New Delhi: India’s cabinet is expected to discuss on Thursday ways to restrict and regulate opinion and exit polls during elections slated for several state assemblies later this year as well as national elections likely in early-to-mid 2009.
The law ministry had moved a proposal to restrict publication and dissemination of opinion polls because the government believes such results can influence voters who are yet to vote. Elections in India are usually spread out over several days, even weeks.
Mint couldn’t immediately ascertain the exact nature of the restrictions that are being considered on voter polls. In the US, for instance, television networks typically wait for a state’s polls to close before they disclose predictions from so-called exit polls that are conducted as people come out of polling booths.
Two well-regarded psephologist—opinion poll specialists—concede that polls can have the ability to influence voters in multi-stage elections but differ on whether the government should place restrictions on such surveys.
N. Bhaskara Rao of the Centre for Media Studies, who pioneered opinion polls in India back in the early 1970s, says that some control over the publication of such polls would be in the interests of democracy.
“The opinion polls are being misused now,” he said. “There is no transparency, often misleading voters using it as a campaign instrument and vitiating the campaign. They do not reveal who funds them, how it was done.”
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, head of Development and Research Services, a research firm that also does voter polls, says he is against any restrictions on opinion polls.
“It is not reasonable to say that in multiple-phase national elections, you have to wait for all phases to be completed to publish the exit poll results of states that went to polls in the first phase,” he said. “In our country, trends vary from state to state and the outcome of one state doesn’t impact the voters of another.” Narasimha Rao writes the Monday Bottom Line column in Mint.
Ravi Shankar Prasad, a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, saw hidden motives in government’s proposal. “I would like to say that the timing of such a legislation—if it is there—indicates that the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government knows that it is going to lose the election,” he claimed.
In 2004, India’s Election Commission suggested some restrictions on opinion polls. The move was then supported by all political parties but widely criticised by the media and legal experts. Soli J. Sorabjee, attorney general then, refused to support a law banning opinion and exit polls because he said doing this would violate the freedom of speech and expression, a fundamental right laid down by the Constitution.
Sruthijith K.K. contributed to this story.