Release of Opinion Poll Days Before MCD Poll is ‘Unethical’, Though Not illegal

Politicians believe such polls influence voters, adversely impact all parties barring the one shown to be winning.

A voting official marks the finger of a voter inside a polling booth during the second phase of state elections, in Azamgarh town in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh February 11, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Files

A voting official marks the finger of a voter inside a polling booth. Credit: Reuters/Files

With just one day to go for campaigning to end for the municipal elections in Delhi, an opinion poll has been released by ABP C-Voter which updates its earlier findings released a week back. Without going into what the opinion poll states, it is worth asking whether it is unethical to release such data on the eve of an election since it can impact the mind of the voter. It is pertinent to note that only two months ago, an FIR was registered after Dainik Jagran had published an exit poll in the midst of the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, which had projected that BJP was ahead in the state.

That exit poll was in gross violation of the Election Commission of India (EC) guidelines, which had barred the conduct of any such poll until even re-polling was completed.

What differentiates the current release of opinion polls is that the EC does not conduct these elections and so its guidelines do not apply here. The MCD polls are conducted by the State Election Commission under the Delhi government, which has issued no guidelines on opinion polls. But the issue of ethics remains, since the EC guidelines were designed to bring a parity in the poll process.

Incidentally, following the Jagran episode, after which the online editor of the publication house was arrested, the EC had issued a fresh advisory. In the advisory, it had even gone so far as to demand that astrologers, tarot card readers and even political analysts should not predict figures like winning margins or the number of seats a party is likely to win until all rounds of voting were completed.

For the record, the Representation of People’s Act, 1951, which governs Indian elections, bans exit polls in the middle of an election since it is perceived to influence voting.

Responding to the release of the opinion poll, Aman Panwar, in-charge of the Legal Department of Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee, said: “State Election Commission of Delhi and some news channels have grossly violated the guidelines of Election Commission of India which prohibit opinion polls on the eve of elections.’’

He claimed that “opinion polls are based on negligible data and more often than not have been proved wrong by the voters. Opinion polls are telecast before the elections only to benefit select political parties. However, after the recent results in Punjab they have completely lost credibility in public eye.” The Congress, he said, emerged as the dark horse there despite the polls pointing to the contrary.

Noted psephologist-turned-politician and founder of Swaraj India, Yogendra Yadav, said there are two parts to the issue. “One is a larger moral-political aspect and the other is a technical-legal aspect. Though technically, releasing opinion polls before the elections is legal, there is a window of 72-hours for releasing opinion polls as per the model code of conduct and needs to be considered. Technically this poll appears to be within the 72 hour time frame but I have heard that some channels are planning more opinion polls tomorrow and that would be completely illegal.”

However, the seasoned pollster said the media coverage is rapidly turning more into ‘satte-baazi‘, or betting on a horse race. “This adversely impacts the small and new parties because the voter sees two things – which is the party he likes and whether it is in a position to win. But more than opinion polls, it is the discussions surrounding them on television which impacts the ordinary voter.”

“So instead of opinion polls remaining merely an assessment of how the voting pattern may turn out, they are becoming a play unto themselves,” said Yadav, adding that “this indeed is a very dangerous trend.”

But, he said, “I have never been a votary of any ban but I have often demanded that there should be a code of conduct for these polls too, because otherwise someday a party that may have suffered due to them may just bring a law to ban these.”

The rules of conduct of elections of the national and state EC, he said, are different and similarly the Representation of People’s Act governs the EC polls and not those conducted by the state commission.

“As far as the larger moral-political question is concerned,” he said, “there is almost a pattern that opinion polls are first conducted and then huge claims are made in accordance with their findings as if the government has been formed on their basis.”

On whether opinion polls influence the minds of the voters, Yadav said the EC has made a technical difference between opinion polls and exit polls because while opinion polls are considered just a view, exit polls are considered more technical and precise, despite their having been proved wrong very often of late.