20 Oct 2008, 0001 hrs IST, Dhananjay Mahapatra, TNN
NEW DELHI: The UPA government's decision to bring in a law banning exit polls till the conclusion of voting in all constituencies contradicts its strong endorsement of the psephological exercise in the Supreme Court.
Favouring exit/opinion polls as instruments facilitating voters to "arrive at a balanced conclusion", the Centre had in its affidavit stated that it was a "sheer falsehood" if anyone argued that "publication of exit/opinion polls would give misleading signals thereby adversely influencing the exercise of franchise by the voters".
A PIL filed by D K Thakur had in 2004 sought a ban on opinion and exit polls on the ground that they "have a deleterious effect and influence on the electors when they are in the mental process of making up their minds to vote or not to vote for a certain political party or a candidate".
During the pendency of this PIL, then chief election commissioner T S Krishna Murthy wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on July 5, 2004 seeking immediate legislative action in consonance with the EC's view — "there should be some restriction on publishing the results of opinion polls and exit polls. Such a restriction would only be in the wider interests of free and fair elections."
Krishna Murthy's letter to the PM further said: "Regarding the argument about the right to freedom of information sought to be linked to the dissemination of results of opinion and exit polls, it has to be noted that the past experience shows that in many cases, the result of the elections have been vastly different from the results predicted on the basis of exit polls, Thus, the information claimed to be disseminated turned out to be disinformation in many cases."
After evaluating the recommendations for more than a year, the UPA government filed its 9-page detailed response in the Supreme Court on October 13, 2005, discarding the EC's view by seeking dismissal of the PIL.
The Centre had equated news reports and editorials with opinion and exit polls and said: "It needs to be emphasized that with the informative aid provided by opinion/exit polls, the voter is facilitated to arrive at a balanced conclusion as to which of them is credible and reliable for making his informed electoral choice just as he or she will assess the weight to be attached to the editorials and articles projecting different views in several newspapers."
This liberal approach, which contrasts with the present decision taken with the polls staring in a scenario hotted up by price rise, crash in stock markets and bomb blasts, was fortified by the Centre which cited several decisions of the apex court advocating free speech.
The affidavit on behalf of the Centre filed by the ministry of law and justice headed by H R Bhardwaj had stated that "there exists no provision in the election laws or has our Constitution provided anywhere in it so as to prohibit the publication of exit/opinion polls on the basis of a reasoning that it unduly influences voter's mind".
Citing a whole gamut of legal safeguards against misguiding a voter, the Centre had said: "In such an event, there exists no possibility for any elector to be misguided by the disputed exit/opinion polls. Therefore, it would amount to sheer falsehood on the part of the petitioner to aver that the publication of exit/opinion polls would give misleading signals thereby adversely influencing the exercise of franchise by the voters."
While repulsing any attempt to ban exit/opinion polls, the Centre had, however, said that the media publishing such polls should reveal to the public "about the identity of the organisation conducting the poll, indicate the date and/or period when the poll was conducted and publish the political party or other organisation or individual which commissioned and paid for such poll".
The petitioner's stand that "uncontrolled and unrestricted publication of opinion and exit polls by the print and electronic media go contrary to the very foundation of democracy and are as such illegal and impermissible" was discarded as "untenable" by the Centre, which said "free speech guarantee includes the public's right to know, the right to receive information and the right of the citizen to disseminate information".
Also read the related stories
Govt to decide on exit poll ban today