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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Should opinion polls be banned: Report of FMP debate at Press Club


Opinion polls scientifically done cannot be faulted but clamps must be imposed if they seek to influence voter behaviour fraudulently.

Speakers: Dr S Y Quraishi, former Chief Election Commissioner of India, Mr TCA Srinivasa Raghavan, consulting editor to Business Standard and Ajit Sahi of C-Voter, a polling agency.

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Moderated by FMP’s Rohit Bansal.

Key Takeaways: Dr Quraishi says independent regulation needed; TCA votes for full disclosure while Ajit Sahi of C-Voter goes on the offensive in defending opinion polls, says they do not influence voter behavior so why ban them.

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Context: A majority of 80 political parties have sought a ban on opinion polls in their feedback to the Election Commission of India, though the BJP in an about turn has said they should be allowed. The Congress complained to the Election Commission after some polls gave a clear lead to the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. Just five months ago it had praised the polls for predicting the party’s victory in Karnataka Assembly elections. The BJP which supports opinion polls now was opposed in 2004. The Election Commission has told the Centre to ban them from the date of notification of elections.

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Moderator Rohit Bansal setting the context: Those who fault opinion polls say they are conducted by a ‘rogue’ industry that lacks funds and robustness of methodology and says what the payer wants (b) Those in favor say they show which way the election wind is blowing (c) if opinion polls are banned should not opinion columns be indicted as well, because they can be construed as opinion polls with a sample size of one person.

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S Y Quaraishi speaking first: Opinion polls are a good thing. As a person who was among the first to do a doctorate in communications and social marketing, I know the value of surveys. A mature democracy like the United States places no restriction on them. In Canada, France, Italy, Poland, Turkey, Brazil and Columbia the restrictions range from 2 to 21 days before day of elections. (United Kingdom, said to be the original home of psephology, has set up the British Polling Council to peer review opinion polls. It has mandated full disclosure so that consumers can judge for themselves – Vivian).

But why are they sought to be banned? Because their integrity or niyat is in doubt. Paid news has made the Fourth Estate the Fifth Column of our democracy. If media organizations can allow advertising to masquerade as news, it is difficult to defend opinion polls.
Defenders say freedom of expression is a fundamental right. But it is a qualified right in India, subject to reasonable restrictions. There is no right to cheat or defraud. Even the Representation of People’s Act imposes limits on free speech. The Election Commission does not allow campaigning before 48 hours of polling. It has forbidden personal attacks on candidates. There can be no electioneering from religious places. Since 2010 a prohibition has been imposed on broadcasting the results of exit polls until after the elections. Appeals for votes cannot be made on caste and communal grounds. This is because the Constitution requires the Election Commission to conduct free and fair polls. This mandate is not negotiable.

The Supreme Court in the 2002 Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) case averred that free and fair elections are a basic feature of democracy. http://adrindia.org/sites/default/files/Supreme_Court's_judgement_2nd_May_2002.pdf

Earlier, in 1977, in Mohinder Singh Gill Vs Election Commission of India (http://indiankanoon.org/doc/1831036/) it made the same observation. It reiterated this three months ago, when it told the Election Commission to give voters a ‘none of the above (NOTA) option in voting machines. The Indian Penal Code considers undue influence an offence, while the Representation of People’s Act calls it an electoral malpractice.

Even one vote matters. Congress General Secretary C P Joshi lost by one vote from Nathdwara in the 2008 Rajasthan assembly elections. So undue influence is not acceptable.

The demand for restrictions on opinion polls is not new: In 1997, all political parties said they should be banned. But when the Supreme Court asked the Election Commission the law under which it would act against violators, it withdrew its petition and asked the government to pass a law.

Political parties repeated the demand in 1998, 2004 and 2010, when the UPA government banned publication of exit poll results before end of elections but not opinion polls.

The UK model is a good one: Every pollster says they are right and their rivals are wrong. Broadcasters have addressed the issues of paid news by setting up a regulatory mechanism. The News Broadcasters Association has established the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, which was headed by the former Chief Justice of India, the late J S Verma. Now it is headed by former Supreme Court Justice R V Raveendran. I am a member. Though the NBSA is a creature of the NBA it is independent because there has been no interference in our work and we have taken action even against the big channels.

