Exit poll 2014: yet another manufactured media jamboree?

BY NUPUR BASU| IN Media Practice | 14/05/2014
At 6.30 pm on May 12, the exit polls burst through on TV channels. The only problem was that the range was so wide that the numbers only indicated who was winning.
NUPUR BASU has fun watching them.

The countdown has begun to the 2014 Indian election results. At 6.30 pm on May 12 (the embargo set by the Election Commission), the exit polls burst through the TV channels. The only problem was that they left you no wiser about the numbers as they remained extremely range-bound. NDA was given seats ranging from 249 to 315. The UPA, 92 to 148.

Slugs and banner headlines crowded the TV channel mastheads. From bombastic ones like: “5 days that will define India”, “Can BJP reach Mission 272?” to more sober straightforward ones like “India Votes 2014” or “One billion Vote battle for 2014”.

Exit polls are time to market not only your favourite political parties and contenders, but also your own channel. Times Now with its in-house characteristic report card of its own performance, led the pack with the banner – “The Most Exhaustive Poll on Indian Television”. It ran slugs like “Is Modi within reach?” “Closing in on 7 RCR?” “Is he almost home?” The channel’s exit poll, however, gave the BJP only 249 seats, the lowest among all the other exit polls that came out that evening. This invited the wrath of BJP leaders like Ravi Shankar Prasad, now to go down in BJP’s leadership among one of the rudest to the media persons, along with Meenakshi Lekhi, who had earlier accused Arnab of taking money.

The risk you take in doing exit polls is of course that the politicians have a field day taking open digs at the institution you represent- the media. On CNN-IBN Yogendra Yadav, AAP leader and former psephologist, wearing the shoe on the other foot this time as a politician, said he had always wondered why politicians disagreed with exit poll results and that he would be happy to accept it without a grudge. However, when Rajdeep said that he must grant that all parties like BJP and AAP had used the media for the elections, Yogendra retorted: “Rajdeep how can you compare the AAP to the BJP? How can you compare us with a party with so much money at their disposal...a party that has bought the TV channels and giving projecting Modi as the messiah that is going to clean the Ganga to rejuvenate the economy!”

Mani Shankar Aiyar also had a broadside at Rajdeep saying “Not so long ago your own channel had given the BJP a maximum of 160 seats”. That provoked Rajdeep to no end and he protested loudly: “That is not true…that is not true- some people have been spreading these rumours about us...our last figure was 235!” Aiyar who had nothing to lose but his seat in Mylathadurai replied in a baritone: “There is just 100 hours to go and I am happy to wait”. Rajdeep persisted with the phrases like: “It is a virtual washout for the Congress- is India at a watershed moment?”

On Headlines Today, more drama was unfolding. Derek O’Brien of the TMC was saying: “I will stand on my head on television if Times Now, that hopeless channel’s prediction that we will get only 20, comes true”. Derek was playing to the galleries on a channel that had given them 25-29. This prompted Headlines Today editor Rahul Kanwal to ask him: “Will didi play tango with Modi?” Derek replied in the absurd: “I don’t know about tango but it is a mango season!” Such divine pronouncements. He then added: “In Bengal the BJP may at the most get one seat. The left was dead and now they have been buried. Some percentage of the Left vote has gone to the BJP”.

Elsewhere on Time Now playing a banner which said – Final Lap - Congress’ R P N Singh was ribbing the reporter in response to a question on BJP’s expected stunning performance: “Aree brother…your own TV channel is not giving the BJP figures which suggest that there is a tsunami…for the last three months you people in the media are saying there is a Modi tsunami, if there is a tsunami why are they not crossing 270?” On Times Now Arnab had also talked about the ‘final push’ of the UPA saying that while in February 14, they had been given 101 seats, on March ‘14 they had slid to 91 seats…how come by May 12, ’14, the exit poll results were showing them at 148.

Prakash Javarekar of the BJP maintained that the NDA would get more than 300...making Rajdeep borrow Bollywood phrase earlier borrowed by Narendra Modi and say: Yeh dil mange more. “I spoke to Modi – although he is not giving me an interview yet- he told me that in this election BJP will get the biggest majority after Rajiv Gandhi. “It is a North West Monsoon for the BJP”, said the editor in chief of CNN-IBN.

Sandeep Shastri of Lokniti Network who jointly did the exit poll with CNN-IBN attributed BJP’s expected good showing to the electoral alliances: “Clearly BJP’s alliances have been much better than that of the Congress and this is a big reason.” Comic interludes were many. Rajdeep’s description of BSP leader Mayawati’s hidden potential provided the required comic relief - Vote nahin rasgoolah…haathi hain khullam khulla.

Some were in the game of comparing leadership qualities within the BJP, a Modi supporter Surjit Bhalla was saying, “If Advani had been projected as the prime ministerial candidate, they would have got less than 220.” “Guys let’s face it,” he thundered, “this election is historic and Congress will be down to third position this time…faring even worse than the 1977 elections.”

