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Opinion Polls: An Effect To Defect?

By Ravi Nitesh

02 December, 2013

Opinion polls are to assess the ‘voter mood’, but is it really a mere reflection of opinions or does it itself help in forming/making opinions.

The Great Indian Election Festival, one of the world’s largest exercise of voting, is not an easy going process. It involves a huge government expenditure, responsibility and planning of officials. For India, the election becomes a festival, wherein every candidate tries to woo voters with their agendas, political parties with their manifestos, promises and other tools.

Opinion polls start before the elections, when every news channel, paper and portal starts guessing the public mood and that ‘who’ will be making the government this time. But now some political groups and individuals are demanding the ban of opinion polls. There is also an opposition to this proposal by so called progressive individuals and parties. So in this article, I would like to present some facts that can be considered.

Present Rule of Election Commission of India ‘recognizes’ the effect of Opinion Polls on Voters:

It should be noted that the election commission has already put a restriction on this opinion poll. Opinion polls are not allowed during 48 hours before the start of voting and till the last vote. Therefore opinion polls are of two type, pre poll and post poll. Putting this restriction by election commission itself ‘recognizes’ the possible danger or its harmful effect over the real vote cast process. This restriction somehow reflects that not restricting it before 48 hours can affect the voters and then can affect the actual polls. So the question is that if this restriction can start from 48 hours before, then why not even before that? If an opinion poll can divert a voter before 48 hours, it can obviously divert him/her 15 days before as well.

Marketing / Branding Effect on Voters & Opinion Polls

It is well known that in Indian elections, a lot of things depend on ‘leher’ (waves) that comes from mouth advertisements, posters, marketing, hoardings etc. It means that all these things not only provide a communication between the voters and parties/candidates but also work as a pressure tool to woo voters. In fact, more advertising may bring more votes. In view of this, election commission had already taken an initiative of defining election campaigning, expenditure on posters, vehicles etc. It again ‘recognizes’ the effect of advertisements/branding.

Opinion polls can be included in this list at an extent. It is because, in case of any discrepancy in opinion polls, it can work as marketing strategy that will surely be the most effective/defective one, because of media presence in all houses.

Role of Media: TRP Business, Vested Interests & Opinion Polls

It is to note that most of the media portals and channels are of private firms, who deals with ‘news’ as a ‘revenue earning’ medium. Profit it their primary motive. So, for them audience is very important. Opinion polls of these channels work as TRP to keep the public hooked. But it is not just to attract the audience and for their entertainment, the opinion polls also work to create the public mood.

Bandwagon Effect

Prof Ian MacAllister, in his famous paper 'Bandwagon , Underdog or Projection? Opinion polls and Electoral choice in Britain', observes that voters like to back a winner, they don't like to back a loser so if they see a party leading in the polls they're much more likely to gravitate towards that. He also observed that it can have an effect over the young undecided voters.

In Indian elections, we all know that still many persons do not cast their votes with all determination in democracy and of knowledge about its importance, but they cast it because ‘many’ people are casting in someone’s favor and then they too follow the same. In this case, opinion polls can dramatically increase the votes in favor of a specific party/candidate.

Right to research in Public

Data sampling and gathering the opinions can be claimed as an exercise important for scholarly purpose and for research about theory and behavior of democracies, however it must be noted that these research can be done without making it public, to avoid any effect over the ‘actual’ voting pattern.

Methodology in Indian Context: Data Sampling & Diversity

There is always a question on the methodology. How and what questions were asked, in fact the exact wordings of questions and the series of question has its importance. Similarly, the method of getting the answers, whether it was through a phone call (selected or random), e-mail, web based-survey or personal visit, is also important. The sample group, its demographic behavior, its economic status and various other factors also put a great difference in results. In the Indian context, it becomes more important in view of its diversity, rural-urban pattern, migration of population, developmental factors, diversity and belief in caste and religion etc. Who is conducting the opinion poll and from where it got funds also has to be considered.

It is known that a large section of population of India still lives in extreme poverty and illiteracy. They are divided in castes and subcastes. Even economical barriers and social customs are so stringent in Indian context. It may be a small reason that there is a tendency to follow what others are following and then again it can create an increase.

Opinion Polls: Ethics

BBC editorial guidelines reads "We should not lead a news bulletin or programme simply with the results of an opinion poll. We should not headline the results of an opinion poll unless it has prompted a story which itself deserves a headline and reference to the poll's findings is necessary to make sense of it.”

Radio NZ reads Opinion polls should always be treated with great care, but particularly during election campaigns when parties or pressure groups may try to target undecided voters by creating a poll-driven bandwagon effect.

Opinion Polls Prediction & Actual results

It is true that many times opinion polls have proved to be wrong and inaccurate after the poll results. This again has two angles, one that even if it proved to be inaccurate with data or wrong in results it predicted, it is possible that it had worked in its capacity to bring votes. Second is that if it is proved wrong, it mean its methodology was not perfect or it doesn’t bring any fruitful service. In both the conditions, it is not required.

Freedom of Expression?

It is no where a case of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression and presentation of systematic data results of an activity that is about to happen are two different things. For a citizen, there is no restriction to predict anything about election. It is demanded to prohibit only for poll surveyors who are doing this prediction in systematic, professional way to earn revenue and to influence public opinion. In this way, it can be said that even allowing opinion polls is violation of freedom of thoughts and secrecy of votes, as thoughts will be effected by opinion polls results.

Neither Scientific or Sociological

Predicting the result at a time when process is continuing can be claimed as a ‘scientific approach’ and at some point as ‘sociological’ one. Even in case of accepting it as scientific and/or sociological, if it is or can be, disturb/affect the result and/or process itself, it cannot be told and considered neither as scientific nor sociological, instead it is an unethical and illogical experiment with the very concept of impartial, undisturbed elections of this largest democracy.

Fear of Black Marketing/ Secret Opinion Polls in case of complete Ban

With the demand to ban opinion polls, some people are claiming that it can lead to black marketing of opinion polls and to secret polls. In this view, it is again clear that opinion polls are being used as a tool for political parties at least. It can be for generating funds from promoters by showing them predictions, and it again can lead to a flow of money, lobbying of and with industrialists and business groups etc, to get funds that will be spent again on boosting the votes. It is also a possibility that getting good predictions in an opinion poll can be manipulated and therefore unethical. Just for the fear of black marketing of secret opinion polls, you cannot let it go as valid and legal.

It is a data game that is played by media and pollsters. It can be something like declaring an election result before the elections. Ultimately it is no where serving public interest. Election is a public event but vote is private. Vote must be impartial, natural, self decided, unaffected, and undiverted decision to be taken by a voter itself. Declaring a party’s capacity before the election, cannot be said to be a fair and ethical practice. We all must wait for the results till the voting completes.

Ravi Nitesh is a Petroleum Engineer, Founder- Mission Bhartiyam, Core Member- Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign
follow on twitter: www.twitter.com/ravinitesh Blog: www.ravinitesh.blogspot.com


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