A sequestered media, heading towards a Congress-like debacle

The media seems to have lost connect with grassroots reportage. It lives its life in air conditioned studios, within high-decibel debates and thinks it can decide the fate of the people. Is it time to take lessons from people who conduct exit polls instead?


The polls have been done and dusted. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has swept the EVMs in Uttar Pradesh and won handsomely elsewhere, except in Punjab, where the Aam Admi Party (AAP) gained its first solid foothold outside Delhi. These are facts we all know now. And, yes, also the fact that the Grand Old Party, the Indian National Congress, has been booted out of not only Punjab, but out of almost all the five states that had gone to the polls.

The issue is: how did the national media miss the elephant in the room? The BJP victory in UP was a given; anybody could have said that with a certain degree of certainty. But not even right wing media houses would dare predict a virtual sweep by the BJP and a complete submission by the Samajwadi Party in UP and a virtual decimation of the Congress. Neither could they predict the rise to power of AAP in Punjab. How did that happen?

Even more intriguing was that the exit polls, released to the media after the last day of polling (March 7), spoke of these victories with no ambiguity. They were almost spot-on, with a few variations in the final figures. And this was the tone and tenor of all the exit polls held.

How was it that some technically qualified people conducting the polls, unaware of the intricacies of mainline journalism, had a better handle on how things were on the ground, while experienced journalists of media houses missed the wood for the trees?

How did the figures, projections and theories propounded by the media miss the mark by so much, while the exit polls managed a better job? This has been a recurring event for the past few polls.

Let us analyze the facts: nobody stopped the journalists from interviewing people who came out of the polling booths after voting. They were, in a way, disallowed to air the analyses of these in public till the last day of polling. Nobody prevented the journalists from interviewing the pollsters and the entire electorate before the polls to gauge their emotions and mood, and to an extent they did. So how was it that the journalists failed to understand the mood of the people?

In trying to understand this complex question, we can go back and analyse the performance of the Congress. Why did it lose so badly? For all practical purposes – and even the recent Congress Working Committee meeting, which renewed its faith in Sonia Gandhi and her wards Rahul and Priyanka, decided to introspect and arrive at a similar conclusion – the party had lost all connect with the people at the grassroots level.

Those who lead the Congress today have been led only by theorists and religion-caste calculations that had seemingly held sway for so long in this country. They thought that any disenchantment with the current dispensation in government would naturally grow to a state where they would want to throw out the people in power.

However, elections in India are not fought with just issues. They are also fought with cold logic. The way Congress has been projected by the BJP and the way the Congress thereafter behaved, almost proving what the BJP had said about its leading family and the rest of the leaders, added little confidence in the minds of  the people.

The disenchantment was palpable, but so was the belief that There Is No Alternative (TINA). This TINA factor was what drove the people to the BJP in UP and other states and the There Is An Alternative (TIAA) factor drove the people towards the AAP in Punjab.

Probably it is not that simple, or maybe it is. But the people had made up their minds that they needed good and strong governance more than ideologies. The exit polls could gauge that clearly. So why could experienced reporters of media houses not do that?

The answer lies in the reason why the Congress lost, also in why Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party lost. There had been hardly any connect with the people on the ground. Quite like the Congress’ elitist high command, the media house bosses, stayed put in air conditioned studios, conducting high decibel, vacuous ‘debates’ on what it is and why and how it should be.

They pronounced verdicts on the basis of screaming opinions of ‘experts’ and they thought that was the law laid out. Both the media houses and the Congress erred.

Should it be now ordered that the reporters be given lessons in probity and in powers of judgment by the exit poll mandarins? Possibly, but, on the other hand, it could be arrived through a total dismantling of that studio-based easy circus called ‘debate’ and falling back to the time tested method of on the ground reportage and continuous self analysis.

There is a need for the media to change tact, to get real and understand that there is already an alternative to regular media growing in the dark: the social media. Social media may be misleading, maybe destructive but they do form opinion, even if those opinions are wrong, destructive.

It is time the media as we know it pull up its socks. There is little runway left. If the engines lack power even now, there will be no liftoff before the next set of elections.