I am a conscientious objector to the present cruelty being heaped upon our exit pollsters in the wake of the Maharashtra and Haryana verdicts. Apart from a couple of them, they were, after all, doing what they had been trained to do, expected to do, required to do: deliver handsome anticipatory victories to the ruling party. Their labours, let us not forget, had many positive spin-offs: lifting the mood at the country’s stock exchanges; ensuring a steady revenue stream for their propagators; and launching a thousand television debates. Even one along the lines presaged in this tweet sent out from the offices of Times Now: “@BJP4India is sweeping Maharashtra & Haryana in 2019 Maharashtra & Haryana Assembly Elections according to the EXIT POLL. But does the credit go to @Dev_Fadnavis Govt or @narendramodi ‘magic?“ (Note, there is no qualifying clause in the second line, the BJP sweeping the elections is assumed to be a given, as indeed the “magic” of that twin-headed deity, Devendra/Narendra.)
Exit poll prognostications are, in fact, part of the avalanche of misinformation that has come to characterise election journalism in India. Unsurprising this at a time when elections themselves have become exercises in ‘rupeeocracy’ (rupee-fuelled democracy), if I may borrow from a coinage attributed to media academic, Robert W. McChesney, “dollarocracy”, which is defined as “the rule of money rather than the rule of the people”. The gamble on electoral prospects – which is what exit polls essentially are – is addictive, drawing on the very human trait of wanting to know tomorrow’s news today, and no editor can pass up the opportunity to carry such a story (The Wire, too, is no exception: ‘Exit Polls Forecast Big Win for BJP in Maharashtra, Haryana’, October 22).
Worryingly, though, the business model of these exercises remains opaque. Perhaps a rare instance of sunlight lighting up the dark innards of the exit poll industry came after the UK Brexit vote in 2016. A Bloomberg Business Week investigation that came out later, ‘The Brexit Short: How Hedge Funds Used Private Polls to Make Millions’, revealed the link between pollsters and bookmakers who were gambling on the possibility of Britain voting to leave the European Union. Many, including then leader of the UKIP party, Nigel Farage, cashed big on it.
In India, we’ve never been provided with similar insights into the hidden machinery of exit polls – except possibly that one glimpse when the only poll (conducted by Axis), which had projected that the BJP would not win the Bihar election in 2015, was pulled by a channel (partially owned by the Ambanis) that was supposed to run with it. Axis is back in the news (this time on India Today) for performing a similar feat – counter-intuitively predicting that the BJP was by no means “sweeping” Maharashtra and Haryana, as the turbo-charged mainstream narrative maintained. It was proved right again.
The two elections may not have changed the electoral map of India, BJP remains in power in the two states that have just voted. Yet they are being recognised as a watermark. The Wire’s reportage and commentary could capture some of this. For the first time since the Lok Sabha campaigns and verdict earlier this year, there is indication that the overt religio-nationalist rhetoric of the Modi-Shah duo seems to have hit a small but significant air pocket.
Could it be that “New India’s tricks of coercion and intimidation are no longer enthralling the masses”, as a commentator in The Wire seems to suggest ( ‘With the Pause of the BJP Juggernaut, a Lesson in Keeping Arrogance in Check’, October 25)? Early days perhaps to come to any definite conclusion, but clearly the V.D. Savarkar shock therapy that the BJP applied on its indifferent election crowds in Maharashtra did not work, despite mainstream media rushing to fan the theme. Between August 31 and October 17, Times Now had three major prime time slots devoted to Savarkar, sometimes with the same discussants made to repeat themselves ad nauseam. Faced with collapsing banks and flooded fields, a shiny bauble for a controversial figure was the last thing on people’s minds.
Entering the pores of popular distress was rarely attempted by the mainstream media despite the enormous resources at their command. Where were the voices of ordinary people that made it past the layers of editorial inertia in the large studios and newsrooms? Few media reports I came across in this election period linked the micro-reality to the macro-reality quite as well as did ‘Ground Report: Why Is Haryana Not Supporting the BJP in Full Strength?‘ (October 23). The piece carried an interesting exposition of plywood, one of Haryana’s flourishing industries, now in a three-year slump. This slump has been caused by the decline of the real estate sector and means that the farmers who grow the trees for the plywood industry are staring at mounting losses. The only thing that was growing was joblessness amidst the persistent consequences of demonetisation and a badly executed GST.
That the Manohar Lal Khattar government was an incompetent, ‘suit-boot sarkar’ (in Rahul Gandhi’s famous words) emerges quite clearly from this report, yet the BJP was willing to throw cash around and fly assorted “independents” (including the repugnant Gopal Kanda) to Delhi in order to give Khattar a second term. Finally, it had to settle for the newly minted Jannayak Janata Party. Both in Maharashtra and Haryana, the party has been forced into wearing shoes a tad too tight. As time passes, they are likely to pinch badly (‘In Haryana, the Electorate’s Silent Anger Put a Dent in the BJP’s Performance’; ‘Maharashtra: Shiv Sena Keen to Assert Dominance as BJP Licks Wounds’, October 25).
Interesting, the take one writer had on the verdict. The piece, ‘When People Take Back the Mandate’ (October 25), argues that the voter this time was keen to send out a message, “We are not dead”. This may be somewhat premature to suggest. The message from the voters of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, around the same time last year, was also similar, yet we still had the 2019 general election verdict. In any case, what I am really waiting for is for the mainstream media to send out the message, “We are not dead.”