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Did exit polls violate statutory embargo?
'What's the penalty in case the exit pollsters and their broadcasters are dragged to the courts? A pretty stiff one, actually'
Friday December 6, 2013 7:00 PM, Rohit Bansal, IANS

Some top news channels and publications may have violated the Representation of the People Act, 1951 by conducting and airing exit polls ahead of the permitted timing. This, by virtue of Section 126A, inserted some five years ago, in the statute book.

"No person shall conduct any exit poll and publish or publicize by means of print or electronic media or disseminate in any other manner, whatsoever, the result of any exit poll during such period, as may be notified by the Election Commission in this regard," it says.

The "period" commences from the beginning of the hours fixed for poll and continues till half-hour after closing. The crucial formulation in Section 126A is the ban on the very conduct of such polls until half-hour after the end of polling, not merely the broadcast of results.

At sharp 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, half-hour after the official deadline of voting, at least four pollsters, in collaboration with their partner news channels, started beaming their respective exit polls.

The simple assumption therefore is that the sampling teams were "conducting" the said polls well before 5:30 p.m. -- or, perhaps, through the day.

But even while exit pollsters and their commissioning broadcasters were blaring their numbers, polling was still going on in many booths in Delhi well past 8 p.m.

"It's not for my ministry, but the Election Commission to have issued an advisory to the media at 5:30 p.m.," Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari said when his attention was drawn to Section 126A.

Contacted independently, former chief election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi confirmed as much. "Free and fair elections can't be compromised at any cost whatsoever," he said, pointing to various court rulings.

For the purposes of this section, an exit poll means an opinion survey on how electors have voted at an election or how all the electors have performed with regard to the identification of a political party or candidate in an election.

Electronic media includes internet, radio and television, including internet protocol TV, satellite, terrestrial or cable channels, mobile and such other media, either owned by the government or private person or by both.

Print media includes any newspaper, magazine or periodical, poster, placard, handbill or any other document. Dissemination includes publication in any print media or the broadcast or display on any electronic media.

The then law minister had stated in parliament that Section 126A was considered necessary "due to the complexities of the election process, which is increasing day-by-day, and as such elections are being held in several phases. In such staggering of election schedules over a large period of time it is felt that the telecast of exit polls after each phase of polling affects the outcome in the subsequent phase of elections. It is believed that such telecast of exit polls affect the turnout of voters' also."

The law apart, poor statistical rigour is amplified by the sheer disagreement on who's winning or losing. Take Delhi. Among the four exit pollsters, Today's Chanakya placed the Aam Admi Party as the largest victor in Delhi with 31 seats, with 29 seats for the BJP, and merely 10 seats for the Congress party.

India Today-ORG poll predicted an exactly opposite scenario: Just 6 seats for the Aam Admi Party, the BJP coming to power with 41 seats and the Congress sitting in the opposition with just 20 seats.

AC Nielsen's exit poll predicts a BJP victory in Delhi. It gave 37 seats to the BJP, Congress 16 seats and Aam Admi Party 15 seats.

In the C-Voter exit poll, the Congress was projected to get 20 seats, the BJP emerging as the single largest party with 31 seats and the Aam Admi Party is expected to win 15.

While Sunday will prove who's got it right and who's got it wrong, what's the penalty in case the exit pollsters and their broadcasters are dragged to the courts? A pretty stiff one, actually.

Contravention of Section 126A alone entails "imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with fine or with both."

(Rohit Bansal is chief executive and co-founder, India Strategy Group, Hammurabi and Solomon Consulting. The views expressed are personal. Tweets @therohitbansal)

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