February 18, 2022
Good morning. In today’s either/view, we look at whether opinion polls before elections should be banned. We also look at why antibiotic residue has been found in a river in Himachal Pradesh, among other news.
📰 FEATURE STORY
Should opinion polls before elections be banned?
Once you’ve written an exam, it’s out of your hands. All that’s left is the anxious wait for the results. But what if you could perhaps gauge how well you might do in an exam before you’ve written it. Strange for sure. Results depend on how well you prepare. Come election time, candidates and campaigns prepare too. However, they have one tool at their disposal that might offer them a preview of the results – opinion polls.
Once a candidate has finished campaigning, the only thing left is to wait and watch the results come in. But maybe they have some idea of the result. Looking at various opinion polls in the weeks leading up to voting, they may get a sense of what’s to come. Maybe the writing’s on the wall in terms of success or failure. Or they could be in for a surprise, and the polls got it all wrong. In any case, is there a necessity for opinion polls in India?
Before we go any further, let’s make one distinction clear. We’re talking about opinion polls and not exit polls. Exit polls are done by surveying people after they’ve voted, unlike opinion polls that are done in the run-up to voting.
Opinion polls have come a long way in India. We’re now familiar with news channels carrying exclusive opinion polls with fancy graphics and in-depth analysis in a large studio setting. Its origins are more humble. The study of Indian elections began as an academic exercise in the 1960s at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi. The goal was simple – study voters’ behaviour and attitudes.
Cut to the 1980s, and media surveys started to crop up. Pranoy Roy conducted opinion polls to find out what voters were thinking and feeling about parties and candidates. If you wanted to look at opinion polls, the best place you’d find them was in the pages of India Today and Outlook. Then, newspaper groups got in on the act. As print media came into the picture, the number of opinion polls increased.
In the 1990s, electronic media took off, and opinion polls were now on our TV screens. News channels were competing against each other. The race was on to conduct and air election surveys once election dates were announced. This is basically the status quo.
A good opinion poll should follow some guidelines or best practices. Probability sampling is one. It means every member of the targeted groups has an equal and fair chance of getting selected. If you want some level of precision, the sample size is vital. It should be adequate to minimise any sampling error. Questions to those chosen should be simple and ensure that the respondent answers honestly. It must be said, this isn’t necessarily in the poll taker’s control.
With opinion polls, comes the risk of staking the organisation’s reputation. If they’re right, then they gain some credibility. People will look to them come the next election. If they’re wrong, then they lose the audiences’ trust. There are obviously outliers and exceptions. In the world’s largest democracy with a complex electorate, making electoral predictions is a risk.
But do we need them? Are they of any use? Should they be banned, or is regulation is the right approach?
Regulation is the right step
Technically, there’s a ban on opinion polls – it’s 48 hours before polling in that specific area. But a blanket ban isn’t the right approach. In essence, what is an opinion poll? It’s citizens’ view of the parties and candidates. It provides some indication of what people are thinking. Free speech issues come to the fore when there are calls to ban opinion polls.
Most recently, the Samajwadi Party wrote to the Election Commission (EC). They wanted a ban on opinion polls by TV channels, citing they could affect the outcome. The law isn’t on the party’s side here. TV channels have the right to air opinion polls. Incidentally, an ABP-CVoter opinion poll released last month showed the SP and its allies coming in second in Uttar Pradesh behind the BJP. Parties and campaigns that function well conduct polling on their own, known as internal polling. However, these aren’t made public.
It should be noted, calls to ban opinion polls often come from those who aren’t shown to be in the driver’s seat. It’s right to argue that some polls can appear or actually be biased. Even in such cases, regulation is the way forward. One option would be an independent regulator. As former Chief Election Commissioner of India, SY Quraishi suggested, all polling agencies must disclose their sponsors, methodology, and research, among other things.
Opinion polls are data points. Using these to study voter sentiments and mentality is a useful and worthy academic exercise. It would be wrong to deny anyone this information through publically available data. Opinion polls also give those who might not have a voice, some outlet to say how they feel about a party or candidate. This is especially important in an unequal country like India. Going against support for a ban and calling them constitutionally suspect was former Attorney General of India, Soli J Sorabjee. He wrote that regulation would be better. His message was simple – don’t underrate the Indian citizen. They can decide which opinion poll is credible and make an informed decision.
Biased and undue influence on voters
Given the lack of transparency on opinion polls, it would be dangerous to read into them. The consequence of that could be undue influence through disinformation, which could be deemed an electoral offence under Section 171 (C) of the IPC. It could also be classified as a corrupt practice under Section 123(2) of the Representation of People Act.
Calls for a ban on opinion polls aren’t new. Major parties at different points over the past two decades have supported banning opinion polls. Banning them would provide a measure of a level playing field as far as this issue is concerned. The concern, which even the Press Council of India has articulated in the past, is the exploitation of print media by groups and individuals wanting to sway voters.