There must be a similar body for the polling agencies with full disclosure about sample size, methodology, questions asked and so on. The British Polling Council is a good model.

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TCA Srinivas Raghavan: I am not in favor of banning opinion polls though I know I have been called here because of a column I wrote in the Business Standard on November 7, the headline of which was, ‘The case for banning opinion polls.’ In that article I quoted a research paper by three mathematical economists (Roland G Fryer, Jr, Philipp Harms, and Matthew O Jackson, called "Updating Beliefs with Ambiguous Evidence: Implications for Polarization". The paper can be found at http://www.nber.org/papers/w19114 ) The paper is based on advanced probability theory and was propounded by a British minister Thomas Base, dabbling in mathematics. It is called Base Theorem. 

The centrality of that theory is that beliefs get updated all the time because of new information or fresh evidence. The paper that I refer to talks about polarization or how people tend to form extreme views not on the basis of evidence but on the basis of how that evidence is interpreted. The human brain apparently does not evaluate evidence in a structured manner. It stores interpretations leading over time to polarization. So two sets of people can form two extreme points of view on the basis of differing interpretations of the same evidence.

Opinion pollsters can influence the outcome just of the basis of the questions they ask. For example, if you asked people whether Sachin Tendulkar is the best batsman ever, you will get one kind of answer. But if you asked, whether they thought he was not the best batsman ever? you would get another answer. So it is not financial integrity alone, but also intellectual integrity that matters.

What will happen to opinion polls if there are no advertising breaks ? Will broadcasters still air them? Opinion polls have a revenue generating capacity. They have commercial benefits; so it is not merely a question of who pays and who calls the tune.
The government can impose reasonable restrictions by telling pollsters to disclose their questions. Transparency and sunshine have the desired effect.

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Ajit Sahi of C-Voter making a spirited defense: Who says polls influence voters at all. Does the government or the Election Commission have empirical data? Have they done surveys? Have they got feedback from voters? (Quraishi responding: The Election Commission’s job is to conduct free and fair elections, not to conduct surveys. Even the renowned British psephologist David Butler spoke of the ‘bandwagon effect’ in Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta’s Walk the Talk program on NDTV.) 

[Actually Butler supports Sahi’s view that there is no evidence of opinion polls influencing voters. He did not favor banning them but sought full disclosure. Click on http://www.indianexpress.com/news/ive-never-seen-evidence-of-opinion-polls-influencing-voters...-making-people-go-with-the-winner-or-deciding-to-back-the-underdog/1193897/3 to read the talk – Vivian]. {TCA Srinivas Raghavan responding: Ajit should be careful with words. If opinion polls have no effect at all, then there is no harm in banning them. The correct question to ask is not whether opinion polls should be banned, but whether they should be more transparent. That question will yield a completely different answer}.

Ajit Sahi: In 1984, Prannoy Roy of NDTV did a large poll and predicted a landslide victory for Rajiv Gandhi (of over 400 Lok Sabha seats). He said film star Amitabh Bachhan would win against political stalwart Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna and the late Madhavrao Scindia would defeat Atal Behari Vajpayee in Gwalior. Editor M J Akbar of Sunday magazine scoffed at the predictions but had to eat his words and write an apology.

Opinion polls are not an exact science. But then politics is not either. Does the government not do sample surveys? (Quraishi: I am not against surveys if they are scientifically done to inform and not to mislead. The Election Commission itself does a survey of voters’ knowledge, behavior and attitudes.)

I was last year in Hong Kong for a conference of the World Organizations of Public Opinion Researchers. I was stunned to know the number of opinion polls that China does (Does the Communist Party of China ask people the most important question of all – whether they want one-party rule? – Vivian).

If a news reporter asks 10 people whether Delhi Chief Minster Sheila Dikshit will lose and reports the findings, it is considered valid coverage. But if an opinion poll speaks to 1200 people and reports the findings it is sought to be banned. What kind of sick logic is this?
Just because there are a few rotten apples does not mean we should throw away the entire basket. (Quraishi: tell us how to remove the rotten apples?).

If there is fraud or conspiracy there are enough provisions in the Indian Penal Code to deal with them.

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