To watch an election show as an anti-majoritarian spectator in the time of Narendra Modi is a traumatic business for two reasons. One, you mostly lose and two, sometimes even the ones you win, you lose. There was a moment during the Karnataka results show when the Congress’s leads dropped to a bare majority, in the region of 113 seats, and a familiar sense of foreboding closed in.
This slump set off a frenzy of speculation in the election shows. Knowingly cynical anchors referred to Operation Kamala, the name given to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s successful 2018 bid to shore up B.S. Yediyurappa’s government by engineering defections from the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular). On one of these shows, Tom Vadakkan, who used to be a spokesperson for the Congress before turning his coat and joining the BJP, was asked what the BJP might do if the Congress was left teetering on 113 seats or less. Vadakkan revealed that the BJP’s Plan A was always to win electoral majorities but the party did have a Plan B, which would be operationalised if the election results warranted it.
There were a couple of things about this exchange that were revealing. The first was that a party spokesperson was willing to say live on television that the absence of an electoral majority could be compensated for by backroom manoeuvres. When he was called out for saying this by the Congress spokesperson, who suggested that parties should form governments by winning majorities, not by engineering them, Vadakkan spoke piously about the constitutional obligation to provide a coalition government in the event of a hung assembly. Everyone in that studio knew that Plan B was a not a reference to conventional coalitions, but to the BJP’s gift for magicking up majorities by engineering defections from other parties.
But more interesting than the BJP spokesperson’s candour was the grinning cynicism of the show’s anchors. It was as if the election was a Roman circus and Plan B was one of its more entertaining acts. It’s silly to expect news anchors to be shocked at the practice of buying freshly-elected legislators, but it is reasonable to expect them not to snigger about it as if it were some jolly precedent.
The oddest reaction to the Congress’s brief slump in the leads was Rajdeep Sardesai’s bizarre outburst on the India Today channel. Sardesai took it upon himself to chide the Congress spokesperson, Congress leaders, and party workers for a) not working hard enough on the ground to ensure a substantial majority and b) for celebrating prematurely.
To substantiate his first point, Sardesai claimed that his contacts in Kannada news channels had confirmed that the Congress ground operation in the electoral region called Hyderabad-Karnataka had been sluggish and complacent. As a result, the Congress had likely frittered away its chance to achieve a comfortable majority and had laid itself open to the opportunism of the “joker in the pack” by which he meant the JD(S) and its king-making ambitions.
The persistence with which Sardesai plugged this line for something like fifteen minutes, shouting over fellow anchors, the Congress spokesperson, and studio guests, was unusual even by the tabloid standards of India’s English news channels. There were two possible reasons for this eccentric performance. One, Sardesai saw in the Congress’s slump an opportunity to be a ready-mix Nostradamus. If he was right about the Congress’s downward trend, he would have read the tea leaves earlier than any other anchor. Two, given that an election countdown is like twenty channels covering the same IPL match, the only way to distinguish your team from the pack is to create short-term suspense via doom-saying regardless of the ultimate result. The strangest aspect of Sardesai’s ‘insight’ was that it was entirely at odds with the poll his channel had commissioned which predicted the result with near-perfect accuracy.
The problem with this T20-style coverage is that every channel tries to explain the results before they are in. This leads to ludicrousness. The Congress, at the time of writing, had either won or was leading in 136 constituencies according to the Election Commission’s website. Had the nature of its ground operation on the day of the election, the granularity of its booth management, its fatal complacency, changed in the time that lapsed between the moment the Congress’s leads were hovering around the 113 mark and the end when it achieved a comfortable majority? Obviously not. Which begs the question: why do anchors and their guests behave like ghouls at a post-mortem when their patient is still alive?
Part of the explanation lies in the fact that mainstream television channels are instinctively sycophantic. Their anchors and guests often genuinely believe that the BJP is invincible. At one point, when the BJP had decisively lost, an ‘expert’ argued that by virtue of retaining its vote share, the BJP had won a kind of victory because it had thrown off its Lingayat crutches without seeing a collapse in its support. It has come to a point where the BJP doesn’t need spokespersons to air its talking points: the pundits in the studio do the job for it.
The one show that didn’t anticipate the result and didn’t conduct its coverage on all fours was ‘Elections Online’, put together collaboratively by five independent news organisations: The Caravan, The News Minute, Newslaundry, Scroll and The Wire. After years of watching mealy-mouthed anchors and wary guests tip-toeing their way around the bigotry of the BJP, calling goons in saffron ‘seers’, it was reassuring to hear the Bajrang Dal described accurately by Siddharth Varadarajan as a gang of lumpen. When James Manor, who wrote a pioneering study of Mysore, pointed out that it was ‘nutty’ of Modi to allege that the Congress was allied to terrorism or that the party intended to take Karnataka out of India, you realised that no participant in an MSM show would have dared say something as simple and obvious as that.
But the real stars of the show were Dhanya Rajendran, Manisha Pande, Supriya Sharma, Hartosh Singh Bal and the teams of reporters that backed up their coverage. To have the sanity of independent news groups aggregated into a show that could be watched on a big screen via YouTube was curiously important. The best thing about the show was the fact that the changing seat counts were confined to a ticker at the bottom of the screen. Instead of trying to second-guess the result, the show’s editors and reporters gave us context and reportage. There was a reported segment that simply had members of an adoring crowd in Bangalore explain why they were going to vote for Modi.
Instead of analysis that proceeded from a defensive crouch, ‘Elections Online’ explained why the premeditatedly communal campaign orchestrated by the BJP failed. There was much to explain because this is a landmark failure. The Congress won more than twice as many seats as the BJP. Modi’s BJP might be a political juggernaut, but right now it lies upended in southern India, its wheels in the air. Congress-mukt Bharat is a work in progress, but BJP-bin Dakshin is an accomplished fact.