Concerned that opinion polls have the potential to influence voters, the attorney general (AG) has backed an Election Commission (EC) proposal to impose restrictions on the telecast and publication of such surveys once election dates are announced.
The EC wants to be able to ban opinion polls from the date of notification of election dates, which ranges between 30 and 45 days. Existing law allows EC to ban them just 48 hours prior to voting.
In his four-page opinion to the law ministry on whether the EC’s proposal was legally valid, the government’s top law officer GE Vahanvati said: “There is no real basis for distinguishing between exit and opinion polls. Restrictions on exit polls till voting is over in all phases have been in force for over three years and there does not appear to be any challenge to this.”
“What is paramount is the necessity to have free and fair elections and such opinion polls often tend to cause a prejudicial effect on the voters mind,” said Vahanvati.
The AG also referred to the ‘unanimous view’ of political parties to ban such polls before general elections, in a meeting held in April 2004.
But the NDA government at the time did not pursue the issue after the then AG Soli Sorabjee had stated that “prohibition of opinion or exit polls was unconstitutional.”
The EC continued to pursue the matter and in 2009, Sorabjee’s successor, the late Milon Banerjee, was of the opinion that freedom of expression was important, but it could be subject to reasonable restrictions and therefore the telecast of exit polls should only be allowed after the voting was completed in all phases.
Following his advice, the government amended the Representation of People’s Act in 2010 to restrict the exit polls till the polling is over.