Election Commission needs to ban the flood of opinion polls after the election is notified

Surveys for TV channels have steadily lost credibility while poll surveys are now so lucrative that even people with no particular training are jumping into it. How long can the EC act to be blind?

Election Commission needs to ban the flood of opinion polls after the election is notified

Rahul Mukherjee

The India Today-Mood of the Nation survey was greeted with an equal measure of incredulity, euphoria and indifference. Incredulity because the findings seem to be the opposite of what many perceive as ground reality; euphoria among BJP supporters because the survey results reinforced the aura of invincibility around the party and the Prime Minister; indifference because many of us, including yours truly, have seen far too many polls over the years to get excited.

An opinion poll, a survey of public opinion collected from a particular sample, is designed to reflect the opinion of a certain population by eliciting their replies to a series of questions and then extrapolating generalities in ratio or within confidence intervals. But how credible are these polls?

Credibility of these polls depend first and foremost on the integrity of the pollster and the process, which are required to be independent of commercial considerations and political interference.

Polling agencies are commissioned to conduct polls by corporate bodies, government agencies, research organisations, political parties and also news outlets. If foreign governments and intelligence agencies also engage these agencies for psy ops, it is not yet known in the public domain.

Polls conducted for news outlets have steadily lost credibility because the outlets themselves have increasingly acted like propaganda wings of the ruling dispensation. Loss of credibility was an issue even before 2014 and a sting operation in February that year proved that polling agencies and media outlets were only too willing to manipulate their data.

Seven reporters of a news portal had then approached 11 polling agencies posing as representatives of a political party. Money was of no consideration, the agencies were told, but would they be willing to manipulate the data in favour of the party?

Two large agencies, AC Nielsen and CSDS-Lokniti, refused to entertain the undercover reporters. The MD of a third large agency was heard saying that minor tweaking was indeed possible. He offered to manipulate results by increasing the margin of error from 3% to 5%. It is worth keeping in mind that in a “first past the post” system, the margin of victory in many constituencies is 1% or less.

Both the agency and the MD in question have moved from strength to strength. And anecdotal evidence suggest that the situation is even worse than in February, 2014, and the stakes a lot higher.

The sample size and how personal biases are weeded out also determine the integrity of the process, especially in rural areas where “aided”, prompted recall or leading questions leave the scope of evoking a particular kind of response.

Also, most agencies engage temporary staff, college students and the unemployed. It is hard work for them to persuade reluctant people to speak. The easy way out is the age old “proxy method” and refer to one’s own understanding of local sentiments while filling up questionnaires.

Sampling bias also influence the polls. An international polling agency, The Morning Consult, has been conducting online polls to ascertain approval ratings of heads of governments. Mr. Narendra Modi has been consistently leading the pack with the highest approval ratings on the somewhat insignificant sample size of around 2500 for a population of 139 Crore.

More importantly, The Morning Consult selects respondents from those who’ve signed up for the survey. It is obviously less representative than other sampling techniques; and this is not something Indians are used to. The digital divide also leaves out a significant section of the population.

Then there is the “margin of error” left to the discretion of the agency. By default, or by design, any tweaking of the margin affects one party or the other.

A distorted survey has damaging consequences in a democracy. It can potentially turn a multi-party race into a 2- horse race. It can make some voters think that the result is a foregone conclusion and keep them away from voting. It can also demoralise supporters of some political parties and keep them away for the same reason.

The Election Commission, which banned exit polls till the counting day, must consider banning opinion polls too after the election has been notified.

There is no reason to be dismissive of opinion polls altogether. But while taking them with a pinch of salt, it is important to reduce their potential for mischief.

(The writer is a corporate consultant with an interest in elections. Views are personal)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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