The TRPs Of A Democracy

Elections were a media event then; now they’re just another bit of news
The TRPs Of A Democracy
Hindustan Times
The TRPs Of A Democracy

He still has a cutting somewhere, untraceable in the heap of work collected over the years. But Mumbai-based cartoonist Hemant Morparia vividly remembers a comic strip he drew on the general election results telecast on Doordar­shan in 1989, helmed by Prannoy Roy and Vinod Dua. “Dua was the bilingual guy, so I called him Vinod Dual. I remember that the sessions were marathon ones and the refrain in those elections was ‘change change change’. So I played on both these elements and ended by saying, ‘Yes, yes it’s a mandate for change but a change of clothes for the Roy-Dua combine who must be stinking after their long session in the studio.’” The last frame, indeed, showed Roy and Dua slumped behind their own cutouts in sheer exhaustion.

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“We were mere presenters. TV’s become more opinionated. The debates and panels are all about shouting.”
Gitanjali Aiyar, Former news presenter

Himanshu Pandya, a Hindi professor and resident of Dungarpur in Rajasthan, also distinctly recalls the Roy-Dua 48-hour marathon, fortified by just a few quick naps in between. Says Pandya, who was 16 at that time, “Dua had wrapped himself in a big shawl, the kind we wear on winter mornings to go out to buy milk. And I was convinced that under it he was wearing a night-gown.” Pandya narrates the incident with an affection and intimacy, candour and clarity that would be hard to muster for the telecasts of today. The 2009 poll results on TV may not live in the nation’s memory any more but the nostalgia for how it used to be over three decades ago is still alive in its temperate tones.

“Those days they were media events, now they are not as anticipated and looked forward to,” says Dua. He remembers how they used to pitch their tents in Hotel Kanishka and how he would give himself the ‘fauji’ treatment—put his head under cold water in the winters—to wake up for the early morning bulletins.

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“Our role was limited to communication. We were neutral in our presentation of very selective coverage.”
Rini Simon Khanna, Former news presenter

Others recall the time predating the idiot box, when the radio and newspapers were the harbingers of political fortunes at the hustings. Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan recollects Melville de Mellow, the “sonorous voice of politics” on All India Radio. Dua remembers going to the Statesman and Indian Express buildings during the 1971 elections and in 1977, hearing on the radio about Indira Gandhi losing to Raj Narain and Sanjay Gandhi to Ravindra Pratap Singh. Columnist Santosh Desai too recalls going to the HT building in the middle of the night to see the results being flashed on the scoreboard, much like runs and wickets logged in cricket stadia. This was the 1977 election, the post-Emergency debacle of Indira. “I used to live in Karol Bagh. We were in the heart of the euphoria, the excitement that both the cow and the calf, Indira and Sanjay that is (and also the Congress symbol), had both been defeated but the rigidly controlled TV showed none of it,” he says.

Former newscasters Gitanjali Aiyar and Rini Simon Khanna also recall their days of newsreading in the time of election. “We were mere presenters,” says Gitanjali, who joined DD in 1971. “There were boards on either side of the camera and we used to read from there. It was simple, normal, without noise. The reading and assimilation was straightforward and staid.”  Adds Rini, “We read the news but didn’t have editorial freedom nor contributions to make. Our roles were limited to just communicating without our own leanings or slants coming in. Having said that, we were still very balanced and neutral in our presentation even though the coverage was hugely selective.”

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The national broadcaster would have its own correspondents, respected journalists in the field. “They would chase politicians and constituents well in adva­nce,” says Rini. “Even coverage of the counting booths and agents pulling out slips and the huge mound of votes lying on the table was exciting stuff to watch.”

No shouting here Prannoy Roy and Vinod Dua on Doordarshan in the 1990s

“New technology has minimised mistakes and reduced bogus voting, but the poll narrative itself has become flat.”
Sudheesh Pachauri, Media columnist

It was 1980 that brought the excitement of poll results to the TV studio with Prannoy Roy and Ashok Lahiri stepping into DD. The panel increased to four by 1984: Roy, Lahiri, Sudhir Dar and Vinod Dua. In 1996, Roy and Dua teamed up for the last time to present on DD.

