Political parties on Saturday sparred over the issue of opinion polls, with BJP saying only losers demand a ban on such surveys even as the Congress said it never sought such a prohibition.
CPM said it has no objection on conducting of the opinion polls but the results should not be published once the election process starts. It also cautioned against manipulation of such polls.
AICC wrote to Election Commission last week favouring restriction on the publication and dissemination of opinion polls during polls while noting that the random surveys were "erroneous", "lack credibility" and could be "manipulated" by vested interests.
Commenting on this, BJP leader Arun Jaitley said today that though psephology is still maturing in India and some opinion polls do go wrong, it does not mean they should be banned.
"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. A potential loser in an election cannot seek to alter the rules of free speech," Jaitley said.
"There are opinion polls and opinion polls. Some have acquired credibility and some can easily be ignored. Some are cases of even 'participatory psephology'. Whatever may be the reliability or otherwise of these polls, can they be prohibited or banned?" he said in an article.
Congress, on the other hand, said it has not sought a ban but only expressed its view favouring prohibition on such surveys which some of its leaders dismissed as a "racket", "farce" and "manipulated" exercise.
Congress spokesman Meem Afzal said there is an attempt to portray that Congress is opposing opinion poll. "This is wrong. We did not say anything on our own. Off course we have given our opinion." He said the Congress only endorses the view of the EC on the issue.
Afzal also pointed out that when EC had convened a meeting of political parties to elicit their views on prohibiting or restricting opinion and exit polls during elections in 2004, political parties had "unanimously" agreed that the results of such surveys should not be published before the closing of all phases of elections.
Ahead of Assembly elections in five states in December this year, EC had again sought the views of the political parties on whether to ban opinion polls after the Centre earlier asked it to hold fresh consultations on the matter. In a letter dated October 4, EC asked various recognised national and state-level political parties to give their views on the issue by October 21. It then sent a reminder on October 25 asking the parties to respond by a fresh deadline of November 4.
In a written reply to EC on October 30, Congress said it "fully endorses the views of the Election Commission of India to restrict publication and dissemination of opinion polls during election (time).
"In fact, opinion polls during elections are neither scientific nor is there any transparent process for such polls," Congress said in its official response to EC.
"Our leaders have always said that we do not have faith in it (opinion polls). We always said they were doubtful," he added.
Countering the Congress demand for a ban on opinion polls, BJP leader Arun Jaitley said that any such restriction was neither constitutionally permissible nor desirable.
Opinion polls are an element of free speech, Jaitley said, while maintaining that only losers demanded a ban on them.
Congress, however, rejected BJP's charge that it was opposed to opinion polls as it was "scared" of Narendra Modi, since these surveys were predicting an edge for BJP. At present, there is a ban on opinion polls starting 48 hours before voting.
Afzal said the party's view had been "consistent" that opinion polls are something doubtful but "It is wrong to accuse Congress of demanding it (ban) when EC, which conducts elections, is saying all this. We have only endorsed EC's opinion."
Party general secretary Digvijaya Singh, however, minced no words in slamming opinion polls, saying "These have become a farce. They should be banned altogether. The kind of complaints, information that I have got, show that anybody can pay and get a survey as desired."
Wondering how a few thousand people could predict election trends for a country of 1.2 billion people, he said, "It has become a racket. So many groups have sprung up."
Union minister Rajiv Shukla, speaking separately, said that opinion polls were also at times "manipulated" and, thus, the party had done the right thing by having opposed it.
Jaitley said the poll panel is best advised to "keep away from this controversy and allow the market place of democracy to accept or reject the findings of opinion polls".
Noting that political parties tend to rubbish opinion polls that predict adverse results, he said the loser demands a ban and the potential winner wants them to continue.
"A ban on such polls cannot be considered based on who is demanding the ban. Clearly, (opinion) polls are also a part of free speech. Restricting them is constitutionally neither permissible nor desirable," the BJP leader said.
Several opinion polls conducted recently show BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi ahead of Rahul Gandhi, widely seen as the PM probable for Congress. Opinion polls on the ensuing Assembly elections show BJP as the clear winner in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
CPM leader and polit bureau member Sitaram Yechury said, "Our belief is, if one wants to conduct opinion polls let them do it... Many parties conduct opinion polls to judge the position of their candidates. However, the results should not be published after the election process starts."
He added that it was the "prerogrative of the Election Commission to decide the time of limit."
"There should be a ban on campaigning and spreading canards that happens through these opinion polls. There should be a time limit that until the elections are over one cannot publish these opinion polls," Yechury said. Trinamool Congress leader Mukul Roy said his party will abide by the decision taken by the Election Commission.
His party colleague Derek O'Brien said, "people have the final word."
In a written reply to the Commission on October 30, the Congress said that it "fully endorses the views of the Election Commission of India to restrict publication and dissemination of opinion polls during the election".
"In fact the opinion polls during election are neither scientific nor is there any transparent process for such polls," the party said in its official response to the EC.