Amid a slugfest over the issue of opinion polls, Law Minister Kapil Sibal hit out at the Bharatiya Janata Party on Saturday, saying it has "turned turtle" after seeking a ban on such surveys earlier. He said the government has not taken any stand on the issue but mentioned that there is a "general impression" that opinion polls can be manipulated.
The advice of the Election Commission is awaited and if it recommends a ban and the government accepts it, an amendment will be required in the Representation of the People Act, Sibal said.
"There is a general impression that opinion polls can be manipulated. If political parties feel that there should be a level playing field without this kind of push, then it is their point of view and we should respect that," he told PTI in an interview.
He was asked about the Congress' view that the opinion polls should be banned as they are "neither scientific nor is there any transparent process for such polls".
When referred to the BJP's contention that the Congress was trying to kill the messenger by seeking a ban on opinion polls, the senior Congress leader shot back, "it was the BJP in 2004 which was killing the messenger" by demanding such a prohibition.
"On April 4, 2004, the then Law Minister (Arun Jaitley) and the then BJP gave the opinion that there should be a ban on opinion polls along with all political parties. In fact, the opposition party should explain why they have changed their position. Arun Jaitley must explain why, as law minister in 2004, he supported the ban and in 2013 he talks about freedom of expression. What happened to freedom of expression in 2004? BJP has turned turtle," Sibal said.
"The Congress party has taken a position consistent with its old position of 2004. In fact ours was a nuanced position. We said there should not be a total ban. Yet despite that position, the opinion of all political parties, for nine years did we impose a ban on any opinion poll," the law minister
said. He said any move to change the existing law, which allows the EC to ban opinion polls just 48 hours prior to voting, would require amendment to the Representation of the People Act.
Asked whether government has taken a stand on the issue, the minister said the government has not taken a stand. "How can the government take a stand? This can't be done without the amendment to the Representation of the People Act. First EC will give us its advice," he said.
Sibal said even when the EC wrote to the government on banning opinion polls, he refused to move forward without taking the opinion of the attorney general. The AG said opinion polls and exit polls are at par so if a ban on exit poll is legal so is on opinion poll. "Then I asked the EC to consult political parties and that process is on," he said.
Sibal also wondered why the Congress was being accused of being against freedom of expression. "Unlike the BJP which targeted Ananth Murthy, which banned Jaswant Singh's book in Gujarat, which vandalised art galleries in Gujarat, which threatened to chop off M F Husain's hands...after all that history we are being told that we are against freedom of expression. It is very unfortunate," he said.
On apprehensions that opinion polls can be manipulated, Sibal said, "There must be genuine apprehensions. Opinion polls have gone wrong.”
"In 2004, opinion polls said the BJP would come back to power and they did not. In between, in many states, opinion polls have gone wrong. But some opinion polls are also fairly accurate," he said.
The minister observed that much depends on the nature of the sample, transparency of the polls, on who is funding it and on the integrity of those who actually conduct the poll. "I am not an expert, nor do I have the expertise to judge if a particular poll is scientific or unscientific. There is a general impression that opinion polls can be manipulated.”
"If political parties feel that there should be a level playing field without this kind of push, then it is their point-of-view and we should respect that," he said. He said there was no need to ban such surveys if they are carried out "scientifically and with integrity".