The Taste With Vir: Awaiting the elections results on May 23, a throwback to the days that were

Are you ready for Results Day programming on TV? I know I am. All my life, the one kind of television that has always fascinated me is the election results programme.

My fascination began when I was a small boy and watched the Results Day programme for the British 1970 elections. We are often told now that, in the early days, election programming was primitive and backward. But watching it as an Indian, at a time when we had hardly any TV in India, I was enthralled.

On the BBC, the anchors handled the news while top politicians were sent to another host, a man in a bow-tie called Robin Day who was civil but firm and often relentless in his probing. Whenever a politician began to repeat his usual election spiel, Day would interrupt . “Yes, yes, we know all that”, he would say. “Now, answer the question.

How I wish Indian interviewers would do that more often instead of letting party spokesman hijack the shows with their stupid and banal shouting matches!

There was nothing like that on Indian TV till 1989 when Doordarshan collaborated with Prannoy Roy on an election show. (DD’s correspondents across India did the reporting and a fledgling NDTV handled the Delhi end). In that era, we had no EVMs (which may have been a good thing – or not) and results took days to stream in. The show was largely in English but Prannoy’s co-anchor, the great Vinod Dua would break in every now and then to summarise (in Hindi) what had been said.

Each intervention would begin with ‘A quick recap ”, a phrase that soon passed into legend. (“What kind of topi is a recap?” etc. etc.)

I was a guest on the show and this was an era where top politicians came to the studio and sat on the panel. I remember chatting with LK Advani behind the desk and getting into an argument with the young Anand Sharma who argued that even though the Congress did not have a majority it could form a government with the support of the Left.

“How could it do that?” I asked. How could the Left possibly support the Congress when its slogan in Bengal was “Rajiv Gandhi chor hai”?

I was right. The Left ended up supporting VP Singh instead.

Our exchange had another 15 minutes of fame a couple of weeks ago when some trolls ,given access to DD’s archives , pulled out this clip. Some carried the full clip with their tweets but many edited it to just keep the words about Rajiv being a chor, dropping the context. The idea apparently was to indicate that not only did Rajiv Gandhi take holidays on aircraft carriers and consort with foreigners (which is a very bad thing — unless they are Canadians), journalists also called him a crook in that era.

If I had only known, way back in 1989, how famous that clip would become decades later, I would have asked the cameraman for a better angle.

That programme made Prannoy the king of the Election show, a title he guarded zealously. In 1999, NDTV ran Star News for the Star TV network and though some non-NDTV employees, like myself, were on the channel, he refused to allow any of us on the results programme.

So Aroon Purie (this is before Aaj Tak became a channel) collaborated with Doordarshan and did a rival election results show. Tavleen Singh, Karan Thapar and myself anchored and our producer was Uday Shankar (now head of Star-Disney in Asia). Obviously we wiped the floor with Star News in ratings terms (DD had a much bigger reach), but (and I am not being immodest here because I was only a tiny part of the whole package) our show creamed them in terms of quality as well. Their format was designed to resemble a meeting between the monitors and the principal at an elite school, and the show was so dull that the guy in the Star TV office who was supposed to log the programme, switched to our DD/India Today show instead, leaving his log incomplete.

Since then there have been many more private channels and the quality of election programming has improved vastly.

Nobody has ever asked me to anchor a results show again but I have been a panellist at nearly every election (except 2004). And for the most part, it has been fun.

In my view, it is always more enjoyable to do an election show when the final result is still in doubt. That 1970 British election I remember was called by Harold Wilson after the pollsters told him that he was certain to win re-election. In fact, he lost. And the drama came from the turnaround. They had Wilson sitting grumpily in his office, refusing to concede. We watched George Brown, a useless old drunk who was nevertheless, one of Labour’s more senior politician, lose his own seat in a shock upset. Brown fought back tears as he conceded.

In 2009, when I was a commentator for NDTV, the result of the election was uncertain. Nobody believed that the incumbent UPA would actually increase its tally and on Results Day, Mr Advani had planned a large lunch party at his house to celebrate his imminent elevation to Prime Minister.

But from the moment the trends started coming in it was clear that Advani (and the rest of us) had miscalculated. The Congress had done better in UP than predicted but Rahul Gandi wouldn’t comment. Manmohan Singh would only speak once all the results were in. Mr. Advani was said to be in tears (not such a big deal; as he himself often says, he is quick to tear up) and Sonia Gandhi , most bizarre of all (or so we were told), was sitting at 10, Janpath and refusing not only to offer any comments but to even watch the results on TV. (May be she thought she would jinx it).

So, while we had to wait for any comment, Prannoy stuck his neck out and called the election. The UPA had won, he said, even as trends were still coming. It was a great show, overall, with Prannoy on top form and the School Monitors’ meeting format junked forever.

It is a difficult business calling elections and anchors are often reluctant to jump the gun. I remember appearing on India Today TV for the last Bihar assembly elections and the early results suggested a BJP landslide. Many channels called the election (including NDTV) and I could hear producers telling Rajdeep Sardesai, the show’s anchor, to declare that the BJP had won. But Rajdeep is a pro. He said he didn’t believe the numbers and refused to call the election. It was a tough decision. But the right one. The trends changed and the BJP lost.

Sometimes it is all too easy. I was on India Today for the 2014 election and we knew that Modi would win so some element of tension was missing. But Rahul Kanwal who is an excellent anchor, with the connections to get the best guests, kept viewers enthralled. When news of Arun Jaitley’s defeat came in, other channels speculated about what this could mean. Rahul got Amit Shah on the air to say that it would make no difference to Jaitley’s future prospects in the Cabinet.

That time too, we called the result right. Taveen Singh and I, who were both guests, said (before anyone else I think but it is hard to be sure) that the BJP was getting an overall majority for sure.

For the last few years, I have done all my election programmes with CNN News 18 and it has always been fun if a little dizzying. I say ‘dizzying’ because the results now come in so quickly (and CNN News 18 always get them first) that it is hard to keep up.

Some other things have changed. Only one out of every six exit polls actually gets the results right but when you are presented with a plethora of polls, it is hard to know which of them is going to be the right one. Also, the level of discourse on Indian TV has hit new lows. The anchors and the independent guests can be very good. But the party spokesmen sometimes deal only in personal abuse, interrupt all the time and wreck every discussion.

But still, we do our best. We try and uphold the standards of high quality TV journalism and spot trends as they come in. Most anchors feel they already have a sense of the final figure. At many channels, everyone is encouraged to make a prediction before the results come in, I made mine three months ago and am sticking to it (170 to 200 for the BJP) though everyone tells me that I am an idiot and the final figure will be nearer 250. (That’s fine, I usually get elections wrong. I have that in common with the pollsters).

If you have read this far then I guess you care about Results Day too. And so, what else can I say except: see you on the 23rd!

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First Published:
May 16, 2019 11:08 IST

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