The results of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections have turned out to be quite different from what the exit polls had foretold. This caused widespread outrage across the country and raised serious questions about the exit polls’ honesty and intentions. Moreover, the fact that these polls can subvert the electoral process, poses a serious threat to the fabric of India’s democracy.

This has led to a lot of concern among common citizens about the accuracy and validity of these polls, sparking a heated public debate, particularly on social media, about whether exit polls should be banned or not in India.

Technically an exit poll is a survey conducted among a selected group of voters. They are asked about their voting preferences and behaviour, as they leave the polling station after casting their votes.

In this context, it is crucial to consider whether a legal framework exists to govern exit polls in India. The answer to this query is unequivocal. There is a well-defined legal framework that explicitly outlines a regulation governing the conduct, publication/broadcasting of exit polls.

Section 126(1) of the Representation of the People Act of 1951 stipulates this explicitly in the following words: ‘‘No person shall conduct any exit poll and publish or publicise by means of the 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.’’

A plain reading of the quoted text makes it clear that exit polls are not legally permitted in India. The operative legal framework only provides for the scope of pre-poll and post-poll surveys, which are radically distinct from exit polls.

To place the issue in a concrete perspective, a pre-poll survey is designed to capture the pulse of the public well before the elections are held. Its main objective is to gauge public sentiment towards political parties and candidates and to predict potential voting-patterns and attitudes. Importantly, it is never conducted after the election announcements.

Conversely, a post-poll survey takes place much after the elections are concluded. It involves interviewing voters in the comfort of their homes or workplaces to gain insight into their voting behaviour and choices.

Despite the existing law expressly prohibiting any form of exit poll, pollsters conduct and publish/broadcast the findings of exit polls, blatantly violating the law. It is quite astonishing that this open and flagrant violation of the law unfolds as a public spectacle, while important constitutional institutions remain mute witnesses.

The Election Commission of India, constitutionally mandated with the responsibility of ensuring free and fair elections, surprisingly, does not prohibit pollsters from conducting exit polls across the country on the last day of polling, despite concerns about its potentially adverse impact on the electoral process and public perception.

The argument, often advanced by the supporters of exit polls in the name of 'democracy', that the practice of exit polls is common in mature Western democracies, does not hold much weight. Compare, for instance, the exit poll results in the recently held elections in the United Kingdom. They are almost on the dot with the final results.

It is worth asking why India should invariably look to Western democratic practices for reference. India, with its long-standing tradition of a secular and pluralist democracy, has its own valuable experience to learn from and implement necessary adjustments accordingly.

Interestingly, those who cite examples of Western democracy often have no respect for Western countries, their democracies. They tend to look down on them while immodestly boasting, in unmistakable jingoistic undertones, about India being a Vishvaguru.

Indeed, India is a ‘Union of States’ with a rich tapestry of diverse political cultures, traditions, attitudes, and complexities. Some of its states have populations larger than many mature democracies, highlighting the vast scale of India's internal complexities and contradictions. Therefore, it is pointless to defend the practice of exit polls in India by comparing it to Western democracies.

For instance, in contrast to the norms observed in Western democracies, India had to introduce the Anti-defection Law in 1985, outlined in the tenth schedule of the Indian Constitution. Needless to say, this legislation was a response to the disruptive actions of politicians known for their frequent party-hopping (as a result of horse-trading), colloquially termed the ‘aaya ram gaya ram’ phenomenon.

It is worth pondering whether Indian democracy can endure well without the anti-defection law. This question often prompts us to consider the essence of contemporary Indian democracy.

Despite the Anti-defection Law being in full operation, we have, in recent years, witnessed government after government being toppled as a consequence of the abject stealing of mandates, a sobering fact that speaks for itself.

The fact that the notion of this law does not exist in India evokes fear and raises critical questions about the stability of the democratic process. When considering the rescue of India’s democracy, it is crucial to evaluate what truly serves its finest interests carefully.

In doing so, it becomes evident that exit polls conducted during elections may not effectively contribute to an informed and empowered electorate.

In evaluating the health of India's democracy, it is crucial to deliberate on what truly advances its best interests. Further, it is imperative to recognise that the practice of conducting exit polls during elections does little to foster an electorate that is well-informed and empowered.

Exit polls, instead of offering crucial information to aid in the selection of better lawmakers, often contribute to the confusion by disproportionately emphasising the ‘likely’ victories or defeats of specific political parties.

Given the overall grim reality of the political economy of the Indian exit polls, more particularly about the complicated and problematic nexus between pollsters, political parties and media houses, the practice of exit polls not only undermines the fairness of the entire electoral process but also poses graver implications for the fabric of Indian democracy.

For example, one major fallout of exit polls in the run-up to the declaration of the results of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections was witnessed when the utterly false projections of the exit polls adversely impacted the stock market prices.

This caused huge economic losses to the common investor citizens. According to the report published by the ‘Mint’, investors have lost 31 lakh crore rupees, an epic amount, due to falsified projections of the exit polls.

The current practice of exit polls often fuels a media frenzy and tends to resemble ‘‘political forecasts’’ bordering on ‘‘electoral prophecy’’ driven by utterly subjective research designs of pollsters. This, in turn, unfairly sets the media agenda and unabashedly manipulates the public opinion of the nation.

Indeed, in this context it is worth asking: Would the freedom of speech and media expression be significantly impacted, if the practice of exit polls is prohibited, in letter and spirit, following the existing law, to ensure free and fair elections and uphold the democratic process?

The following argument resolves the above proposition quite clearly: If citizens can patiently wait to witness the various phases of an election, they surely have enough appetite to wait a few more days to learn the actual results instead of relying upon projected results from exit polls just two or three days before the official results are announced.

This kind of unmannerly hurry on the part of the citizens surely does not bode well for the fabric of a democratic country. Democracy is indeed a serious project that demands, first and foremost, the patience of citizens.

The hurry to know the projections just a few days before the counting of voters surely goes against the grain of the democratic temperament of the people which is ideally a prerequisite in a settled democracy.

In a nutshell, the existing legislation in India, which prohibits the conduct of exit polls, must be observed, in letter and spirit, by the Election Commission of India. Failure to comply must prompt the Supreme Court of India to take immediate, proactive action, exercising its inherent powers to issue firm, clear and stern writs to enforce the law of the land.

Naren Singh Rao is a lawyer and academic based in Delhi. Views expressed are the writer's own.