The Congress’s proposal to ban opinion polls could be based on an unjustified suspicion of the process, pollsters say. According to them, if opinion polls and forecasts are reported and interpreted in a more scientific way, politicians will find that pollsters get it right more often than not.

The Election Commission bans publication of both opinion polls and exit polls for 48 hours before the casting of votes is over. The body sought the opinion of political parties on whether the ban should be extended to the entire election season, from the date on which elections are announced. Calling opinion polls fraudulent and manipulated, Congress politicians have supported such a ban.

Pollsters say the problem is not so much their inaccuracy as interpretation of their findings. “In the last 20 years, there have been over 100 elections in India and on the whole, polling agencies have got it right. Except for the 2004 general elections, where we all accept that we got it wrong, pollsters have rarely got it dramatically wrong,” Yashwant Deshmukh, founder and managing director of C-Voter, told The Hindu.

This despite the fact that India’s size, social heterogeneity and multi-polarity makes it a forecaster’s nightmare, especially since media organisations, which commission all polling in India, have tight budgets, pollsters say. Global giants like Pew and Gallup say that one of the challenges of polling in India is that because a representative sampling frame of phone users has not yet been developed in India, the country’s size makes face-to-face interviewing prohibitively expensive, their representatives told The Hindu.

Pollsters who specialise in election forecasting say the proliferation of market research companies in the business has given polling a bad name. “If there was some regulation of polls before they are released in the media to make sure that the sampling, methodology and interpretation is correct, we would not oppose that,” said Sanjay Kumar, national coordinator of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies’ National Election Studies.

“There are too many bad polls out there and very few good ones, but they are all unfortunately getting put into one basket,” he added.

Both the media and the political class suffer from a poor understanding of statistics, pollsters say, and do not pay attention to disclaimers including the margin of error. “Some polling agencies and the media love to flash how big the sample is, without paying any attention to whether it is a truly representative sample,” Mr. Deshmukh said. “What is needed is greater transparency, rather than a ban,” Mr. Kumar agreed.

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