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February 9, 1998


The Rediff Election Special/Dr N Bhaskara Rao

The more undecided voters are, greater the role and effect of pre-poll surveys

Despite the recent proliferation of newspapers, magazines and television channels in the country, the media does not reach more than 60 per cent of voters. But during elections, another 20 to 25 per cent voters are reached, with contents like pre-poll surveys. Hence the current concern about the coverage of pre-poll surveys and exit polls in the media. They set the agenda for campaigns and reflect political strategies.

It is against this background that the recent initiative of the Press Council of India for guidelines for such media coverage provoked a debate about its pros and cons. A recent nationwide survey by the independent Centre for Media Studies on the role of pre-poll surveys has established for the first time in India that they affect voters in four different ways:
1. Bandwagon -- the tendency on the part of voters to go along with a winner.
2. Boomerang -- where the one projected as a winner generates certain repulsion.
3. Underdog -- certain sympathy is evoked for a likely 'loser'.
4. Complacency phenomena -- where the one projected as winner takes things granted as if it has already won the election.

Pre-poll surveys receive different reaction in the media, among voters and political parties. For example, the more undecided voters are, the greater the role and effect of pre-poll surveys. Similarly, greater the decline of the party system, the more influential their role. And more state-specific factors like alliances, the more influential the role of pre-poll surveys.

Today all these factors are present. No wonder opinion surveys are being sought after more than ever before by the media, parties and candidates alike. That is why surveys of all variety are floating around these days in the market by known and unknown agencies.

Pre-poll and exit polls have now become a commercial proposition. No longer are they viewed as means for a debate or means for enriching the voters and improving the quality of political campaigns. They have become yet another way of manipulation. In the process, we may see more leaks, plants and slants in the coming days. These surveys should not become 'instruments' of political parties to mislead voters.

The issue of coverage of pre-poll surveys should not be mixed with the freedom of press. Having guidelines does not violate any fundamental right nor implies any restriction on this freedom. 'Media power' should not be misused with the help of pre-poll surveys. Influencing voters is the crux of all poll campaigns. Political parties are expected to publicise and persuade voters by offering their policies, programmes, propositions and promises. But that does not mean 'misleading' voters, or planting favourable stories in the media. This aspect need to be viewed against the fact that political parties today have their own newspapers, and that some newspapers do take deliberate stands in favour or against certain parties or candidates.

I do not think that banning media coverage of pre-poll or exit poll surveys is a right solution. Some guidelines, more by way of self discipline, are desirable both for pollsters and the media. This is perhaps what we should try. Self-imposed ones are better than government impositions. Editors should know how to discriminate reliable surveys from unreliable ones.

Certain transparency in the entire pre-poll and exit-poll business is needed today than ever before. The Election Commission already has a Code of Conduct, including a ban on all campaigns 48 hours before the actual poll. Also, any campaign effort with the potential to incite violence or pitting one religion against another are banned.

Exit poll results do influence voters if they are covered in the media before the actual voting. Because of this, such polls are banned from being publishing before polling is complete in some 30 countries. Hence the need to avoid the temptation, particularly in situations like the one now, where the poll dates are staggered over three weeks.

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