Electoral Reforms In India

Opinion polls


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Read the attached story

Mains level: Exit and Opinion Polls in India

Every election season, we find television channels flooded with opinion polls and subsequently exit polls after the casting of votes.

What are Opinion Polls?

  • Opinion polls are similar to surveys or an inquiry designed to gauge public opinion about a specific issue or a series of issues in a scientific and unbiased manner.
  • This term has got wide recognition for assessing outcomes of elections in India.
  • In most democracies, opinion and exit polls are common during elections.
  • In India, the ECI allows the dissemination of the exit poll results half an hour after the end of polling on the last poll day.

How are they conducted?

  • Interviewers/reporters ask questions of people chosen at random from the population being measured.
  • Responses are given, and interpretations are made based on the results.
  • It is important in a random sample that everyone in the population being studied has an equal chance of participating.
  • Otherwise, the results could be biased and, therefore, not representative of the population.

Need of such polls

  • Popular opinion: Polls are simply a measurement tool that tells us how a population thinks and feels about any given topic.
  • Specific viewpoint: Polls tell us what proportion of a population has a specific viewpoint.
  • Opportunity to express: Opinion polling gives people who do not usually have access to the media an opportunity to be heard.

Issues with such polls (in context to elections)

  • Authenticity: Critics have often questioned their authenticity.
  • Manipulation of voters: This largely manipulates the voting behavior.
  • Sensationalization by media: The media, on the other hand, invariably opposes the idea of a ban as seat forecasts attract primetime viewership.
  • Ridiculing the public mandate: The exit polls largely disrespect public opinions inciting confusion regarding the election mandate.

Why does it persist in India?

Ans. Exercise of Free Speech

  • 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).
  • What is conveniently forgotten is that this freedom is not absolute and allows for “reasonable restrictions” in the same article.

Limited restrictions that we have in India

  • RP Act: The Indian Penal Code and Representation of the People Act, 1951 do contain certain restrictions against disinformation.
  • Restrictions on A19: While the Constitution allows for reasonable restrictions on freedom of expression, its mandate to the ECI for free and fair elections is absolute.
  • Supreme Court interpretations: The Supreme Court (SC), in a series of judgments, has emphasized this requirement.
  • Basic structure doctrine: It considers free and fair elections is the basic structure of the Constitution (PUCL vs Union of India, 2003; NOTA judgment, 2013).

Examples of restrictions

  • Restrictions are imposed in many countries, extending from two to 21 days prior to the poll — Canada, France, Italy, Poland, Turkey, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, to name a few examples.
  • In India, all political parties too have opposed these polls, demanding a ban — except when they are shown as winning.

Why does the ECI feel that opinion polls interfere with free and fair elections?

  • Prevalence of paid news in India: Having seen “paid news” in action, it apprehends that some opinion polls may be sponsored, motivated and biased.
  • Opacity: Almost all polls are non-transparent, providing little information on the methodology.
  • Propaganda: Subtle propaganda on casteist, religious and ethnic basis as well as by the use of sophisticated means like the alleged poll surveys create public distrust in poll process.
  • Disinformation: With such infirmities, many “polls” amount to misinformation that can result in “undue influence”, which is an “electoral offense” under IPC Section 171 (C). It is a “corrupt practice” under section 123 (2) of the RP Act.
  • Betting: The polling agencies manipulate the margin of error, victory margin for candidates, seat projections for a party or hide negative findings.

Call for a ban in India

  • The demand for a ban on opinion polls is not new.
  • At all-party meets called by the Election Commission in 1997 and 2004, there was unanimous demand for a ban.
  • The difference of opinion was only on whether the ban should apply from the announcement of the poll schedule or the date of notification.

Moves by ECI

  • In 1998, the ECI issued guidelines that were challenged in the SC.
  • A five-judge Constitution Bench asked the ECI how it would enforce these decisions in the absence of a law.
  • Realizing its weakness, the ECI withdrew the guidelines.
  • Unfortunately, this left the constitutionality of the issue

Way forward

  • Independent regulator: Ideally a body like the British Polling Council would be a viable option. India could set up its own professional, self-regulated body on the same lines say Indian Polling Council.
  • Mandatory disclosure: All polling agencies must disclose for scrutiny the sponsor, besides sample size, methodology, time frame, quality of training of research staff, etc.


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