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Banning opinion polls may boomerang on Congress

Rajat Sharma

I do not agree with the view that the Congress has lost faith in democratic values and is therefore advocating a ban on opinion polls.  I also do not agree that the ruling party is trying to curb free speech. I think it is more of a knee-jerk panic reaction by asking the Election Commission to ban opinion polls. In plain words, Congress doesn’t know how to handle the Modi juggernaut.
 
Let’s face facts. Almost all opinion polls conducted in recent months have shown Narendra Modi far ahead of Rahul Gandhi in popularity ratings. Most of the surveys also indicate a decline in the  number of seats Congress may get in the next Lok Sabha elections, but the ruling party are not willing to accept this.
 
They believe that there is no “Modi wave” and all these polls have been manipulated by the Gujarat strongman. Many Congress leaders feel that Modi has cleverly used opinion polls to orchestrate a hike in his popularity ratings.
 
Jairam Ramesh thinks Modi is a balloon full of hot air generated by TV channels. Chidambaram is convinced that Modi mania is nothing but exaggerated hype created by overenthusiastic BJP workers. There are many in Congress who directly blame psephologists for create a fake impression that Modi is the most popular leader in the country today.
 
Usually, the demand to restrict free flow of speech always comes from the potential loser in elections. Opinion polls are rubbished, sample size is questioned and psephologists are painted as villains who manipulate data for money.
 
While it’s the Congress today which is advising the Election Commission to ban opinion polls, let me remind that it was the BJP in 2004 which supported restricting opinions polls between the date of notification of polls until the last day of voting.  At that time BJP leaders were unwilling to accept the fact that their popularity had gone down even while their India was shining.
 
Political leaders are not oblivious of the right to free speech enshrined in our Constitution. They are also familiar with the fact that unlike other fundamental rights, the right to free speech cannot be restricted on the ground of any undefined reason. I have no doubt that any move to impose restriction on free speech will be struck down by Supreme Court. There are several cases where the Supreme Court has held that the fundamental right to free speech cannot be compromised.
 
In United Kingdom and United States, there is no embargo period for publishing pre-election opinion polls. It is no secret that opinion polls in America play a major role in guiding the political parties in formulating their strategy during the elections.  Psephologists are lured to help out, but there are never made the subject of derision or ridicule.
 
Even at home, both BJP and Congress are known to take the help of internal opinion pollsters to decide on candidates. How is it  that that psephologists hired by them are accurate and those hired by the media are manipulated?
 
It is not my case that all opinion polls are a result of scientific work. Nor is it my view that the methodology and accuracy of the opinion polls should not be questioned. I think that opinion polls and surveys should only be taken as indicators, as straws in the wind. They should be open to scrutiny. It should be left to the people to accept or reject the opinion polls.
 
Opinion polls in a democracy are part of the process of educating and enlightening the voter.
 
Any politically motivated move to restrict the opinion polls is bound to boomerang. The Congress should rather work on its strategy to regain lost ground. And, the BJP should make a commitment that it will not take a U-turn on opinion polls, if it comes to power.