Monday, May 18, 2009

Television Election

Though very happy with the results of the election, I was disappointed by the coverage of the event. It went in three stages after the ballot closed: First, the exit polls, then the count itself, and finally the post-count analysis. Exit polls could not be published before the final vote was cast, and details of who won and who lost were available in a matter of hours rather than days as used to be the case, severely curtailing stage one and two.
News channels, therefore, pinned their hopes on stage three. Permutations that would lead to the 273 seat mark would need to be discussed. Lots of scope for speculative chatter there. Unfortunately, this was preempted by the Congress securing over 200 seats. Arnab Goswami at Times Now went through an analysis of potential scenarios (Samajwadi Party in the government, Left support from outside, and so on) despite the matter having been laid conclusively to rest. Rajdeep Sardesai trumpeted CNN-IBN's exit poll (we were the ones who got it right, you heard it right here), though his channel's high estimate was 35 short of what the UPA actually got. Yogendra Yadav, an excellent analyst who was one of the people in charge of the exit poll, made no such self-congratulatory comments. CNN-IBN had picked a panel of intellectual heavyweights, which made for frustrating viewing because they weren't given time to flesh out thoughts that I was keen to hear. For instance, Ramachandra Guha would begin a train of thought involving Rahul Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, only to be interrupted by a commercial break or an anchor announcing a minister was on the line and ready to be interviewed.
Shekhar Gupta and Vir Sanghvi were much better on NDTV, even though they gave the impression of not being overly fond of each other. Both have a talent for analyses that are succinct without being cliched. I'm a huge admirer of Vir Sanghvi's political writing; it is always clear, cogently argued, and well structured. His columns have no rhetorical flourishes drawing attention to their style, but what he accomplishes is incredibly difficult to pull off week after week. If I headed a journalism course, I'd devote a module to studying his work.
On the other hand, I've never really taken to his television personality. I first saw him in a show -- I think it was for BITV -- in which the diplomat J N Dixit appeared alongside him, supposedly the resident expert but in effect a sidekick. The two sipped scotch and made hawkish, rather supercilious comments about international relations. Sanghvi's interviews with the rich and famous on Star were more engaging, but he rarely gave his interviewees enough space for their personalities to emerge.
On NDTV, he played the acerbic, keepin'-it-real critic, complimenting Shekhar Gupta's avuncular personality. Prannoy Roy was in reasonable form, which was a relief because he, after all, is the pioneer of election coverage on Indian television. It used to be greatly entertaining back when votes were counted by hand. For an entire twenty-four hours or more, Roy would say it was 'early days yet' while running the main news past us, before Vinod Dua came in with his 'quick recap'. The data piled up slowly enough for experts to pick it threadbare; candidates were interviewed as they sweated it out in counting centres; the swing-o-meter told us how the mood had shifted in state after state. Politicians were less media savvy, and therefore more revealing.
Back then, also, elections were fought around issues. The issues may have been diversions from real threats and challenges, but at least they existed. This time round, the opposition failed to focus on a single substantive point around which to rally dissent. Whether this was because the work of the previous administration showed no seriously weak link, or because the opposition simply looked in the wrong place, it fatally undermined the BJP's campaign.

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