Hindi news and current affairs channel News Express on Tuesday claimed to have conducted a 'sting' operation showing that as many as 11 of India's opinion poll agencies are willing to manipulate data and provide ''misleading results'' for a price.
Following the exposť, the India Today group suspended the services of CVoter, an agency implicated in the operation.
The sting, titled Operation Prime Minister, does not offer any specific evidence to show that any media-commissioned survey in the past year has been deliberately manipulated. The aim, according to the channel, is to ''expose the mind-set and intent''.
Transcripts provided by the channel allegedly reveal that when approached as lobbyists on behalf of political parties, heads of opinion polling agencies were willing to provide two sets of data - the original and manipulated - for different rates.
Also on offer were increasing the margin of error to show a spike in seats; showing contradictory results projecting rival parties as leading the electoral race by creating separate companies; deleting negative data; and manipulating data to any extent at the behest of the client.
At a press meet on Tuesday, News Express editor-in-chief Vinod Kapri said the sting was motivated by the Election Commission's letter to parties inviting their views on opinion polls and the mushrooming of such polls.
In one instance, pollster Yashwant Deshmukh of CVoter told the channel's undercover reporter that while 3 per cent was the standard margin of error, ''at best, we can put it to 5 per cent'', adding that ''we can darn but we cannot patch''.
The sting shows the company's business development manager saying they would charge a separate fee for the manipulation. "The margin of error then can be used internally to further calculate, manipulate whatever you wanna call and create those kind of numbers," he is heard saying on the hidden mike.
Kapri said they were also prompted by the mushrooming of opinion polls. "How is the data generated so quickly and processed," he wondered said.
"The sting demonstrates how the 810 million voters of our country are duped into believing trends or waves that are manipulated. Opinion polls seem to have become the latest weapon in the poll campaign," the channel said in a statement.
One of the agencies said they would delete uncomfortable data to create a particular trend favouring a candidate.
In one conversation, a senior executive in one of the companies says very little payment is done in white in this industry. He said of the Rs4 crore worth of survey done for a regional party, they got just Rs12 lakh over the board, the rest was under the table.
This executive also offers to ensure that the manipulated data are widely reported by TV channels.
Responding on Twitter, Deshmukh said, ''I hope dear old friend Vinod Kapdi (sic) also shows me denying all his efforts and saying clearly that CVoter and Yashwant can't do such things.''
Representatives of Quality Research and Services allegedly told undercover reporters they first did a survey projecting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as winning 200 seats in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections and then created a fictitious company to project the Samajwadi Party (SP) getting as many seats.
Asked if News Express had any evidence to suggest that a media-commissioned survey had been manipulated, Ravikant Mittal, the channel's managing editor, told a newspaper, ''No, we have no proof to show that. Our intention was only to show data can be manipulated in return for money.''
Mittal, however, added these agencies had said they could get the surveys broadcast on channels.
Following the sting, Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal tweeted that the ''truth and fraud'' of opinion polls had been exposed and it was ''shocking''.