It’s important to point out, opinion polls can get it wrong. In the most recent West Bengal state elections, the polls suggested a win for the BJP. In reality, the BJP was easily defeated. The larger issue at play is a loss of trust in the media, irrespective of one’s political leanings. Corporates and media houses have their political and financial agendas. Opinion polls are one way to further them.
Some argue that a large sample size makes a poll legitimate. That’s not true, as political economist Praveen Chakravarty wrote. The selection of the sample matters more. He argues that opinion polls don’t just reflect the opinion of people, but also influence them. On the one hand, it can make people flock to a party that appears to have momentum. On the other, it can depress turnout if people believe their preferred party is assured of victory, as this piece in The Conversation pointed out. Having a percentage of India’s population vulnerable to this is bad for democracy.
What’s your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)
a) Opinion polls should be regulated, not banned in India.
b) Opinion polls should be banned in India.
🕵️ BEYOND ECHO CHAMBERS
For the Right:
Modi Dislikes Dynasties. But He Dislikes BJP Losing Elections Even More
For the Left:
Why It Is Wrong To Equate Legitimate Hindu Concerns With A Political Party’s Agenda
🏴 STATE OF THE STATES
Clarifying doubts (Sikkim) – For a while now, the state’s forest department has been under fire for letting quarrying take place in different areas. On Wednesday, they organised a press conference to make a couple of things clear. In 2020-21, they collected over ₹64 lakh in fines for illegally using an excavator. According to them, this shows the action taken by the department in curbing illegal projects.
Why it matters: Since 2018, illegal extraction of stone and sand have been so rampant that it has manifested in an existential threat for Rorathang village. JCB excavators are being used inside the Rangpo-Rorathang river, says a concerned local, which is not allowed as per quarrying permits. The forest department says that any lacking response is due to them being understaffed by 50%.
Antibiotics in rivers (Himachal Pradesh) – According to a study by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), 37 out of 111 antibiotic units being monitored are non-compliant with the norms prescribed for common effluent treatment plants (CETPs). These 37 pharmaceutical industries are currently operating in the Baddi-Barotiwala-Nalagarh belt. They are also responsible for the high levels of antibiotic residue in the Sirsa river.
Why it matters: A study published in 2019 pointed out that in about 72 countries all over the world, traces of at least 14 antibiotics can be found in every river. While high levels of antibiotics were found in most rivers, those of Asia and Africa had dangerously high levels. A safe range, depending on the antibiotic, is 20-32,000 nanograms per litre.
Appointing new teachers (Bihar) – Education Minister Vijay Kumar Choudhary said that the state is ready to start sending out appointment letters to 42,000 new teachers. Usually, the government is expected to wait for all forms of verification to be done before sending these letters out. But, given the academic session is set to start on 1 April, the letters are going to be sent out starting 23 February.
Why it matters: As per the State of Education Report 2021 by UNESCO, 11.16 lakh teaching posts are still vacant in India. That covers 19% of all teaching posts in the country. In rural areas, 69% of teaching posts are left vacant. Bihar is supposed to have 2.2 lakh vacant posts. While teacher availability has now improved, the student-teacher ratios in Indian schools are still abysmal.
Keeping traditions alive (Goa): The state has now formed a 45-member committee that will frame its biodiversity strategy and action plan. The plan will be made on the lines of the National Biodiversity Conservation Plan. It will also document community conservation practices that different groups use as per their traditions. This will promote more natural farming techniques that are specific to the state’s ecology.
Why it matters: Goa is home to over 1,512 documented species of plants. There are many more that remain undocumented and yet, are taken care of by local communities. Till now, there are also about 93 sacred groves in Goa. A sacred grove is a patch of untouched forest area that is dedicated to deities or forest spirits.
Perturbed pensioners (Telangana) – Turns out, the state government has not released funds for the Asara pension scheme since 2020. In the same year, the age criteria for the scheme was reduced from 65 to 57 years. This increased the number of beneficiaries to over 10 lakh. In 2021, the state government even allotted ₹11,728 crores to the scheme but none of it was released.
Why it matters: According to the state government’s data, 39,36,521 people are availing state pensions. In 2018, apart from the Asara pension scheme, the Rythu Bima pension, specifically aimed at farmers, was launched. According to locals, the government keeps bringing up how this has helped 75,000 families. But since 2020, many of them have been denied pensions. Out of the 10 lakh in the Asara pension scheme, 7 lakh are supposed to be elderly citizens.
🔢 KEY NUMBER
13% – According to PropTiger.com, home sales in eight housing markets went up by 13% in 2021. Even new supply went up in 2021 as compared to 2020, i.e. 2021 saw 2.14 lakh new units, whereas 2020 saw just 1.22 lakh units.