To ban or not to ban opinion polls, that is the question. At present, for the Congress party living with opinion poll results while the Assembly elections in five states draw near can’t be easy. Especially, if the findings show the Grand Old Party is on a sticky wicket.
Opinion polls have not brought any cheer to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, predicting slide in the ruling alliance's tally amid rising dissatisfaction among large sections of urban voters over its performance. However, it said the biggest surprise was that the UPA's loss is not automatically translating to big gains for the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
Party insiders say the Congress was rattled when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) recently cited a survey that purportedly showed the AAP as leading the race for Delhi and its leader Arvind Kejriwal as the most popular candidate for Chief Minister.
The Congress party is of the view that random surveys ‘lack credibility’ and could be ‘manipulated and manoeuvred’ by people with ‘vested interests’. There is, of course, no agreement on whether or not opinion polls actually do influence voting. Also, there is no research or any concrete proof to suggest that pre-poll surveys affect voting pattern.
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Probably, it’ll be risky to see the outcome in the Assembly polls as a precursor to next year’s Lok Sabha elections. The contexts of the two elections are vastly different. As of now, political observers find it difficult to predict the state electorates would vote in the same manner in 2014 Lok Sabha polls. There have been many signs of the growing disenchantment among the voters in the states with the way the respective governments have ruled for the past five years. Their anger will be reflected in the verdict; and it would barely change the national scene.
Political analysts are of the view that even in the late 90s, when the coalition era began, voting preferences had remained fairly stable. It is evident that certain groups in society, most of the time, vote in specific ways. The emergence of the caste-based parties in Hindi heartland is indicative of this. However, the bloc voting along caste and communal lines is not good for democracy but only to demonstrate that voters are least influenced by external factors like what they read/hear in the media about electoral choices in other areas.
Election campaigning ends only 48 hours before polling closes, and political parties and their followers are free to indulge in canvassing to influence voters till then. There is one school of thought that argues that if parties and candidates are allowed to try and influence voters during the campaign period, why cannot the media or others publish poll findings that may or may not impact voter behaviour?
Any ban on opinion polls would tantamount to infringement of the fundamental right to speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution. Of course, this freedom is subject to reasonable restrictions listed in Article 19(2): in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. Any hypothetical influence on voters does not figure in this list.
Political pundits say opinion poll predictions may not capture the big picture in Indian politics. It would be risky, therefore, to read too much into the outcome of the recent pre-poll surveys. But it reaffirms the importance of alliances in electoral politics. In 2009, most opinion polls correctly forecast the Congress would win more seats than the opposition BJP but underestimated the size of its winning margin. The Congress-led coalition won 262 seats. After 10 years in power, the UPA government is facing an uphill task to convince voters it deserves a third term.
Several recent predictions have put BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and the BJP ahead in some of the state polls and the general election. Pre-poll surveys predict that the BJP is likely to win around 162 seats in 545-members Lok Sabha next year, versus approximately 102 for the Congress party. Political commentators say that it’s too early to gauge the public mood.
Who Stands Where
. Key BJP ally Akali Dal, as well as BSP, SP and DMK have supported the ban on opinion polls
. CPI-M and CPI favoured regulating such polls, especially once the elections are announced and Model Code of Conduct comes into force
. NCP favours a body like the Press Council to ensure such polls are 'not sponsored' like paid news