There has always been a big question mark over exit polls and pre-poll surveys. Not just their veracity, but more vitally, the role that they play in influencing the voter. On November 27 last year, when the entire country, nay world, woke up to banner headlines over how south Mumbai and India were under attack, Hindustan Times chose to go with a strange survey on Bipasa – bijli (electricity), paani (water) and sadak (roads) – in the National Capital Territory. The entire top half of the paper was devoted to this amazing survey when everyone wanted to know what was transpiring in Mumbai. It was a catastrophic faux pas, one which HT will never be able to live down.
Of course, some copies of its vast print run were changed in running, but the majority of the readership in south Delhi and other parts of the Rajdhani received the survey. That Sheila Dikshit won the election in Delhi had probably nothing to do with the HT survey. She obviously won on her own steam, for she has done a staggering amount of work in the megalopolis. But somehow the tenuous connection was not lost on some political pundits, more so because the survey appeared on a day when calamity had struck Mumbai.
The Press Council, which supervises all print publications and agencies in the country, has put out guidelines for election coverage. While these guidelines are littered with the usual arcane inanities (read mumbo jumbo), it is guidelines on pre-poll surveys and exit polls – 1996 – which are most illuminating. I am reproducing the sum and substance below:
“The Press Council of India, having considered the question of desirability or otherwise of publication of findings of pre-poll surveys and the purpose served by them, is of the view that the newspapers should not allow their forum to be used for distortions and manipulations of the elections and should not allow themselves to be exploited by the interested parties.
“The Press Council, therefore, advises that in view of the crucial position occupied by the electoral process in a representative democracy like ours, the newspapers should be on guard against their precious forum being used for distortions and manipulations of the elections. This has become necessary to emphasise today, since the print media is sought to be increasingly exploited by the interested individuals and groups to misguide and mislead the unwary voters by subtle and not so subtle propaganda on casteist, religious and ethnic basis as well as by the use of sophisticated means like the alleged pre-poll surveys. While the communal and seditious propaganda is not difficult to detect in many cases, the interested use of the pre-poll survey, sometimes deliberately planted, is not so easy to uncover.”
How very true. In the HT-Delhi pre-election survey on ‘Bipasa’, this was so very apt. Then why is it that media, both electronic and print, allows itself to be used? I would not say that it is done deliberately at all times, but sometimes the needle of suspicion is so strong that it reeks of a bad odour. The timing of the HT survey was suspect at the best of times, that it appeared on the morning of 26-11 certainly does not put anybody above suspicion. In fact, I know for a fact that it created consternation in the Delhi BJP on 27-11, who were at complete sixes and sevens over the survey. Coincidence? Nah!
Further, the Press Council suggests that whenever the newspapers publish pre-poll surveys, they should take care to preface them conspicuously by indicating the institutions which have carried such surveys, the individuals and organisations which have commissioned the surveys, the size and nature of sample selected, the method of selection of the sample for the findings, and the possible margin of error in the findings.
The Press Council then lays down the law. Now, it needs to be seen how many people follow it in letter and spirit. The Times of India has already run a pre-poll survey, qualifying the same by stating that it has used its bureaus across the country to arrive at the conclusions. Let Press Council take up the narrative again, “In the event of staggered poll dates, the media is seen to carry exit-poll surveys of the polls already held. This is likely to influence the voters where the polling is yet to commence. With a view to ensure that the electoral process is kept pure and the voters’ minds are not influenced by any external factors, it is necessary that the media does not publish the exit-poll surveys till the last poll is held.”
The Press Council, therefore, requests the Press to abide by the following guideline in respect of the exit polls:
Guideline: No newspaper shall publish exit-poll surveys, however genuine they may be, till the last of the polls is over.
Now, let me tell you a story recounted by a fellow traveler from a big regional newspaper owned by a Union minister’s family. Strangely, while the paper may be owned by the Union minister’s family, its editorial deck hands are all sympathisers of a prominent right wing party. Amazing, but true, and confirmed to me by the now beleaguered owner in a moment of weakness. Apparently, there was an important election in the bailliwick and the owner family’s party was vanquished because of a six column picture and favourably disposed write-up of the right wing opposition leader’s election meeting. Now, how does one explain this?
Does the Press Council have punitive powers to look at all print media in the land, including wire services? On paper, the answer is in the affirmative. I can understand regulating big English media, but what do you do with the large swathes of vernacular print media, which is growing at the rate of knots. The Hindi press, for one, is extremely powerful in the northern hinterland, the primacy of other print barons is known in other parts of India. Can they be regulated? I doubt very much. For that matter, can the English press be taken to task? Yes, there have been instances in the past when the Press Council has taken certain editors and owners a notch or two down. But at the end of the day, while the Press Council is a statutory autonomous body, which cannot be challenged in any court of law, it is a cosy club comprising newspaper barons and journos. While Members of Parliament like Yashwant Sinha, Dr Sebastin Paul and Kharbela Swain are also part of the 28-member committee, which currently oversees functioning, I wonder about its efficacy in dealing with errant offenders in this specific regard.
A code of conduct is a great idea, but its speedy implementation is crucial. With the government, through its executive arm, the Union Cabinet having banned exit polls in a staggered election last October, I don’t think anyone will take a chance. The Representation of the People Act, 1951, has been amended accordingly, so I don’t think anyone will take a chance. But then, what do you do with pre-poll surveys of the kind that, say a CNN-IBN has been running? Or for that matter, the one that TOI has just conducted? Do they or don’t they influence the voters? The proprietor of one prominent news network made a living as a psephologist before he became what he is today. At the core of his being is election number crunching. He will be like a fish out of the bowl this time round.
Objectivity versus subjectivity? But that is another debate for another day.
(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist who started his career with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi - with The Indian Express, Illustrated Weekly, Sunday Observer, Dalal Street Journal, Plus Channel where he ran India's first morning business show on Doordarshan, The Times of India Group, Business India, Hindustan Times and Reliance Big Entertainment. Starting his career as a cricket writer, he graduated to becoming a man for all seasons under Pritish Nandy, who he considers as the premier influence on his career. Since he studied economics at Calcutta University, Bamzai decided in 1993 to branch out into business and financial journalism. Familiar with all three media, he is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir. The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not necessarily those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)