Journalists and commentators were replete on all channels with their comments: Manini Chatterjee of the Telegraph was saying, “It will be a text book case of selling a product...Modi is not a knight in shining armour for a lot of people...he worked for over a year to achieve these results…it was also achieved by exaggerating his role.” Bhupendra Chaubey on CNN-IBN said: “It is a comprehensive rejection of Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi”. Aakar Patel, columnist and author was saying it could not just be put down to a negative vote...it was people asserting for what they thought was positive.

The projections reached the corridors of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Senior Journalist, Neeraja Chowdhury, on Times Now was saying: “With 248 seats the President will call the BJP to form the government”. The question of possible post poll alliances kept the tongues wagging. Lord Meghnad Desai quipped: “There is no need for the BJP to look for any partners…the 15 independents can be bought anytime!” Was the Peer in the House of Lords openly advocating the “buying” of independent MPs? Would such an observation have been allowed back on his own turf in the UK? Well India is a different ball game, they seem to be saying and Indian politicians can be spoken about in however humiliating a term as possible after all they haven’t gone to Oxford and Cambridge.

Modi supporter from the corporate world Sunil Alagh was saying: “Naveen Patnaik’s party will support if he gets a good economic package”. D P Tripathi of the NCP who was being grilled on whether the NCP would support the BJP for numbers post polls replied: “We are part of the UPA and there is no question of going with the NDA.” Ravi Shankar Prasad laughed loudly and quipped back at Arnab: “Other channels are giving us much more- why are you forcing me to accept 249 as sacrosanct? The Narendra Modi phenomenon is unique. It is the subject of future research. I have rarely seen this. You are having a conventional analysis of alliances – the entire discussion is hypothetical”. Hasn’t Mr Prasad made a career of participating in these ‘hypothetical’ studio discussions in the last decade and used it to his political advantage? It is always easy to shoot the messenger. And what better date than the day of the exit polls. Not taking Prasad’s jibes lying down, Arnab had a go at him: “There is no Congressman in our panel today – still you are so angry!”

Former Outlook editor Vinod Mehta dismissed firmly the possibility of cobbling a Third Front. “With 249 seats, the BJP is home! On the 16th there will be a queue of people to join them.” Arnab agreed: “The story is about someone who wants to form the government, Congress party options are irrelevant…only NDA options are relevant.” He then turned to his political editor, Navika Kumar and asked “Is Modi home?” “Yes he is home”, replied Navika, “he doesn’t need big partners- small people will do”. Was she also, like Lord Desai, talking about buying independents?

On Headlines Today, Nalini Singh was asking whether the popular surge of the BJP as per the exit polls allow for some theories to persist: “Is the demonising of Amit Shah justified?” she asked.

Journalist V Krishna Ananth said, “Elections are much larger than identity…saying that all Muslims will vote against the BJP is also like saying that all Hindus will vote for the BJP!”

There were discussions on what would happen if Modi lost from Varanasi. Dipankar Gupta, an academician, asked: “If Modi loses Varanasi or wins by only a small margin, what will he do?” Manini Chatterjee replied: “If he loses, it will be very important for Kejriwal”. Sandeep Shastri had this to say on the topic: “They will then lose the moral victory”.

On Rajya Sabha TV, Amrita Rai who was conducting a panel discussion with journalists on the role of the media termed it as a “turning point election”.

By May 13 Times Now was using the slug: “Storming 7 RCR via UP” and wondering whether the Congress would get more than 10 seats in UP. Madhukar Jaitley was warning about statutory warnings of exit polls and he used the cigarette analogy- prompting Arnab to say “EWE are not selling cigarettes here- this is a no smoking zone!” and when Jaitley said ‘Don’t count your chickens before they hatch”- Arnab again had a repartee- “I am neither counting nor hatching eggs!” Arnab was also interviewing Amit Shah, Modi’s point-person in UP. He asked him if he had not polarised voters with his comments on Muzaffarnagar and Shah retorted: “By reviving the issue of polarisation, you have polarised the election Mr Arnab!”

CNN-IBN attributed the “Namo wave” to Young India and said that Modi had doubled in popularity as choice of PM from the first election tracker they had done. It had also started beaming international reactions saying that Obama had said that the US looked forward to working closely with India’s next administration. CNBC was splashing the headline of the Sensex breaching 24,000 points with the slug: “Modi powers bull run”.

On News X they were running a programme on “3 mighty women” Jaya, Mamata and Mayawati and what they could still spin post results. And so on and so forth.

Set apart from all the above both in tone and content, on NDTV, Rahul Srivastava was doing an on-the-ground report in Rai Tara Village in Uttar Pradesh. The slug was “For whom the polls don’t matter” and it was telling a story that the media has forgotten to tell and discuss in the din of a polarised corporatised coverage that has been the hallmark of the 2014 election.

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