“Election results on TV always had a festive feel around them,” says Morparia. Adds Desai, “Very few families owned a TV set back then, so people would go over to relatives’ or neighbours’ houses, making it a community experience.” There was an air of festivity even at DD, with young volunteers milling around and good food on the menu. “My son who participated one year was most excited about the poori-aaloo served,” says Gitanjali.

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For others, the lure wasn’t the election results so much as the films that punctuated the bulletins. “The news was heard because of of the movies,” says Gitanjali. Pandya admits as much, saying the first-ever election results viewed on TV, in 1984, were actually more about “the films in between the news” than “the news in between the films”. “Watching films on DD would usually mean some Kotwaal Saab kind of irrelevant film on a Sunday. In such an arid scenario, getting to watch five to six big films back-to-back was like a chhappan bhog (a feast),” he says.

“Those days they were media events. Now they are not as anticipated or looked forward to. No new idiom has come.”
Vinod Dua, Television veteran

It was in the ’80s again that TV brought a new word to the lexicon of the nation: psephology. “It was a radical, energising idea,” says Desai. “It was magical to experience the power of analysis.” As it was to understand concepts like ‘swing’ or ‘lehar’ (as Dua translated it for Hindi-speaking viewers) and how it would translate into votes and number of seats. “It broadened the scope, made us all more interested in elections,” says Gitanjali.

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The arrival of the electronic voting machines in 1998 marked the next milestone in the evolution of election results on television. By this time, viewer interest had also shifted from DD to the private channels. “The EVMs ensured that counting was completed in a day as against two-three days earlier,” says NDTV’s Dorab Sopariwala. Polls and programming acquired a different structure following EVMs, with opinion polls and exit polls conducted by hundreds of agencies making psephology more of a business than an area of serious research.

The poll proceedings themselves had much drama back then: the invalid votes, cancellation of polling, double counting. “Once Balraj Madhok spread this rumour about magical ink imported from Soviet Union which would disappear from the fingers allowing people to vote more than once,” recounts media columnist Sudheesh Pachauri “With the advent of technology, like the EVMs, mistakes may have been minimised and bogus voting reduced, but, as he says, “the narrative of elections has become flat, jeet-haar ka anand hi nahin raha (there is no joy to loss or win)”.

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TV introduced a new word to the nation’s lexicon in the ’80s: psephology. Also concepts such as swing and voteshare.

Long-drawn-out sessions in television studios too have become strictly a thing of the past, with the coverage becoming instant and in real-time. “The difference is a bit like that between a five-day match vs Twenty20,” says Morparia. “From a genteel pursuit it has become a spectator sport,” adds Desai. For sociologist Visva­nathan, “There’s no wait, no expectation, no time to reflect and pause.” Equally nostalgic of the yore, Pandya weighs in thus: “Results used to trickle in slowly, suspense was maintained over a period of time, at times things used to turn on their head.” To Pachauri,  “They played out like the scenes of a film. Seeing the results had the same pleasure as that of reading a story or novel. Woh rahasya-romanch ab khatam ho gaya hai (the suspense and mystery are all gone.”

The media itself seems to have a stake in the elections now, many feel. “Television back then had not brought upon itself the role of mediating, overseeing elections. It hadn’t arrogated the central position unto itself,” says Desai. Gitanjali finds it equally traumatic. “TV has become opinionated. The debates and panels are all about shouting, in which nothing is heard and understood.” old-timers lament the loss of the moderation and detachment of yore, finding it difficult to come to terms with the hyper-excitement of the present. “They were a different set of people, who seem more erudite in retrospect,” says Desai. For Dua, the biggest disappointment is that the coverage of poll results today is no different from what it used to be. “No new idiom or paradigm has come,” he says. Election 2014 has been no different so far.

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