Column: Shoot the messenger

Written by Meghnad Desai | Updated: Nov 11 2013, 07:31am hrs
When thousands crossed over from Pakistan to India on the advent of Partition, Delhi had a great problem accommodating the refugees. The authorities in charge did not have any idea how many people they were looking after. No one had the time or the facility to count. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru asked Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, the great statistician, how could they estimate the numbers. Mahalanobis asked him to find out how much salt was being used in feeding the people. Once he had that information, he gave the number of refugees in Delhi. It proved a very accurate estimate. All he had done was to divide the total amount used by the average per capita normal consumption.

That is the beauty of statistics. It can come to a conclusion about large numbers from small numbers. It also infuriates many people, especially politicians, if the answer statistics gives is not to their liking. This happens each time poverty estimates are published. Politicians denounce the results and, thereby, the honest people who work for the National Sample Survey which produces the results.

Shooting the messenger when you dont like the message is a normal practice of tyrants. It is also an outcome of the lack of ability to understand how such methods work.

This is obvious in the new clamour for banning opinion polls. The signs are clear in poll after poll which has been released by virtually all the TV news channels since summer of 2012.

The Congress/UPA is unlikely to get beyond 110-120 seats. The BJP/NDA numbers were modest at firstaround 130-150. Now they seem to have moved to 160-175. When the BJP/NDA seat estimates were low, the Congress and everyone else used them to pronounce that the numbers proved that Narendra Modi could not win. The BJP needed someone more secular like Lal Krishna Advani.

Now that the numbers look worse, the Congress wants opinion polls banned. That illustrates their panic levels. The spurious argument is that they are not accurate. Of course, they are not. They are sample estimates. They carry confidence intervals, plus or minus x%. No one counts or needs to count everyones opinion. That is what happens in the election.

Mahalanobis could have been criticised for estimating the numbers of refugees rather than counting them. Of course, his method was crude. Salt consumption differs between people by age and gender and habit. So, by taking an average, he was grossly simplifying. But he was accurate despite using a very simple method. Should Nehru have shouted at him for employing such statistical methods Just because statistical methods involve estimation does not make them unscientific as the charge is made against opinion polls.

To say that polls may influence voters is obvious. But then so do many other events and news. Does the Congress want all news (except of Rahul Gandhis triumphant speeches) banned till election Would it also like to ban all the news channels on which their spokespersons get a bloody nose each night Would it close down all newspapers which do not predict its victory Or would it do what it did once beforedeclare an Emergency to protect the powerful when faced with criticism by others

Banning opinion polls will not stop people feeling unhappy about inflation which has now persisted for four years despite politicians promising it will come down within the next six months regularly over the years. It will not suddenly bring up the growth rate and create jobs to make unemployed youth think better of the government. Nor will it solve the issues such as the Coalgate. It will not guarantee that the deficit predicted in the last Budget would not be exceeded. It will not shore up the exchange rate of the rupee. It will not make the UPA Cabinet suddenly decisive.

A new doctrine is being argued. This is that to compare the Prime Ministers speech on Independence Days with anyone elses speech is a heinous crime by the media. What kind of sovereign democratic republic does the Congress think we live in It did indeed kill democracy once when the then Prime Minister feared for her career. Are we now being prepared for another suspension of democracy just in case the Congress/UPA may lose the next election Or will a climate of fear and censorship descend on Indian media

If it does, it will instead encourage rumours and gossip with even less foundation than opinion polls. Freedom of speech is the best guarantee against anarchy as well as tyranny. People do misuse it but then that is what freedom is all about. Pandit Nehru once said at a conference of newspaper editors that freedom of the press was designed to protect the bad journalist, not just the good one.

Governments would love to license only good journalists, i.e. those that praised them. It is the scurrilous and scandalous who are the real protectors of our freedom. May they flourish!

The author is a prominent economist and Labour peer