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

Ban on opinion polls is a contentious issue, with neither the poll panel nor the government willing to take a stand.

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Ban on opinion polls is a contentious issue, with neither the poll panel nor the government willing to take a stand.

The ongoing round of state assembly elections has vigorously reignited the decades-old debate on trustworthiness and accountability of opinion polls vs freedom of expression of the print and electronic media.

From the iconic images of India Today, having correctly predicted 400+ seats post Indira Gandhi’s assassination in the 1984 general elections to the opinion polls consistently going wrong in almost all recent elections with the exception of Narendra Modi’s 2014 victory, questions surrounding these polls require a close scrutiny.

Surprisingly though, the political class, whose stakes are the highest in the telecast/publication of opinion polls, has been bitterly divided on the issue, with even major political players having taken inconsistent stands, depending on who would be the likely beneficiary in the prediction of these polls.

Also Read: India Today Opinion Poll: Clear Majority for BJP, Akhilesh for CM

Ban on opinion polls is a contentious issue, with neither the poll panel nor the government willing to take a stand.
(Infographic: Harsh Sahani/ The Quint)

Reform Mooted During the Vajpayee Regime

The Election Commission, which previously made all possible attempts to stall the telecast/publication of opinion polls during the last two decades, for some strange reason, now seems to have given up its pro-active approach on this critical issue.

A clear and categorical stand was taken by the then Chief Election Commissioner Dr MS Gill in 1999 against the opinion polls, when the EC went to the extent of seeking legal sanction from the Supreme Court for its notification seeking a ban on the opinion and exit polls during the entire election period; the Supreme Court, however, refused to rule in favour of the Commission.

The next major step was taken by the EC, five years later, before the 2004 general elections, when the then CEC Mr TS Krishnamurthy convened an all-party meeting. Armed with the unanimous resolution to ban opinion polls since these influenced the voters’ minds, Krishnamurthy asked the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government to ban opinion polls during the election period.

That attempt too, could not succeed with the then government’s top law officer, Attorney General Soli Sorabjee, opining that freedom of expression should not be curtailed, leading to the move being shelved.


Debate On the Freedom of Expression

The change of government at the Centre in 2004 led to the change in government’s stand. Sorabjee’s successor, Late Milon K Banerji opined that no doubt freedom of expression was guaranteed in the fundamental rights of the Constitution, but it is subject to reasonable restrictions.

The UPA government, which interestingly was returned to power in 2009, left opinion polls untouched before that election and it was only in 2013, when the EC again took up the matter of seeking restrictions on these polls, that the Manmohan Singh government began to ponder seriously over the issue.

Then Attorney General, Late GE Vahanvati in 2013 supported the EC view that a ban on opinion polls for at least 30 days – ahead of elections – was legally valid and should be implemented.

There is no real basis for distinguishing between exit and opinion polls. Restrictions on exit polls, till voting is over in all phases, have been in force since 2009 and there does not appear to be any challenge to this. What is paramount is the necessity to have free and fair elections and such opinion polls often tend to cause a prejudicial effect on the voters’ mind.
Late GE Vahanvati, Former Attorney General

The Law Ministry in turn asked the EC to invoke its powers under Article 324 of the Constitution and restrict opinion polls for the period it so wanted, but the Commission wanted the government to amend the law.


Ban on Opinion Polls Legally Untenable

Since the political atmosphere was rapidly changing ahead of the 2014 general elections, the outgoing UPA government and the EC both decided to play safe and maintained the status quo.

No doubt, a blanket ban on opinion polls is legally untenable and has not been imposed in any democracy across the world, but given the inaccuracy and questions surrounding their credibility – given wrong predictions in the recent past – some reasonable restrictions are certainly required.

The EC is well within its right to restrict the publication and telecast of opinion polls as soon as it announces the enforcement of the model code of conduct for elections.

Allowing opinion polls to be aired till 48-hours before voting is abdication of responsibility by the commission. The EC needs to assert itself to keep its impartiality above doubt.


(A former journalist with the BBC and Hindustan Times, the writer is media adviser to the Delhi chief minister. He can be reached at @sharmanagendar. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

Also Read: In Opinion Polls We Trust: BJP Lead in UP May Give BSP Upper Hand

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