Poll positions

A ban on opinion polls during elections is unnecessary. It would also be unreasonably restrictive.

It is attorney general versus attorney general on the propriety of opinion polls during elections. The serving AG, Goolam E. Vahanvati, argues that opinion polls are in the same category as exit polls, which are already banned. He opines that the government can ban them as undesirable influencers of voter choice. But in 2004, Soli Sorabjee, the then AG, had advised the government that a ban would infringe upon the constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech. As the government seeks a way out from between a rock and a hard place, it would do well to remember that this argument trumps all else.

Another way out would be to lighten up. Opinion polls only speculate on how voters may behave in the future. Given the methodology and sample sizes that some use, they are frequently and spectacularly wrong. In fact, they could even be regarded as entertainment rather than news. They do not have the compelling force of exit polls, which could arguably encourage herd behaviour in multi-phase elections by revealing how voters have actually behaved elsewhere. But the question also is: if opinion polls are to be banned, would that argument be stretched to curbs on the media next? After all, doesn't the media try to influence the public with opinion and speculation? Persuasion is the basis of all democratic processes, so it is best not to embark on this path at all. Whether or not opinion pollsters are reliable, the bottom line is that they have a right to be heard.

The EC's motives in pushing the government on the question of opinion polls are above suspicion. It seeks to protect the sanctity of the poll process. Innovating from the time of T.N. Seshan onwards, it has largely secured its objective. The impunity with which muscle and money was in play during elections is almost history. Yet another ban is unnecessary. But interestingly, major political parties have always supported a ban on opinion polls. Now, that's suspicious, isn't it?

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