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Guest Column Retrofit: They got it all so wrong

Guest Column Retrofit: They got it all so wrong

Author | Sandeep Bamzai | Wednesday, May 20,2009 8:32 AM

Guest Column Retrofit:  They got it all so wrong

In the Robert Redford helmed ‘Lions for Lambs’, Tom Cruise playing sharp Senator Jasper Irving recounts for journo Meryl Streep’s benefit a Von Clausewitz battleplan – never engage your enemy for so long that he begins to adapt to your tactics. In the clutter that is news television today, this seems to be the mantra. The studios may have been different, but the content was the same. The numbers were the same; the talking heads were the same. It was all so boring. Some of the editors bordered on the banal, while others scored quick brownie points with the thrust and parry routine of the rapier. The majority were a big letdown. One prominent former editor of a large newspaper was part of one channel’s team till exit poll day and then suddenly appeared on another network the next. On both, he had nothing to say. Nothing that mattered. Nothing that was relevant. Politics is changing in India. The politicians too are changing, Rahul Gandhi’s stellar performance in UP a case in point. Unfortunately, our editors aren’t changing. And this was thrown into stark relief more when Dayanidhi Maran landed the kayo punch on the Hindu’s Ram.

NDTV was akin to a handful of celebs chit chatting without cocktails about the political class till Dayanidhi Maran walked into the sand pit. Chuckling and snorting, he demolished Ram. At the same time giving everyone congregated a wake up call. It was demolition derby, for he simply walked all over Hindu’s N Ram, ridiculing his 39-0 call in favour of Jayalalitha’s AIADMK. He was subsequently proved right and whenever he got an opportunity after the DMK’s triumphant victory, he rubbed further salt in Ram’s sores. I thought Arnab Goswami looked tired and jaded by the end of the non-stop election whirligig. He was disappointing, though the frumpy Navika Kumar who Arnab tried desperately to prop up, didn’t help either. She looked uncomfortable and out of place. Mahesh Rangarajan made sense whenever he got an opportunity. Rajdeep Sardesai was finally told by Amar Singh that he had been invited by CNN IBN to speak so he should be allowed to. And that was that. Barkha Dutt was her usual shrill self, Dr Roy dignified as ever.

The exit polls were a fiasco. The pollsters, pundits, psephologists and analysts had no clue. This is what they had predicted:

While the buzz in telly land is that a top network had called the numbers more or less right on the night prior to counting day, the in-house psephologist was asked to temper his analysis down, bringing it more in line with what everyone else in the peer group was saying. Apparently, he had given the Congress-led pre poll UPA alliance 248 and was seemingly on target, but faced with the prospect of the NDA gaining ascendancy after the results, was told to temper the numbers for fear of earning the wrath of the new government. Strangely, the one channel which actually got it bang on was something called Live India. The channel’s exit poll gave the Congress 189 on its own (206 was the final figure), the UPA 250, and most interestingly gave the Congress 23 in UP, nine in Haryana and eight in Punjab. Of the established networks, CNN-IBN was the closest in its estimates for the UPA, but got it completely wrong for the NDA. To its credit, it had got the UP election right. That is the real story. For it is not just the fact that everyone got it wrong for the Congress-led alliance, but more importantly, nobody got it right for the NDA either. I guess everyone overestimated the numbers for the BJP, which means that the party’s spin doctors were on the ball. And our editors and journos were gullible enough to buy into the BJP tweak.

I simply cannot understand where the BJP’s top leadership was after the defeat? Who was representing them on telly – Chandan Mitra, Swapan Dasgupta, Nalin Kohli, Siddharth Nath Singh, Sudheen Kulkarni (mercifully Balbir Punj was missing) – and I guess that is part of their overall problem. Finally, when Murli Manohar Joshi appeared on CNN-IBN and called a spade a spade, I was relieved. The farm loan waiver and the plank of stability overrode all the negatives for the Congress, while the BJP’s lack of focus and vision about what they stood for and were wanting to provide in terms of governance put paid to their chances. ‘Mazboot Neta, Nirnayak Sarkar’ was a catchy slogan, but nobody bought into it. Middle class India seemed to be voting with their feet for the Congress, just as the disenchanted Muslims did the same. And rural India wasn’t far behind. Many wrote YSR’s epitaphs in AP, but he swept the state – 33 seats all told in the Lok Sabha. The biggest fiasco and the man most overhyped was Chiranjeevi and his fledgling party – PRP.

To Swapan’s credit, he wrote an excellent post mortem in the Sunday Times of India. The insider’s account was most apt, lucid and telling. Saying that, “The BJP was lax about reading the writing on the wall in 2004… it tried to juggle between the imperatives of a modern party with strong policy thrust and the comforts of old certitudes. The end result was an identity crisis that led to the loss of allies, its absence from a large swathe of India and the truncation of a hitherto reliable middle class vote.” Kandhamal, Mangalore and Varun Gandhi accentuated the agony for the party’s alienation. A vacuous approach, an absence of ideation and a bankruptcy of credible thinking has meant that the BJP received one of its most decisive vanquishing. A train hurtling towards ideological disaster.

What is it that the BJP was taking to the people? Why were they talking down to the people – both rural and urban? Why didn’t they learn from the communication disaster in Delhi late last year? What was its electoral plank? Its thought process, its communication strategy other than attacking a seemingly quiet and efficient Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh was an unmitigated wipe out. I don’t think India took kindly to all the name calling that the BJP’s leaders indulged in. And when the PM stood up and gave it back, people actually applauded in their living rooms. It was an election lost by the BJP. Mahesh Rangarajan writing in Mail Today said, “The weakest ever PM line got a thumbs down and Manmohan Singh turned out to be a talisman of his party’s victory.” Therein lies the rub.

Swapan went on to say in STOI, “There is a vast constituency in India that is instinctively uncomfortable with the Congress culture. Yet it is uneasy with a party that shows inconsistency (as on the nuclear deal) and is seen to be preoccupied with peripheral issues.” Let me add what Rangarajan wrote, “Most of all, this election was a setback for the BJP. Its candidate for PM and his larger team proved on the whole to be out of touch with the emerging India of the 21st century.” The key for the Congress was that it struck a chord with rural Bharat with the farm loan waiver and hikes in the minimum support pricing of crops, while middle class Indians residing in urban agglomerates didn’t take kindly to trenchant criticism of the PM and the complete ineptness of BJP’s negative campaign shorn of planks and ideas.

The BJP got it wrong, the media - telly and print - too got it wrong, the editors and their bureaux got it wrong (I refer to the TOI and its projections). Telly’s talking heads got it wrong. The Congress party’s campaign managers got it right, an assiduously hard working Rahul Gandhi got it right, a tough no nonsense and unrelenting PM got it right. Most importantly, they got it right with dignity. The ‘in your face’ stylistics of the BJP and its arrogant party managers fell by the wayside.

Yes, all fall down.

(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist, who started his career as a stringer with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi. In late 2008, he joined three old friends to launch a start-up – Sportzpower Network – which combines his two passions of business and sport. Familiar with all four media – print, television, Internet and radio, Bamzai is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir. The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not necessarily those of the editors and publisher of

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