Distinctly missing in our election discourse this time are the infamous exit polls. The number of opinion polls and exit polls held during the last parliamentary elections (2004) was unprecedented and this time, the number was expected to be much more given the larger number of news channels (see graph).
Also See Prohibited (Graphic)
However, the Election Commission (EC) finally got its say and imposed a ban which specifically states: “No result of any opinion poll or exit poll conducted at any time would be published, publicized or disseminated...” from 48 hours before the first poll to until the last phase of polling. Even “circulation by means of any pamphlet, poster, placard, handbill or any other document” is prohibited. The expression “election matter” in the notification has been defined as “any matter intended or calculated to influence or effect the result of an election”. EC further specified that panel discussions, debates and interview with political personalities might be telecast, provided “they are not in the nature of an election campaign or promoting or prejudicing the prospects of any particular party or candidate”.
Also Read PN Vasanti’s earlier columns
There are two major reasons behind this move by EC. One is the influence that such surveys may have on voting behaviour. The second is the blatant misuse of such surveys by the media. Studies on the role of pre-poll surveys by the Centre for Media Studies have established that they do affect voters and campaigns in several ways.
Thus the bandwagon effect or the tendency of voters to go along with the winner. In some cases, the polls could have a pre-emptive effect or forestall voting behaviour or participation in the democratic processes. In some others, voters may feel pity for projected losers—the underdog effect. Or projected winners could take victory for granted and not work towards it.
One reason why media houses commissioned polls was to get an objective picture of how citizens felt and pegged discussions around this. However, one of the reasons why EC banned these surveys was because some of them were being misused by the media. The problem lies in overhyping the findings or presenting them in a distorted way and distorting the way they are presented. For instance, the front page banner headline of two leading dailies for a story on the same exit poll on 21 April 2004 (the first phase of polling of the last Lok Sabha elections) was “NDA (National Democratic Alliance) storms round one” and “No clear winner after round one”.
As someone who has worked on numerous large scale opinion polls and behavioural studies, I understand the utility and relevance of such studies. Surveys and their findings perform the function of enabling citizens to communicate with and tell one another what they think. Rigorously done, such studies also bring to fore the real concerns of citizens. To understand voter behaviour and changing trends, we do need independent field surveys at various points in time before an election, including exit polls and post-poll surveys. Nevertheless, I have never been in favour of publicizing exit poll findings, especially during multi-phase elections.
During the 2004 elections, we saw some news media present such surveys (specially exit polls) as an election before the actual election, thereby creating an atmosphere for influencing public opinion in accordance with the interests of the sponsors of the opinion polls and surveys. Another serious charge against the media’s use of such pre-poll surveys is that it fixes the parameters of the political debate, bringing to the fore certain issues at the expense of others. Some also argue that these media-driven polls and surveys are an exercise in consolidating and feeding into the prejudices and cynicism that informs the middle class about the politics in our country.
However, is the ban the solution to such a scenario? Even with the ban, exit polls have not ceased from being conducted by political parties and leaders, powerful lobbies and research agencies. The only ban is on their use in media or other channels of public communication. Still, the news media did refer to these polls as they are restricted only from being used in public communication channels. But reference to such (private) exit polls in between the phases was obvious in some news media.
For instance, after the first phase of the polls on 16 April, The Economic Times, The Tribune, The Asian Age, The Pioneer and the Dainik Bhaskar carried columns or news prominently with predictions on the outcome, referring or attributing this to surveys.
This happened even on the television channels. For instance, NTV, a Telugu news channel, put out a 30-minute programme on 25 April with a forecast about the Lok Sabha and Andhra Pradesh state assembly elections and held a discussion around the surveys. Similarly, after the second phase of elections on 23 April, NDTV did a review of the days polling with inputs from a professional polling agency. NDTV also features a special programme giving seat projections based on its reporters’ feedback and a forecast by analysts. Of course, there was no mention of “exit poll” or even “survey”.
Clearly then, banning media coverage of exit polls or even pre-poll surveys is not preferable. The way out could be for greater self-regulation among our media for more objective and transparent surveys with clear disclosure norms and conditions.
Some important points to be kept in mind could be that the analysis presented should not be: pre-emptive of citizen activism; provocative of our divides; and not dictated by conflict of interest of news media and the polling agency. The assertions in the coverage should be explanatory, not conclusive. The analysis should be objective and not one-sided. And it should differentiate between sponsored (paid) content and views and news.
I am suggesting these more by way of encouraging greater self-discipline in sharing information “responsibly” with the public at large. Both “freedom of speech” as well as holding of “free and fair polls” are paramount for a vibrant democracy.
P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies. Your comments and feedback on this column, which runs every other Friday, are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint