The pull of the polls

BY Mannika Chopra| IN Media Practice | 17/05/2014
Many, many opinions, and some facts too, on news channels as the results of a hotly contested election are announced.
MANNIKA CHOPRA on the high decibel action in TV studios


The best part of the 16th Lok Sabha Elections has been counting day. Despite the tediously conducted exit polls on six channels, it has been full of unpredictable results, tempered with gushing and growling news channels—take your pick—and a delightful window on the mediapersons who will be stampeding, like migrating wildebeests, towards the new power equations. It also marks the end of six months of drama that had enveloped the nation.



Most networks start their coverage early, in fact, at 6 am, almost at the crack of dawn, even though results are scheduled to start coming in only from 8 a.m. onwards. Maybe channels have been told by their marketing heads that it’s the early bird that catches the viewer. (Note: NDTV 24x7 doesn’t get that memo and starts its coverage an hour later.) The two hours are mostly a recap of exit poll predictions, introduction of panelists, a bit of navel gazing, surely some quick unseen prayanams and other warm up exercises before the starter pistol is fired. 

8 am: and all hell breaks loose in a highly charged atmosphere. It’s the 100 m sprint. Only it doesn’t finish in 9.58 seconds but continues relentlessly till about noon and even then Usain Bolt is nowhere in sight. First eyeball choice, Times Now. Why?  I ‘fess it’s because it has a set that looks straight out of Star Trek’s USS Enterprise. Besides, the channel’s promos say that they will be using holograms and beam their correspondents in 3-D from various political party headquarters into the studio. Hard to miss this theatrical treat, wot?

Within the first fifteen minutes, editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami, the referee, shouts 3-0! (3 to the BJP combine and zero to Congress). The channel also puts a TV screen in New York city’s Times Square to help NRIs in the Big Apple see the victory of their hero.  But back to the desi studio. “Do we have [results for] Maharajganj, Maharajganj, Maharajganj?’ screeches Goswami to Jay Murg, the channels’ psephologist much like the bus conductor on the GT road panting to pick up passengers. ‘No, no not yet, squeaks a balding Murg. Beads of sweat are glistening on my brow. Time to switch channels and get reserves. But this is no time to pick up a glass of juice or an antacid to quell rebellious gastric juices. I am constitutionally nervous and it is crunch time, folks.

Dehydrated and stressed, I turn to CNN-IBN and thanks God the pace is more civilised. I can breathe again. The panellists are slightly more relaxed, the air is vaguely intellectual and for the most part soothingly despondent.  Senior journalists, Swapan Dasgupta, Manini Chatterjee and P. Sainath; historian and author, Ramchandra Guha, author and columnist Aakaar Patel and economist Surjit Bhalla—it’s a good mix of right, far right, left and centre. In these early hours the panel resonates with uncertainty: will it be a sweep or a middle-of-the-road mandate? A slight change in the geo-political winds or a tectonic shift?  Dasgupta, most anxious at this stage, says that a resounding victory for Narendra Modi will mean that BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate has to transcend economic woes, social challenges and assorted glass ceilings in his own inimitable way; failure to do so will diminish his stature. For those who came in late, Dasgupta is a big fan of Modi’s but manages to point out the gaps in the Gujarat leader’s narrative.

Shift to NDTV 24X7 and you have entered a Zen-like space—I am tempted to call it a media spa. Here, the studio palette is a calm white with a an edgy maroon ticker. Production values are high though the NDTV’s 2014 Verdict theme music sounds a little BBC-esque. Or is it my addled brain? Here the Gandhian maxim less is more prevails. This is a retreat from the frenzy and the frazzle of Times Now also known as Cacophonics Now with 12-15 high-powered panelists trying to out shout each other. That frenzy is replaced by soothing measured tones (Prannoy Roys’) and a cadence to match. Other dramatis personae include psephologist Dorab Sopariwala and Editor-in-Chief of the Indian Express, Shekhar Gupta.  Clearly, this is an old boy’s club, the bonhomie and the banter making it self-evident.  Other add-ons are senior journalist Siddharth Varadarajan and political scientist, Zoya Hasan. Enveloping the desk is, I think, a simulated version of the Lok Sabha. Me, no speakee geek so I can’t be sure. As electoral results come in occupants in their seats change colour, from white to orange for the BJP, blue for Congress and so on.  That I have established.

A diligent survey is difficult. In some cases statistics and editorial content are so tightly packed in boxes (ABP News) that it’s nerve wracking. I almost long for the slow Neanderthal ways of the pre-EVM Doordarshan era. A more innocent time when counting was spread over days and spliced with popular Hindi feature films. OK, perhaps that’s going too far. For respite you turn to Doordarshan  (avoidable), the channel is cloaked in purple. I then stumble onto Lok Sabha TV (LSTV). The channel has the production sense of a You Tube video put up by a ten year-old child but it does telecast an in-depth discussion by political scientist, Prof, Arora on the dilemmas a Modi government might face in the Rajya Sabha.

