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New Delhi, Nov 4: Pre-election opinion polls have opened a flaming opinion war among political parties. It is no more an academic argument over the merits or precision of psephology; it has become a full-blown debate over freedom of speech and media rights.

The BJP’s prime ministerial aspirant, Narendra Modi, assumed pole position on the issue today, slamming the Congress’ advocacy of banning opinion polls and holding the party up as traditionally opposed to institutions of freedom. “The biggest casualty of the Congress Party’s arrogance while in power and its tendency to trample over institutions has been our fundamental right to free speech,” Modi wrote on his blog. He had no particular “affinity” to opinion polls, he said, and was aware of their chequered history and limitations, but that could not be grounds to proscribe them. “There is an important principle and ethic here that holds true for every party and government. From Bhishma in the Mahabharata to Kautilya in the Arthashastra we have been taught how important it is for those in government to be attuned to public opinion. A government that is in denial over where the public opinion really stands is doomed to be thrown out of power,” Modi wrote.

The BJP leads and the Congress lags across all opinion polls broadcast in recent weeks.

Memories of the Emergency-era suspension of fundamental rights under Congress rule aren’t tough to recall. And last week’s controversial I&B ministry advisory to news television broadcasters only made it easier for Modi to intone public alarm over the Congress’s intentions. “My concern is not limited to this proposal to ban opinion polls. Tomorrow, the Congress may seek a ban on articles, editorials and blogs during election time on the very same grounds,” Modi cautioned, “If they lose an election they may then seek a ban on the Election Commission and if the courts do not support them then they may say why not ban the courts! After all this a Party that resorted to imposing the Emergency in response to an inconvenient court verdict.”

His assault on the Congress followed and equally aggressive articulation of freedom of speech imperatives by his colleague and leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, who charged that “three potential violations of the right to free speech” had come to light: the bid to ban opinion polls, the I& B ministry advisory of earlier this week decrying comparative coverage of the Prime Minister’s I-Day speech with those made by other leaders (read Narendra Modi) and virtually warning news television stations against future repeats, and the bid by TRAI to restrict advertising time on television. “Airwaves are public property. They belong to the people of India and not to the Minister of Information and Broadcasting,” Jaitley said, adding, “The fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution of India are an integral part of the constitutional basic structure. They are un-amendable. The most pre-eminent out of the freedoms enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution is the Right of free speech and expression. It is pre-eminent because unlike other fundamental rights which can be restricted on account of certain reasonable restrictions, the right to free speech cannot be restricted on the ground of any undefined reasonable restriction.”

The immediate backdrop to the BJP’s offensive is a query sent out by the Election Commission (EC) to political parties on whether pre-election opinion polls should be banned. The polity lies split on the issue with the BJP and its NDA allies pulling their weight behind pollsters in the name of free speech and media independence. The Left parties are yet undecided which way they wish to lean, the JDU says it is mulling its reply to the EC, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) are backing the Congress-led opposition to such polls.

The Election Commission, for the record, has yet to receive enough feedback to be able to make up its mind, although conventional wisdom is that the very fact it sent out a query to political parties may indicated it favours a ban.

Jaitley bluntly warned the EC against any such resort, saying, “ (Opinion) polls are also a part of free speech. Restricting them is constitutionally neither permissible nor desirable. The Election Commission will be best advised to keep away from this controversy and allow the market place of democracy to accept or reject the findings of the opinion poll. If the polls can be legitimately banned in this country, the next step would be to ban political commentators from giving assessments favourable to some and adverse to some others.”

The outspoken Congress general secretary, Digvijay Singh, has been near-cantankerous in flaying them. “They should be trashed,” he has said, “They should be trashed, they have become a farce. I would like to know the scientific process that is employed by the agencies conducting these polls. They should be banned altogether. The kind of complaints, the information that I have got shows that anybody can pay and get a survey as desired.”

The Congress has found any ally in former Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) S.Y. Quraishi, who has littered the public discourse with his reservations.What troubles him, in the main, is the likelihood of opinion polls amounting to paid news and, consequently, unduly influencing voting patterns. “Opinion and exit polls should, at best, be on entertainment channels,” Quraishi recently tweeted, making light of the pollsters’ vocation and, equally, of their prime-time centrestaging on news television channels.

But Jaitley sounded clearly unimpressed with those that tarry with methods and motives of opinion polls and argued that the real reason they were being opposed by the Congress and others was that they were on the wrong side of public opinion. He agreed psephology in India was still “maturing” be said that could not be the basis for rejecting it. “When the trend of opinion polls are adverse to the political parties, they rubbish them. They start demanding a ban. The loser demands a ban and the potential winner wants them to continue,” Jaitley said, “A ban on such polls can not be considered based on who is demanding the ban. A potential loser in an election can not seek to alter the rules of free speech.”

With more than just a little help from the UPA and the Congress, the BJP — Modi and Jaitley in particular — have scaled up the skirmish over opinion polls to more fundamental and consititutional issues of freedom of speech. Clubbing the Congress’ aversion to opinion polls with last week’s I&B ministry advisory, Jaitley was able to make a credible case media freedom was under attack. The BJP clearly feels, and probably rightly, that it already has a critical ally in the campaign it has mounted: the media itself.

 

 

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