In these times of paid news, opinion polls are highly suspect

Face to Face: SY Quraishi

Sadiq Naqvi Delhi 

Circulation of black money is disturbing the level playing field. We try to catch them, but they come up with novel ideas. A man with limited means has no chance of contesting an election.” Former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi in conversation with Hardnews 

Social media has emerged as a new challenge. Do you feel it needs to be regulated for the kind of vicious content we have seen lately, the role it recently played in fomenting tensions and the kind of money that is being pumped into it by political parties and candidates?

Yes, social media is very powerful. It can even burn the country. But, it is media at the end of the day. You can’t have different yardsticks. The Election Commission of India (ECI) is only concerned about the election and the use of social media by political parties and candidates: how much money they are spending on it and the kind of content they are propagating through it. There is a legal limit on expenditure and there is a model code of conduct which specifies restrictions on the content of political speeches, ensuring there is no hate speech. As for the people who are worried about the ECI keeping a close tab on social media, saying that it is against  freedom of expression, they forget that in Article 19, which gives freedom of speech and expression, the next clause of the same article has placed reasonable restrictions. 

Tracking it is difficult…

There is no doubt that tracking it is difficult. Not just from the election point of view but also from the national security point of view. Inability to catch is a problem. Indeed, the inability to catch black money is also an issue. So, to say that something is difficult doesn’t mean that the ECI should close its eyes. We should try to restrict it to the extent we can succeed. 

What is your take on opinion polls. The results vary so much…

Opinion polls, if they are scientific and honest, are a good idea. They are done regularly in developed countries and are useful. In the Indian context, where paid news is such a grim reality, opinion polls can be suspect. And if they are suspect then they are interfering with free and fair elections. If they are dishonestly done, they are certainly interfering. The ECI had asked for a ban on opinion and exit polls. Parliament, in its wisdom, banned exit polls but allowed opinion polls. However, once political parties are at the receiving end of these polls, they protest, saying, we are being cheated, etc. Yes, in these times of paid news, opinion polls are highly suspect, especially because they are conducted close to the elections. Let there be a national debate. 

During your tenure, did you come across paid news in the context of opinion polls?

How is it possible that one channel is saying something, while the other channel is saying something totally different? If they are so scientific, how can they differ? The fact that they are poles apart makes one wonder as to what is the scientific basis. 

In a recent opinion poll done by AAP, we saw them claiming victory. The poll was conducted by their own member. How credible is this exercise?

Quite right. Although they claim that the poll is done by Yogendra Yadav who is an expert, the fact is that he is a member of the party and that makes him partisan. People should decide if they want to believe it (laughs). It supports my overall argument that opinion polls are a great thing if they are scientific. But, if they are suspect, they are not desirable. 

Shouldn’t ECI regulate such a practice?

No, ECI can’t do anything until there is a law which bans opinion polls. Till that happens, you can continue with releasing motivated or paid opinion polls, there is no check on it. 

So you agree that this is an unhealthy practice?

Yes, any dishonest practice is an unhealthy practice. If it is dishonest! Considering that Yogendra Yadav has done this survey, he has a lot of credibility. However, whether this survey is scientific and realistic, time will tell. If he is proved wrong, then people will ridicule him. They will stop trusting him. That is the
best check. 

Corporates are funding political parties. They are funding the media. They may also be funding opinion polls, for all we know. How do we ensure fair play?

Transparency in political funding is an important issue. The ECI has been demanding that there should be complete transparency. Income and expenditure should be only by cheques. There should be an independent audit by a panel of the ECI. The information should be in the public domain so that the people  know which company has paid how much money; when the government favours them later with some concession, people can at least see the quid pro quo. That is why political parties don’t want transparency; even the business houses don’t want transparency. They want the present system to continue. 

Do you think Congress should take the lead?

Yes, of course they must, for they are in the government. However, there are other political parties also who are ruling the states. 

Some observers point out that there is a bias in the way TV channels are showcasing Narendra Modi. Many claim that this is happening through certain corporates who have surreptitiously bought space. Is there a way this can be ascertained and regulated, if found to be true?

The ECI cannot do anything on this. Its job starts the day the model code of conduct is enforced. After that it can look into disproportionate coverage and other such issues. If all the funds are coming through cheques and there is transparency, there will be no problem. It is definitely a hazy area. 

In the context of the debate on blocking people who are convicted and so on, the truth is that people are also framed. How do we ensure that people who are in jail on trumped-up charges do not face the brunt?…

That’s a different issue. For, when we say that such people must be debarred from contesting in the first place, we are conscious of what we are saying. We have three safeguards built into it. The FIR should have been registered six months before the elections and should be a heinous offence like rape, dacoity, murder, kidnapping and sedition. The court should have framed the charges. Many lawyers and even SC judges are of the opinion that framing of charges may not be proper or may have been done without judicial application of mind. However, framing of charges shows that, prima facie, there is a case against the person. Others point out that there are four lakh people languishing in jails, out of which 2.6 lakh are yet to be convicted. They are innocent until proven guilty. However, they have already forfeited their fundamental rights, right to liberty/dignity, freedom of movement/expression, even the right to vote. Hence, this is there in the law. For larger public good, the interests of the individual can be compromised. 

Political parties are vehemently against coming under the ambit of the RTI…

Had the political parties listened to the ECI and accepted what we were suggesting, which was very minimal, that you can do money transactions in a transparent manner, get an audit done, and put it up on the website, then, probably, nobody would have thought of it. Now, once they are under the RTI, they will have to bear the brunt of even the abuse of RTI.  There is a lot of misuse of RTI as well. The vested interests will keep barraging them with questions. The political parties asked for it by not listening to the ECI.  

What is the biggest challenge in the way of free and fair elections?

Money power. Circulation of black money is disturbing the level playing field. We try to catch them, but they come up with novel ideas. A man with limited means has no chance of contesting an election.

 

Not just the common man. Even the communist parties have been saying that they do not have the money to take on big moneybag political outfits…

Yes, they are right. Money is a big problem and blocks the transparency of political funding. Paid news is also a big concern. The ECI has been able to catch quite a few cases. Nearly 2,000 notices were sent and in many cases they accepted that it was paid news and they included it in their account books. But, it is not merely an accounting matter. They keep coming up with new modus operandi to evade being caught by the ECI.   

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2013