The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy organised on November 22, a public discussion, “Do Opinion Polls Inform or Mislead Voters?” at The Hindu’s headquarters in Chennai. The discussion was held against the backdrop of a proposal by the Election Commission of India (EC) to the Government of India for a provision in the law to prohibit publishing and dissemination of results of opinion polls from the date of notification of an election.
Rather than viewing the EC proposal in isolation, the public discussion focussed on examining two broad issues:
a) Do pre-election opinion polls tangibly influence decisions of voters?
b) In case they do, do they inform or mislead voters and thereby adversely affect the reflection of popular opinion?
Panelists at the discussion included Mr. B. S. Gnanadesikan, President of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee (TNCC), Mr. H. Raja, State Vice-President, Bharatiya Janata Party, Mr. G. Ramakrishnan, Secretary of the Tamil Nadu State Committee of the CPI(M), Mr. D. Pandian, senior leader and State Secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI), Mr. T.K.S. Elangovan, MP and Organising Secretary of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), and Mr. Panruti S. Ramachandran, Chairman of the Presidium, Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK).
In his introductory remarks, Mr. N. Ram, Chairman of Kasturi and Sons Ltd., and Member of the Board of Management, The Hindu Centre, urged the panelists to reflect on the two broad issues, and pointed out that the method in which vote-shares were converted to seats remained unknown.
Kicking off the discussion, Mr. Gnanadesikan from the TNCC stated the party position that polls should be regulated. He said that the secrecy of voting must be maintained at any cost, and polls would prejudice voters, since most opinion polls are conducted by agencies which are employed by media houses or corporate entities. He raised the issue of transparency in the conduct of opinion polls and called for greater disclosure, particularly of funding.
The role of the EC was to create a level playing field and opinion polls could influence the undecided voter. “Predicting that a party will come to power, affects other parties because roughly 10-15 per cent of voters who can be the deciding factor can be influenced by the polls,” he said. Instead, he felt that the voter must judge the parties and cast their vote based on the campaigning and platforms of the political parties. He also challenged the science behind opinion polls as conducted in India.
Mr. H. Raja said the BJP was in favour of the publication of opinion polls and that the efficacy of opinion polls depends on how representative the sample is. It should be allowed and banning it infringes on freedom of opinion and speech, according to Article 19 (1) of the Constitution. Contending that the Indian electorate is highly mature, he asked whether opinion polls really influence voters; instead, opinion polls can throw up a wealth of information in regard to the attitudes of the electorate and the key issues that they were interested in, which would be valuable to political parties to learn from, and act upon. Sometimes, though, opinion polls are wrong simply because of the wrong methodology used, and there was a strong case to support opinion polls and strengthen them by using the right methodology, he said.
Mr. G. Ramakrishnan stated the CPI (M)’s position that opinion polls should be allowed with reasonable restrictions, namely, that they should not be published for a reasonable period of time, adding, the EC should discuss with all the stake-holders what a reasonable period could be. The party was opposed to a blanket ban, he said, and the EC should provide some guidelines for the opinion polls. He called for complete transparency in the conduct and dissemination of opinion polls, including sample size, methodology and sources of funding.
Mr. D. Pandian, CPI, urged that opinion polls must be regulated and that the media behind these polls had biases and questioned the motivation behind the polls, stating that it was more to influence, rather than inform people. Hence opinion polls need to be regulated and not banned outright.
Mr. T.K.S. Elangovan, DMK, was of the view that opinion polls have an impact on the undecided voter by creating an environment and discourse based on which the undecided electorate voted. The DMK believed that results of opinion polls should not be disseminated during the time that the model code of conduct was in force. He questioned the BJP’s projection of Narendra Modi as the party’s Prime Ministerial candidate, and said that all the propaganda was projecting the man and his experience as an administrator in Gujarat, rather than the party's core electoral plank.
Mr. Panruti S. Ramachandran, Chairman of the Presidium of the DMDK, said that the essence of democracy was to enable the voter to make an informed choice. Opinion polls are only one mechanism through which the voters got their information about various candidates and political parties, in order to make informed choices with regard to their ballot.
Rather than ban opinion polls, Mr. Ramachandran called for reasonable restrictions to ensure that from the date of notification of the elections to the polling date, the results are not disseminated. Opinion polls helped political parties to gauge voters’ minds, get some feedback about what voters think about governance issues, and carry out course correction, if required. However, care should be taken about the quality of such surveys to ensure the highest standards which would help parties, and voters, make the right decisions. He said that opinion polls should keep track of the defining issues at the time of election which was what was crucial.
Prof. Rajeeva Karandikar, Director of the Chennai Mathematical Institute, and a noted pollster, concurred with Mr. Ramachandran’s view that opinion polls should be about polls and not about opinion. He said that in the Indian context a good section of people had a tendency to vote for the winner in the light of projections by opinion polls, but that factor was now negated by the multiplicity of agencies now doing opinion polls.
Conceding that though there were some limitations in the mathematical model that he had developed to convert vote share to number of seats, one could come out with predictions with a fair amount of confidence. He said that several polls do fall short on the count of technical expertise and endorsed the view that transparency is crucial. Under the first-past-the-post system, any seat projections from vote shares had its own limitations. For more accurate projections, larger surveys needed to be done in constituencies, but funding and finding trained personnel to undertake the surveys were some of the limitations, Prof. Karandikar said.
Mr. N. Ravi, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, and member of the Board of Management of The Hindu Centre, pointed out that the former Attorney General, Soli Sorabjee, had made it clear that under Article 19 (1) (2) of the Constitution, there was no ground for the EC to ban opinion polls. Further, the EC had sought to enforce the ban on the publication of the results of the opinion polls, on the grounds that it could influence undecided voters, though it had no jurisdiction over the media. Moreover, the EC had come to its present position based on discussion with political parties alone and other stakeholders were not consulted in this process, he said. The EC’s fear that it might influence the undecided voters was not valid enough to ban opinion polls, he opined.
In the lively public interaction that followed, the overall sense that emerged at the end of the absorbing three-hour-long discussion that included members of the public, was that none of the political parties were in favour of a total ban on opinion polls. The need for more scientific polling, transparency in methods, funding, and methodology was crucial, according to most of the panellists and discussants.
Ms. Vasundhara Sirnate, Chief Research Coordinator, The Hindu Centre, said that professionally conducted surveys could be critical in political decision-making from the electorate’s point of view. She added that many political surveys included questions that helped estimate the frequency and quality of the interaction between voters and their representatives. Scientific and well conducted opinion polls, she added, provided objective insights to political parties, in contrast to those provided by party loyalists.
Summing up the discussion, Mr. N. Ram pointed out that there has been no ‘great militancy’ in the panel to oppose pre-election opinion polls and said that the EC was making too tall a claim when it said that there was unanimity among political parties on this issue of banning publication of opinion polls from the date of notification of an election until its completion. He endorsed Mr. Panruti Ramachandran’s view that the media itself could work out a regulatory framework for the publication of opinion poll results.