Empower Election Commission to regulate print and electronic media on opinion and exit polls

The notification of the Election Commission of India (ECI) in relation to the general elections to Legislative Assembly of Karnataka on the matter of opinion and exit polls has once again ignited the debate on the subject of electoral reforms casting light on the need for potential steps ahead of forthcoming general elections in 2014. The notification by the ECI on the 11th of April, 2013 prohibits the publication or broadcast or dissemination in any form the results of any exit polls during the period of Assembly elections in the State. Further, in accordance with Section 126 (1) (b) of the Representation of People Act (RPA), 1951, displaying of “any election matter including results of any opinion polls or any other poll survey in any electronic media” would be prohibited during the period of 48 hours before the end of polling on 5th of May, 2013.

An amendment to Section 126 of the RPA, 1951 in 2009 did squelch the objections to its inability to prohibit exit polls with the insertion of Section 126A, which restricted the publishing, publicising or any form of dissemination of exit polls and held the violation as a punishable offence with an “imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years of with fine or with both”. Evidently, the amendment does not address the subject of opinion polls and it is left to the interpretation of Section 126 under the RPA, 1951. Under Section 126 (1) (b) of the RPA, 1951, the “display to the public any election matter by means of cinematograph, television or any other similar apparatus” is prohibited during the period of 48 hours ending with the hour fixed for conclusion of polls. This Section clearly does not restrict publication of opinion polls even on the day of election thus violating the fairness in the conduct of elections. Although the Election Commission appended in its circulated notification an advisory note to newspapers stating that they are “not expected to indulge in unhealthy election campaigns or exaggerate reports about any candidate or party or incident during the elections”, the dearth of legal sanctity to the power of the Election Commission to restrict the practice proves pejorative to the multifaceted spirit of mass media. The legal battle on the subject has witnessed two striking rulings of the Supreme Court of India (SC). In 1999, a Constitutional Bench of the SC compelled then ECI to withdraw its guidelines banning the publication of opinion and exit polls. The ECI issued the guidelines under Article 324 of the Constitution, which provided the Commission the power of “superintendence, direction and control”, but the order was observed to be “devoid of merit”. Subsequently, in January 2009, the Election Commission had approached the SC seeking clarification on the right of the ECI to regulate opinion and exit polls. The bench headed by then Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan acknowledged ECI’s freedom to frame guidelines to regulate publication of exit polls. In this regard, the guideline issued toward Lok Sabha elections of 2009 by the Election Commission restricted the publishing, publicising and dissemination of any opinion or exit poll conducted any time by print, electronic or any other media during the period of 48 hours ending with ending with the hour fixed for conclusion of polls. Even as the ECI enjoys the power to frame the rules as and when deemed necessary, the want of legal prowess on the subject impedes plausible punitive action on any violation. Significant to this effect is the germane factor that such a guideline depends on the willingness of each Election Commission from time to time.

In the age of swelling utility of media technologies and its ensuing challenges, the import to assent legal solidity to the proposed reform is imperative to the arduous process of elections in the world’s largest democracy. The Election Commission in its recommendation on reforms toward better management of elections had stated the need for legal provision to restrict the publishing of results of opinion polls through print media. With escalating reports and consequent debates on publication on paid news there is an urgent need to draw the legal arc to contain any exploitation of print media adversely affecting the process of election. In similar fashion, the potential of opinion polls to influence public dialogue and thrust a sway over undecided electorate demands immediate attention to the reform proposal of the Election Commission on this subject. France, for example, in 2002 passed a new law prohibiting a 24-hour publication ban on opinion polls. French law requires the publishing media enterprise to provide details of the poll’s methodology if opinion poll results are published.

In the backdrop of swiftly approaching general elections, there is a need to take cue from the various notifications of the ECI on different Assembly elections to prepare the stage to adopt legislative amendments quintessential to the free and fair conduct of elections.

By Nripendra Misra, Director, PIF & Annapoorna Karthika, Research Associate, PIF

(This article was published in the New Indian Express on 6th May, 2013)