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November 15, 2013

Levelling democracy

To safeguard democracy, we must separate governance from the popular will.

Should electoral opinion polling be banned, or at least severely restricted in India? On the face of it, this question sounds absurd. The Constitution guarantees citizens the Right to Free Speech. People are entitled to hold opinions about political issues and transmit these opinions to pollsters, who are then entitled to publish these opinions in newspapers. But one must remember that freedom of speech is subject to reasonable restrictions. Maintaining the sanctity of India’s democracy does count as a reasonable cause for restrictions.

balance

Publication of opinion polls may cause potential voters to change their minds about whom to vote for. For example, the recent spate of polls that provide a positive impression about the BJP’s prospects may cause an anti-Congress voter, who is otherwise unsure of which way he must vote to dislodge the Indian National Congress from power, to believe that there is a consolidation in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and thereby cause him to vote for it. Likewise, it may cause those who are unsettled by the prospect of Narendra Modi rising to power to strategically vote in such a way that the party with the best chance of stopping the BJP wins. Such careful calculation by voters goes against everything electoral democracy stands for.

There have been other strong arguments made by those opposed to publication of opinion polls. T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan, in a recent piece in Business Standard, cites research by three professors at Harvard University to make his case. That paper deals with a curious psychological phenomenon. When people who have strong views on a subject are provided with additional information, their pre-existing views, whether in favour of or in opposition to a position, are strengthened rather than weakened. This is true even when the additional information provided is unbiased and has information on both sides of a position.

While this is paper provides us with a fairly strong case against opinion polls, we must recognise that its import goes much beyond that. This provides us with strong evidence of the wastefulness of campaigning. We are familiar with the common phenomenon where, a person who is convinced of Rahul Gandhi’s lack of intellectual rigour becomes even more convinced of it on hearing his speeches, while one who believes that he is intelligent, but inarticulate, spends hours interpreting his cryptic references to decipher depths of meaning vastly beyond what he intended. Likewise, those opposed to Mr Modi are even more convinced of his anti-Muslim bias when he boasts of the Haj quota from Gujarat being full, and his supporters interpret every one of his sound-bites as evidence of his administrative genius.

In other words, much of campaigning serves, not to help us choose between alternatives, but to strengthen our beliefs. Given that one person has only one vote and votes are not weighted by intensity of our convictions, most campaigning serves only to polarise the electorate in a way that is damaging to democracy without the countervailing benefits of informing the populace. The case for restricting campaigning to safeguard democracy is much stronger than is commonly assumed.

We have seen how the bandwagon effect and underdog effect results from opinion polling, the effects of those polls are fairly distant when compared with what a prospective voter has to go through in his daily life. Given the surge in Mr Modi’s popularity among the Hindu middle class voters, hardly a day goes by without a video of his speech showing up on the voter’s Facebook feed, and it is a rare office cafeteria that does not host a daily discussion on how the Congress should be voted out in 2014.

The participants in these discussions certainly have a vested interest in the outcome – their economic futures depend on the way the election results of 2014 will go. The consequence of these conversations is to provide a strong, but perhaps false impression to a neutral voter that there is a nationwide wave in favour of the BJP, and thereby biasing his decision-making process. The Election Commission must certainly take note of this. While it may be impractical to regulate the daily conversations of people, it must encourage the citizenry to self-regulate and inculcate the model code of conduct into their daily lives. While all citizens have the right to freedom of expression, it comes with certain duties.

The Election Commission imposes an effective ban on policymaking when elections are announced. The intent behind this is laudable – it is to prevent voters from being unfairly influenced by recently announced policies. A cynic may wonder whether voters are so unintelligent that they forget the record of the government all through its term in the heady rush of excitement of hearing policies being announced a month before the elections. But that cynic would show himself to be ignorant of recent research in behavioural sciences that question the premise of the rational and self-interested voter.

The Election Commission needs to go further in leveling the field and upholding the principles of democracy that has made India what it is today. It must also focus on what  is surely the biggest source of unfairness in the electoral system – the ruling party gets an opportunity to make policies for five years, while the opposition has no such chance.

While it would be ideal for the Election Commission to get the model code of conduct to be applicable at all times, any such attempt will surely be met with protests from vested interests who will use the constitution as the excuse to claim that the Commission is going beyond its remit. However, the trend of the Supreme Court taking over policy-making from the government may provide a ray of hope. The recent ruling where the Court has taken away the power of elected representatives to appoint civil servants is particularly welcome. To safeguard democracy, we must separate governance from the popular will.

Photo: StockMonkeys.com


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