Can opinion polls be more damaging than the lies politicians tell?

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Does it really matter if opinion polls get it right? The news has been dominated by the story of the UPA government’s letter dated 30 October expressing agreement with the Election Commission’s misgivings about opinion polls in India and supporting a ban on them between the announcement of the election schedule and the final phase of polling. The broadcasting and publication of exit polls is already barred in India until half an hour after the final phase of polling.

Such polls, the EC argues, affect voter behaviour, particularly if exit poll results are released before all voting is finished. Of course, jumping the gun by announcing election results based on exit polls can make anyone look stupid. Somewhere on YouTube are clips of confident British TV presenters announcing a hung Parliament in 1992 only to find that the Conservative Party, against the results of every poll, had in fact won the election, albeit with a reduced majority. The extent to which the polls got it wrong led to an inquiry and a revised methodology.

Opinion polls in India are often inaccurate. The regional complexities, variety of parties, sheer number of people and a system in which vote share can bear little resemblance to the number of seats won makes polling an intricate, delicate business. And intricacy and delicacy are not attributes associated with political parties eager to trumpet favourable results, or a media just eager to trumpet any sort of result so long as there are clear winners and losers.

By calling for a ‘ban’ on opinion polls, the Congress should have known it was setting itself up for ridicule. Recent polls for important upcoming elections — including Delhi, where the three-time incumbent Sheila Dikshit is predicted to be in a tight, likely losing race with the upstarts of the Aam Aadmi Party — suggest an outlook for the Congress as hazy and dim as the post- Diwali Delhi sky. Any complaints about polls was bound to be spun as sour grapes. And how the Congress complained. Even a leader as unruffled as the media-savvy Digvijaya Singh spluttered with anger, describing opinion polls as a “joke” and calling for them to be “stopped”.

Did Singh have a point? Probably. There is no question that too many polls are flawed, their methodology unclear, their caveats and margins for error ignored in the gleeful reporting of ‘results’. But polls, as with everything in politics, are as much about appearance as accuracy. Whatever the justice of the Congress’ complaints — and opinion polls are a longstanding irritant for most political parties — it looks like a churlish incumbent lashing out at results it doesn’t like. No wonder Narendra Modi and Arun Jaitley took their chance to get some sly digs in.

Rather than call for a ban, the Congress should have called for more clarity. For methodology that is transparent, for sample sizes and margins for error that are clearly disclosed. For more rigour. It is strange to worry about polls influencing voter behaviour when everything in an election season is calculated to influence voter behaviour. Whether it is the passing of wide-ranging, landmark Bills, or the building of vainglorious, foolishly expensive statues, everything is presumed to have electioneering as its motive, its impetus.

Opinion polls are already banned 48 hours before an election. Candidates can’t go on TV or display any ‘election matter’ during that period. The EC has been working overtime to ensure ‘fairness’. But it’s a strange sort of fairness that alights on opinion polls rather than questions of election funding and expenditure.

Opinion polls are just more noise. Can they be any more damaging than the lies politicians tell, the gifts offered to bribe voters, the various ways from misleading to pernicious that parties use to coax votes their way? By protesting something so minor as the skewed pictures painted by opinion polls, the Congress seems to be rattled by a General Election still months away.

Around the same time as the AICC’s now infamous letter to the EC, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry sent a circular to TV channels bemoaning the coverage devoted to Modi’s criticisms of the prime minister’s Independence Day speech. Again, whatever the merit of the complaint, the impression is of a prickly government, over-involved in the speech of others, unattractively insecure about its weakening hold on power.

In the end, in democracies, voters decide. Political parties cannot insulate themselves from that basic, terrifying fact. In the end, political parties must surrender control.

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