The argument against opinion polls mirrors political insecurities,underestimates voters.
The Congress has deservedly invited widespread derision for telling the Election Commission that it thinks opinion polls should be banned. The EC had sought the views of all national parties on these surveys of the public mood. The Congress,which had supported opinion polls,suddenly reversed its position,declaring them unscientific and non-transparent. There are reasons to suspect that the Congresss new stand speaks of its own political predicament and insecurities. It comes at a time when the party is facing a set of uphill battles in the forthcoming assembly elections in five states,which will be read as a hint of what is to come in the Lok Sabha election next year. Whatever be the reason for the Congresss view,it would be deeply unwise to ban the circulation of information,and restrict in this way the constitutional right to free speech and information.
Exit polls have already been stopped in India on the ground that they could affect voter perceptions and intentions,and the EC has tried unsuccessfully in the past to put an end to pre-campaign opinion surveys as well. But political scientists are divided on whether,and to what extent,opinion polls,meant to measure opinion,end up influencing it as well. Some argue that many voters choose tactically,and may end up voting for a less preferred party if it is projected as more winnable. For instance,while many voters may be set in their preferences vis-a-vis the established parties,the perceived appeal of a new entrant may make it a realistic option for some. Many are curious about the general mood,and some studies suggest that their wanting to back the winning side produces a contagion effect. Equally,this could lead to people turning up in larger numbers to vote for the party perceived to be losing. The science on this is still too fuzzy it is not clear at what stage the momentum can be decisive,and results vary depending on the electoral system and on the design of the survey. It is certainly not compelling enough to end the business of opinion polls.
Opinion surveys in India may well be imprecise and opaque about their methodology,but there is no evidence to show that voters are led,sheep-like,by a survey. In fact,it is disrespectful and wrong-headed to assume that they cannot make their own judgements about the complex of factors that seek to influence them,or that the decisions they eventually make are not their own. Besides,they have more than enough experience of our famously unreliable surveys to base their decisions on one or the other.