A sense of dèja vu: How TV election analysis errs time and time again

TV anchor Ravish Kumar often advises his viewers to cut down on watching television.

I remembered him as I sat through some of the instant studio analyses of the Assembly election results. A sense of dèja vu hit me. I am getting old, I thought. Or maybe I am sitting on the wrong side of the bench, no longer as psephologist but as a politico. I felt I was watching a replay of an old match. The analysis repeated four fatal errors of election analysis that I have seen (and sometimes participated in, I'm ashamed to say) over the past two decades.

AIADMK supporters celebrate the party's victory in Tamil Nadu's Assembly elections. PTI

Who cares about how elections are analysed? Especially when there's a street party to attend, as in Chennai after the AIADMK's victory. PTI

The first error is the belief that the winner didn't do anything wrong, the loser didn't get anything right. It's a silly belief. No cricket commentator makes the mistake of having such a belief. But it is amazing how routinely we fall for it. Even in a close verdict like Tamil Nadu where the gap between the winner and the runner up is just about one percentage point, we offer explanations suitable for a landslide victory. Clearly, the Chennai floods and corruption cases must have hurt J Jayalalithaa. Perhaps, an alliance with Congress helped DMK come this close to a victory. Maybe the tipping factor was none of the things we talk about. Perhaps it was something we don't wish to talk about on the day of the election verdict.

The second related error is the idea that elections are won or lost during the election campaign. The brute fact is that most elections are decided even before the campaign begins. Take West Bengal for example. There was not much to write home about Mamata Banerjee's governance track record. But the residual anger against the Left Front was so strong, especially in rural South Bengal, that they were going to lose this election no matter what they did in the run up to the polls. A desperate and unwise alliance with Congress did not help them win, the absence of this alliance would not have helped them either. Electoral strategies and tactics sometimes make a decisive difference. BJP's alliance with the AGP did so. But more often than not campaign makes a minor difference to the margins of victory.

The third error is the assumption that decisive results have a clear and obvious mandate. Clear results need not have a clear message. Sometimes a small victory as that of the LDF in Kerala (small because the gap is about four percent) is easier to explain than a bigger victory in West Bengal. In a state where a small proportion of voters swing to change governments every five year, that small group had good reasons to distrust the UDF and want a change. It is a verdict against Congress governance. But can we say the same about Mamata's or Jayalalithaa's governance? Perhaps all we can say is that the voters did not have good reasons to trust their opponents.

And finally there is the error of the National Verdict which assumes every state election to be a referendum on the Central government.

The fact is that for the past two decades, states have become the centre-stage of national politics. Assessment of state governments gets reflected in the Lok Sabha elections, but it's rarely the other way around. The Haryana Assembly election in 2015 was an exception. The BJP's major victory in Assam is not due to the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is purely a spectacular but local political success. An electorate tired of a long Congress regime was offered what appeared to be a credible alternative. The verdict will help the BJP in a small way in terms of Rajya Sabha numbers, especially if the TMC and AIADMK oblige. But there is no way this verdict reflects or changes the national political mood.

Unless, of course, the mood-makers decide otherwise! Meanwhile, I wait for a replay of the same game after the UP election in a few months' time.

The author is co-founder of Swaraj Abhiyan and the national convener of Jai Kisan Andolan


Published Date: May 20, 2016 08:40 am | Updated Date: May 20, 2016 08:46 am


Also See