days prior to polling.

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). One must remember that this freedom is not absolute and allows for ‘reasonable restrictions’.


Conducting Exit Polls Fairly

  • Opposition to ban on exit polls is on the grounds that such a move flouts the freedom of speech and expression.
  • EC being a witness to ‘paid news’ suspects the transparency of opinion polls.
  • Conducting exit polls also amounts to dissemination of results and hence is illegal.
  • An independent regulator that could set standards of poll research would be a viable option.

Restrictions in India

Several restrictions have, in fact, been imposed by the IPC and the Representation of the People Act, 1951. For instance, there can be no campaign during the 48 hours preceding the end of polling. Personal attacks and appeals in the name of caste and religion are disallowed. The use of loudspeakers from 10 pm to 6 am stands banned. Exit polls were banned in 2008 by an amendment to the RP Act and this has not been challenged in court.

While the Constitution allows for reasonable restrictions on freedom of expression, the EC’s mandate to conduct free and fair elections is absolute. The Supreme Court in a series of judgements has emphasised this requirement: “Democracy cannot survive without free and fair elections” (Union of India vs ADR 2003). “Free and fair elections is the basic structure of the constitution” (PUCL vs Union of India, 2013 (NOTA Judgment)). “The heart of the parliamentary system is free and fair elections” (Mohinder Singh Gill vs CEC of India, 1977). No one can argue that free and fair elections must be subjected to some restrictions. It is a non-negotiable requirement. Every election must be totally free and fair.


EC’s Suspicions

Why does the EC feel that opinion and exit polls will interfere with free and fair elections?

Having seen ‘paid news’ in action, it always suspects that most opinion polls in India are non-transparent, often sponsored, motivated and biased. With such infirmities, these ‘polls’ amount to disinformation designed to cause ‘undue influence’ which is an ‘electoral offence’ under the IPC and a ‘corrupt practice’ under the RP Act.

A sting operation by the News Express TV channel confirmed the open secret. It showed how in exchange for money polling companies were willing to manipulate the results by tinkering with sample size, margin of error and even deleting the negative samples. They claimed that nobody will understand what the margin of error means.

Exit polls flout the very spirit of fair elections. It’s time India considered setting up a regulator.
(Infographic: Harsh Sahani/ The Quint)

Previous Demand for Ban

The demand for a ban on opinion polls was unanimous at two all-party meetings hosted by the EC in 1997 and 2004. The only difference of opinion was whether the ban should apply from the date of announcement of the poll schedule or from the date of notification.

In 1998, the EC issued guidelines which were challenged in the SC where a five-judge Constitution Bench heard the case. On the court’s query on how the EC would enforce these in the absence of a law, the EC withdrew the guidelines till a law was enacted. This left the constitutionality issue undecided. So, in 2008, the matter finally went to Parliament which banned exit but not opinion polls (126A, RP Act).

Soon thereafter, the political parties came back to the EC, complaining about opinion polls again. It is not understood why the parties, who were unanimous in demanding a ban both on opinion and exit polls, did not pass it in Parliament in entirety, confining the ban to the conduct and dissemination of exit polls only.

Incidentally, despite a clear ban, the media has been constantly flouting it by conducting exit polls on poll days, though showing the result at the closure of polling on the last day. They conveniently forget that even conducting polling, not just dissemination, is illegal. It is surprising that the EC turns a blind eye to this violation. In fact, the EC order imposing the ban allows dissemination half-an-hour after voting on the last day of polling.


Confused Debate

The issue, to ban or not to ban, was precipitated in 2013 when the Law Ministry advised the EC to seek the views of all political parties on opinion polls once more. All the parties demanded a ban – yet again – with one exception this time. This converted a long-pending unanimous demand into a slanging match between two major political parties.

An interesting part of the debate was the refrain that “opinion polls don’t make any significant difference to voters’ choice”. Now, what is a “significant” difference? Even a single voter, cheated into believing that ‘X’ is winning and falling in line (because of the bandwagon effect) is bad enough. That can alter the result. Another question that arises is if opinion polls make no “significant” difference to public opinion, why are political parties willing to splurge on them?


Of Doubtful Integrity

The integrity of opinion polls is not just doubted by political parties and the EC alone. Even the Press Council of India, a statutory media regulatory body predominated by media owners, has this to say: “This has become necessary to emphasise today, since the print media is sought to be exploited by interested individuals or groups to misguide and mislead the unwary voters by subtle and not-so-subtle propaganda on casteist, religious and ethnic basis as well as by the use of sophisticated means like the alleged poll surveys.”

Interestingly, the EC itself conducts its opinion polls. All state assembly and general elections since 2010 were preceded by KABP (Knowledge, Attitude, Behaviour and Practice) surveys to know what voters think and want, why they are apathetic to register themselves, why they don’t come out to vote, etc. The insights gained helped the EC develop strategies for voter education and facilitation that has virtually created a participation revolution with all states recording unprecedented registration and turnouts.


The Way Forward

Opinion polls would be fine only if their integrity was beyond doubt. What can be done to ensure this? Ideally, an independent regulator will be a viable option. The regulator could set up standards of professional integrity for all poll research and accredit the agencies which want to be in this business and are willing to subject their operational details (sample size, sampling methodology, timeframe, quality of training of research staff etc.) to scrutiny.

A model of professional and ethical rules, which market researchers follow, already exists in the European Society for Opinion and Market Research (ESOMAR), and the World Association for Public Opinion Research (WAPOR). The guidelines on opinion polls and published surveys of these organisations set out the responsibilities of researchers to conduct opinion polls in a professional and ethical way.

These guidelines highlight the information that researchers and those publishing survey data must make available to enable the public and other stakeholders to evaluate the results. They provide guidance on different types of opinion polls, including exit and online polls. India could easily join these organisations or set up its own professional body on the same lines. This is one reform which needs to be considered without any delay.


(The writer is a former Chief Election Commissioner and the author of ‘An Undocumented Wonder – the Making of the Great Indian Election’. He can be reached @DrSYQuraishi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

Also Read: Not Just Note Bans, State Funding of Parties Needed to Fight Graft

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