On most news channels though results, trends and comments are being regurgitated at such speed and sound that it is as alarming as it is incomprehensible. It goes beyond the reach of an averagely educated, averagely intelligent adult (ce’st moi) turning viewing into a nightmare.

Adding to the confusion is the advertising that is blending into the electoral pollpurri. Pray tell, what mileage will ‘Sweety Supari’ get as its advertisement appears for ten seconds in between a discussion on vote share (India TV) or how does a ‘Hero Presents’ insert squeezed in the right hand corner of your screen help the advertiser, consumer or add to editorial content?

But television is a clever beast though it is not necessarily a democratic one. Every time, a Congress spokesperson, like Ashwini Kumar or C.R. Kesavan (note: Congress’ B-team has been put in front of the firing squad) wants to get a word in on Times Now, Goswami cuts them off or goes off to the next guest. 

By 9.26 am, CNN-IBN is ready to call it a ‘historic’ victory for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) affirming that Narendra Damodardas Modi will indeed be India’s 14th Prime Minister. India TV and Zee News, not really epicenters of neutral reporting and progressive thought, however, make a less nuanced announcement —“Modi Ki Jai!”.  Channel after channel, show blotches of saffron eating up the map of India like some rogue marigold. The landscape by 10.30 am is changing dramatically. Drums are beating furiously outside BJP headquarters and 2,500 kgs of ladoos are being manically made and distributed. Correspondents stationed at No. 11, Ashoka Road, like Neeta Sharma of NDTV Indian, in all probability will bill their media organisations for burst eardrums. 

Reactions range from mild bafflement (CNN-IBN/commentator Paranjoy Thakurta. “ How can Rahul Gandhi be an absentee politician’?) to tinny outrage (politician Brinda Karat/ NDTV India) to complete vindication (Amit Shah/Headlines Today). The consensus across channels is that Gandhi Jr. is not exactly officer material. He lacks communication skills and should resign, along with his mother, Sonia, and both need to introspect for the double scoop they have given their party—a humiliating defeat and a lack of accountability. 

As mandate 2014 becomes clear, you begin to notice the sartorial preferences of some male discussants. Quite a few anchors and panellists are wearing red-russet waistcoats: a la Modi or a la coincidence?  BJP spokesperson Shaina NC is more candid admitting that she has specially designed her saffron and green sari to wear on this special day.  CNN-IBN’s Rajdeep Sardesai humorously waves a yellow pocket-handkerchief claiming its actually saffron.

As the relay of results plays out some critical questions get addressed. For instance, whether the media played the role of adversaries or collaborators in these general elections.  A jagged moment occurs on Rajya Sabha TV (RSTV). Journalist, Member of Parliament Tarun Vijay argues against panelist, Jyoti Malhotra’s, remark that some media groups in the Hindi heartland have not been professional in their coverage. From the professional the argument gets personal, an uncivil war of words ensues while the anchors look on helplessly. On India TV, BJP’s spokesperson M.J. Akbar replying to Rajat Sharma’s question whether the Fourth Estate is justified in feeling vulnerable after Modi’s sizeable victory, laughs off the insinuation. 

In the daylong coverage, across the board, there are some noticeable shortcomings. Some critical voices are missing. We hear from the high-polloi: politicians, the number crunchers, the political scientists, the journalists, the industrialists but there are still noticeable gaps. The number of women panelists is limited: Honourable exceptions—Times Now and Focus News. And where are the Muslims, for whom the results are critical. Sorry guys, an Aamir Raza and a Zafar Sareshwala do not a community make. It is left to Al Jazeera to recall the riots of 2002 and the controversy surrounding Modi’s role. Is it that news channels want to get back, as Akbar says,  “…to the future of hope”?  Or is this an attempt to airbrush Modi? It is also left to social scientist Achut Yagnik (Headlines Today) to assert that how well a society does is not based on how rich it is but how equal it is. And where was the aam aadmi? 

By 11.39 am, all is clear.  In his first public comment, Prime Minister-designate Modi tweets, “Bharat ki Vijay. Aab ache din aane wale hein” —a phrase which will undoubtedly become the pre-ordained mantra of elections 2014. But by the evening of May 16, 2014 evening no one has really discussed what  the “ache din” will cover. 

Mannika Chopra is a media critic

Such articles are only possible because of your support. Help the Hoot. The Hoot is an independent initiative of the Media Foundation and requires funds for independent media monitoring. Please support us. Every rupee helps.
Subscribe To The Newsletter
The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

View More