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Let the market handle exit polls

By Devangshu Datta
September 13, 2008 13:24 IST
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Why do politicians go out on the election campaign trail? Presumably in the hope of influencing public opinion and getting more votes.

There are of course, other ways to win elections including intimidation of voters, gerrymandering, fiddling electoral rolls, booth-capturing and other creative forms of rigging.

However, influencing public opinion is generally considered the most legitimate method to win an election and there should be broad consensus across the Indian political spectrum about this.

Oddly however, there appears to be a broad consensus among political parties that non-politicians should not be allowed to influence public opinion with respect to elections.

At least that is the only reasonable explanation that one can find for the apparently overwhelming desire to ban opinion polling, and in particular, to ban exit polling.

The information and broadcasting ministry and the Cabinet are reportedly considering passing an ordinance to empower the Election Commission to ban exit polls. The major political parties all concur that exit polls can influence voting patterns.

This issue pops up every so often and the Election Commission is also said to be in favour of a ban. The last time it was mooted, the Supreme Court pointed out that it was a violation of the right of freedom of expression.

It is frankly weird. Undoubtedly exit polls could make a difference to voting patterns if polling is being conducted in stages, as it is in India. But that influence would be mixed at best because voter-psyche is mixed.

Some voters would decide to back the apparently winning party. Others would try to shore up the losing parties. A third set of voters would perhaps stay away because they were intending to vote for the leaders and decide to enjoy a holiday instead. What would the net outcome be? Impossible to decipher.

An exit poll is a prediction. Like any other prediction about an election outcome, it could be wrong. It cannot be any more illegitimate than a politician saying that he is confident of victory, or an astrologer or numerologist citing the influence of Mars or counting up the letters in the names of candidates.

For that matter, an exit poll cannot be any more illegitimate than any citizen of whatever hue simply saying that she wants "X Party" to win. All these are opinions that could influence voting patterns. However, an opinion thus expressed is a legitimate influence. 

It is by no means clear from any cited statistical evidence that exit polls do influence voting patterns. Even if that is admitted for argument's sake, there is no intimidation involved in taking an exit poll and there is no rigging. There is an opinion being freely expressed. To stifle that opinion is in itself a deeply undemocratic act.

It is also easy to note that the exit poll mechanism is a useful check and balance against blatant rigging. While pollsters often get things wrong, their presence prevents excesses of thuggery and booth capturing. The most recent ban on exit polls was imposed by Robert Mugabe and there cannot be a better, left-handed endorsement of the democratic utility of this mechanism.

Apart from being undemocratic, such a ban would also involve economic discrimination. It affects the professional psephologists and market research outfits. It takes away the livelihood of the temporary worker, the aam admi who is paid a daily wage to stand at the booth and ask the question.

If the current state of Indian exit polling is unsatisfactory, market forces should be allowed to deal with it. India has multitudes of opinion pollsters and if they compete with each other, they would all have an incentive to improve.

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Devangshu Datta
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