April 04, 2020
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Message In A Chambered Lebanese Bottle

"Exit polls often go wrong," I said. "In fact, I have a magic machine that produces equally reliable figures." "Show," he demanded.

Message In A Chambered Lebanese Bottle
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In this silly season of psephology, I too stuck my neck out with my own system of sorting numbers—and in the process incurred anger. Star News graciously invited me to their futuristic studio as a pundit on the May 13 exit polls. A born agnostic, I turned up at the studio, armed with my own psephological machine. The machine is actually a goblet, an earthen surahi with secret chambers that I had picked up from southern Lebanon, an exotic vessel with three orifices. In an inspired moment, I decided to carry it to the television show.

The studio itself is modelled on a railway station, with regular tracks and so forth. Instead of the routine oblong table where the anchor is flanked by pundits, Star has created the informality of a railway platform. The pundit sits on the equivalent of a platform bench and the anchor walks around with a microphone, looking like a ticket collector, checking each passenger, in this case the pundit. Just when the Nielsen figures of the exit polls were beginning to crawl on the monitor, the anchor suddenly materialised, towering over me, camera positioned behind him at an even higher altitude. "What do you think of our exit poll?" he asked. "Exit polls often go wrong," I said. "In fact, I have a magic machine that produces equally reliable figures."

"Show," he demanded.

I pulled out my goblet and poured water into it from my small Bisleri bottle. "Now I will turn the goblet upside down," I said with the authority of P.C. Sorcar. "If water pours out, the Congress will be the largest single party." Not a drop emerged. I exposed to my cross-examiner the hole at the bottom of the magic goblet. "It will be the NDA if water pours out of this orifice." The goblet ruled out the NDA too. But water gushed out of the goblet’s spout to establish the Third Front as the winner!

The anchor, having lost his cool, pitched his voice at the upper octave.

"Where did you get this surahi from?"

"Lebanon," I said weakly.

"Is there democracy in Lebanon?" The anchor was now dead serious.

I explained the joke. The goblet was a sort of metaphor. It was my commentary on the reliability or its absence in this business of psephology. Before I could explain, the anchor had walked away in a huff.

As it happens, Nielsen is the only pollster that had permission from the Election Commission to allow its men in polling booths across the country. Even though exit polls could not be aired, they could be processed, phase by phase. One would have to be an idiot to believe that these readings would not be selectively leaked and form the basis of faulty conventional wisdom.

This campaign launches Rahul Gandhi as a politician with a future. His gamble of going it alone in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar may have helped the BJP too, but the larger message of Congress revival has clearly gone down well across the country. The media’s quest for exciting news overshadowed this historic turning point in Congress strategy. How far this strategy will take the party is a theme for the media to analyse. The jury is still out on how far this strategy will take the Congress. After all, the process of diverse interests walking out of the shadow of the Congress umbrella began in 1967 when eight states deserted Indira Gandhi, including Tamil Nadu. She had the courage to split the party in 1969 and, consistent with the global environment in the context of the Cold War, the Congress veered left, adopting the Kumaramangalam thesis. It was her bonding with the Soviet Union which enabled her to intervene successfully in Bangladesh. This is the time for the media to reflect on those days.

Rahul Gandhi, at this point in time, happens to stand at a similar juncture in world history. From Bush to Obama is a leap Manmohan Singh and Rahul will have to traverse. What will echo for a long time is the month-long bombardment of inanities by the media, which once again was miles off the mark. Given the eventual outcome, did I deserve to be hanged for my innocuous goblet act? I apologise for having been partly conditioned in my general appraisal by the din of the media, despite myself. Star TV, meanwhile, would do well to say "sorry" to me.

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