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Irrational exuberance: ban opinion polls

When will the Indian mindset accept that the world has changed and we cannot play policeman, moral or otherwise, anymore?

Written by Surjit S Bhalla | Updated: March 5, 2014 12:34 pm

Why is the knee-jerk reaction among Indians to indulge in bans? What did the burning and banning (figuratively; in reality it was withdrawing from circulation and pulping) of Wendy Doniger’s book on Hindus achieve or is likely to achieve? How many people’s views were affected, and of those whose views were changed, how does it matter? Assume the worst case scenario — some people in India, and only in India, actually believed what Doniger said about Hinduism. So what?

This is 2014, and such nonsense prevails because of the Indian’s irrational exuberance for “authority”. Back in 2004, the Election Commission of India came up with an anti-constitutional, anti-liberal view of banning opinion polls a full 45 days before the first date of polling. This was then expectedly rejected by the Supreme Court. The UPA government, not to have such minor matters as the Constitution come in the way of its interventionist ideology, amended the Representation of the People Act to support a ban of two days for opinion polls and no exit polls before all polls were completed. Possibly because of this “victory” over the Constitution, the 45-day ban is again making the rounds. Isn’t it time we questioned the EC’s view as stupid, irrational and totally devoid of any legal or moral or practical content?

It all started quite sensibly with M.S. Gill’s EC imposing restrictions on opinion and exit polls in February 1998. This policy was for NO prohibition or restriction of opinion polls until just two days prior to polling; and for no exit polls until 48 hours before the last polling day. As can be seen from the table, this was a reasonably enlightened policy and well within “best practices” in other democracies. Many countries have zero restrictions on polling. If there is a ban, it is of one to two days duration. The median is zero days and the average ban is of two days duration.  Italy is a clear outlier with a ban for a full 15 days before polling. The extreme outlier is the EC’s proposed 45-day ban.

Did the 2004 EC look at any data before coming out with its learned prescription? Its conclusion, which it keeps reiterating presumably every time they get prodded by an interested political party, has not changed all these years, especially years in which internet and social media penetration has expanded manifold. The effects of irrational bans, like in Italy, are predictable. Responding to the restriction, bloggers in Italy found imaginative ways to make the ban look stupid. One site termed elections as horse races and candidates were, well, horses with thinly disguised names. Another site had candidates as cardinals selecting the pope.

Contrast the Italian behaviour (disrespect for irrational authority) with that of an Indian (fawning respect for the same). Our norm is to respect  bad “authority” and worse “laws”. A true-life example is revealing. A leading TV channel was scheduled to broadcast the findings of  my research on the effects of economic performance and incumbency on voting behaviour. By no stretch of the imagination could my research be described as an “opinion poll”, and even by less imagination as an exit poll. Yet, the conservative Indian lawyers felt obligated to be safe and postponed the broadcast from December 3 (one day before polling date) to December 6, thus proving the adage that when the law is an ass, there are donkeys who feel compelled to follow.

Let us go a bit further into the implications of the proposed EC ban, and something for the SC to consider if the proposal reaches its enlightened shores for consideration and judgment. If the SC were to agree with the EC’s ultra-regressive views (all the “liberal” parties are in support and the non-”liberal” BJP is opposed to the ban), then how will the ban operate? Just yesterday, a respected international polling organisation, Pew, published its findings of a nationwide opinion poll (part of its global attitudes project). Over a period of one month (December 7, 2013 and January 12, 2014), it conducted a random all-India sample of only 2,464 respondents. It found that 60 per cent of the sample had a very favourable view of Narendra Modi compared to only 23 per cent for Rahul Gandhi, and a lesser 19 per cent for Sonia Gandhi. Interestingly, and possibly unconstrained by domestic manipulation, Pew Research found it informative to poll the same question for Anna Hazare and not Arvind Kejriwal. It could also be that the sample found too few respondents reacting “very favourably” to the Aam Aadmi Party representative.

Now many of our learned politicians, and perhaps even the EC and the SC, would want to ban the Pew opinion poll for its small size. How can one individual’s opinion possibly reflect the opinion of 3,25,000 potential voters? Off with the poll, and let us ban it after we burn it. The poll findings cannot possibly be right, for unlike the goras, we Indians know that we are a very heterogeneous population. And such a small sample size must have been undertaken because Pew is either “cheap” or has taken money from some politician/ political party/ industrialist.

Will the EC’s proposed ban mean that no survey data can be gathered and no one can go around asking questions about voting preferences? Of course not. So what happens when Pew gathers such information and publishes it on the internet? The whole world will know, and as the whole world is watching, the ban will be totally ineffective. This is the key point that all our policymakers must be made aware of. Duniya bahut badal gayee hai (The world has changed too much). Banning just does not work anymore, there are too many legal leakages in  the system and too many potholes on  the way to effective enforcement. Just grin and bear it — and don’t make a fool of yourselves.

The writer is chairman of Oxus Investments, an emerging market advisory firm, and contributing editor,  ‘The Indian Express

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