The information and broadcasting ministry and the cabinet are mulling over an ordinance to empower the Election Commission to ban exit polls. Their argument is that exit polls interfere with fair conduct of elections. The ban, impinging on the constitutional guarantee to freedom of expression, makes no economic sense and would be detrimental to democracy itself.
Faced with election predictions (including exit polls), some voters depict “bandwagon effect” (vote for winning parties), others show “underdog effect” (vote for losing parties), while yet others remain unaffected. There is no empirical evidence to prove that on the whole Indian voters go one way or the other. And an exit poll is just one of the many predictions. Political analysts, economists, village elders, astrologers and politicians themselves also predict election results. A ban on exit polls would only shift voters to substitutes, and in no way shield them from views on who will win.
Insofar as exit polls may be influenced by political affiliations of institutions that conduct it, the same forces also sway individual opinion makers. Moreover, exist polls are disciplined by the markets as different institutions gain credibility (and profits) by being more accurate. Institutions live longer than individuals, and hence are far less inclined to make dishonest predictions for short-term gains.
The potential ban poses a serious threat to democracy itself. Exit polls are an institutional mechanism against rigging of elections by political parties. Landslide victory for a candidate who by exit polls was going to get only 5% of votes will raise serious doubts on the “fairness” of elections in the minds of citizens. The press, non-governmental organizations and public interest groups may then prod the Election Commission to look into the case. It is precisely for the fear of these dynamics that Robert Mugabe banned foreign and independent exit polls in Zimbabwe, when faced with the strongest opposite in more than two-and-a-half decades of rule.
The Election Commission — entrusted with the responsibility of conducting fair elections — is, at the end of the day, an organ of the state. Curbing freedoms of non-state actors would in no way contribute to fairer elections.
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