TELEVISION election specials, those marathon shows that last two whole days, are made possible by Indias primitive vote counting methods. If Mr Gill or his successor ever succeed in making electronic counting general, election specials will become extinct in their present form. Whatll we miss?
I suppose well miss the drawn- out tension of it all. Formally, describing the electoral countdown is like doing the commentary for an extremely slow horse race. The pundits who run election specials are rather like a bunch of bookies poring over their form books to predict which horse will win and by how many lengths. Because humans take themselves seriously, the experience, guesswork, folklore and voodoo that go into making forecasts get dignified into psephology and political analysis.
Psephologically, as exercises in political prediction, the countdown shows on Doordarshan, Star and Zee were disastrous. Navin, the DD psephologist, was overawed and underpowered. He managed to get every prediction wrong; at one point he had the BJP at 315 seats. Dorab Sopariwala on Star ranged from 275 to 290 seats for the BJP, consistently overestimated the Congress prospects and, secure in his blazer and tie, seemed to see India and its electoral process as an inept Bihari invention that he studied from an interplanetary distance. Vinod Dua on Zee compensated for years of doing Hindi translation for Prannoy Roy, by having Roys erstwhile partner in psephology, Ashok Lahiri, playing second fiddle to him.
DD1s chief psephologist was Swapan Dasgupta which didnt do much for the channels credibility given his longstanding partiality to the saffron brotherhood. But he was of all the psephologists the most fun to watch because every now and then he would descend in a Star Trek type lift into something that was either a rudimentary spaceship or a high- tech basement. He would then walk gingerly out of the lift as if he expected mines to explode beneath his feet and stop. At this point his waist would be ringed by a cross between a flat hula hoop and a giant toilet seat. Inscribed on this potty seat were the seat shares of various parties. Throughout this exercise he held his hands prayerfully by his chest and chanted his information out at a very high pitch. Even his fellow anchors found it hard not to giggle; Karan Thapar declared that Swapan looked so nice in his wonder- land that he ought to stay there.
What would electoral punditry do without the coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh? That coastal has an authentic specificity that in the hands of Star News MaheshRangarajan can explain pretty much anything. The northern districts of West Bengal are developing a similar mystique though it will take them time to achieve the magisterial power of their coastal counterparts in Andhra. Fortunately for viewers, the predictions for Election 99 on every channel were so wildly off the mark that for once anti-incumbency wasnt offered as an explanation for every defeat and the results of the quadrangular contest in UP so confounded the pundits that their favourite formula of elections past, the index of opposition unity, wholly disappeared from our television screens, even when it could have been usefully invoked to explain the result in Maharashtra.
In terms of professional slickness there was no contest: in the smoothness with which Star News switched between the studio and OB broadcasts, in the composure and efficiency of their correspondents in the state capitals, in the decor of the studio set, Star News was so far ahead of the pack that it could have been on another planet. Star achieved a consistent idiom in its look; the others didnt.
What Star didnt do quite so well was the talking. Its the quality of the studio chatter that keeps people watching and Stars chat lacked fizz. There was an enervated, well- bred feel to their interviews which had something to do with deference. Good manners are one thing, but why should senior politicians be favoured with sir tacked on to the ends of sentences? The conversation on Star was often good but it was seldom exciting.
The contrast with Doordarshans anchors was striking. This wasnt always to DDs credit because Karan Thapar and Tavleen Singh were hectoring and patronising, but Vir Sanghvi got the balance between civility and sharpness exactly right. He was alert and sharp in a relaxed and friendly way. His easy assumption that everyone on his team was there to contribute, his informality in calling on them to speak was exemplary. His interview with V. P. Singh was first rate; he got Singh to admit that he was thinking of returning to active politics.
The one time Prannoy Roy abandoned affability in favour of confrontation was with Sushma Swaraj. He took the moral high ground and scolded her for going on about Sonia Gandhis foreign origins instead of focusing on fundamental issues like drinking water and food and electricity. Her foreignness, he said, had no bearing on the elections; her election victories proved that. Sushma managed to say that it did matter, even if people like Prannoy didnt think so.
Now, I happen to think Sonias Roman origins are a nasty distraction but lots of middle- class people I know didnt vote for the Congress because of Sonia Gandhis Italian origins. Besides, how does a team of political analysts conclude that Sonias victory in two elections has laid that issue to rest? Are they seriously suggesting that the predictable self- interest of a constituency in electing the leader of a major party and a possible prime minister proves that the electorate at large is indifferent to the issue? Still there was lots of good, knockabout fun on the three channels the regular party spokesmen have had so much practice in the last three years, that they get visibly better every year. Arun Jaitely was rottweiler- like but impressive: he rounded on Sitaram Yechury (whod made the mistake of talk-ing about an opportunity for the Third Force in the event of the NDA not getting a majority) and delivered a memorable line about a politically incoherent rump of 90 MPs dreaming of power. Jairam Ramesh fought as good a rearguard action as youll ever see, but the best moments came, predictably, from the politicians themselves rather than their spokesmen.
Tere was a lovely moment on Star when Mr Pawar and Mr Scindia ended up at the same table. Scindia did a won-derful job of suggesting Pawar didnt exist or was at best a bad smell. Natwar Singh was a scream. When he first came into DDs studio he refused to answer any questions, informed Vir Sanghvi he wasnt in the studio to help him and then suggested darkly that the RSS set out at night to spread wicked rumours about Sonias Roman origins. I suspect the BJP pays the networks to have him on.
Govindacharya has great screen presence: he has a sinister plausibility that makes him an excellent villain, but the BJP s most exceptional performer was Sushma Swaraj. The camera stayed on her for a long time while a Star anchor was quizzing Modi, a BJP functionary, on her ill- treatment by the high command, and her expression, of smiling,long- suffering martyrdom, was masterly.
From the anti-BJP side, the best turn came from Amar Singh of the Samajwadi Party. Singh had been on DD the previous day when everyone in the studio had rubbished his partys chances. Now, a day after his party had captured 26 seats in UP he had returned to the scene of his mortification to gloat. At least that was how Vir Sanghvi put it and Amar Singh was happy to go along with the script. A natural ham, he mimicked with great relish the withering scorn directed at him by Swapan Dasgupta, Tavleen Singh and Vinod Mehta. Swapan played straight man: he listened to Amar Singh with a grin stapled on to his face. Patronising anchors came off badly. Tavleen Singh talking to Kanshi Ram was a case in point. She scolded him and the BSP for not forming constructive alliances and for putting the interest of the party above that of the nation. Kanshi Ram explained lucidly that coalitions didnt help the BSP because upper caste votes werent transferable to them. So they found it useful to let the Congress and the BJP split those votes. It was a reasonable explanation and it made her look silly. Similarly, in Hyderabad just before interviewing Salauddin Owaisi, the Star News correspondent declared that this constituency automatically voted for Owaisi... as if it was more a Muslim reflex than a political choice.
In the end though, election specials keep democracy in view. It might be tiresome to hear elections described in the idiom of one- day cricket but the fact that the spectacle of India voting can command days of prime time tells us that democracy is at least as attractive as the limited- overs game. We should be grateful that democratic politics in India still sells adveritsing spots.