At approximately 9.30 am this morning, most ‘national’ TV news channel anchors wore a smug expression of satisfaction. The leadings in the Bihar assembly polls reinforced the findings of their exit polls on Thursday/Friday: it was a close battle but BJP’s coalition was set for victory as they had predicted– ‘BJP set to get 132-136 seats’ (NDTV 24×7).
This set off a string of explanations, across channels as to why Nitish had lost and Modi had won. BJP leaders interviewed were ecstatic: Shahnawaz Hussain, for one, complimented the Prime Minister for the BJP victory.
Meanwhile, CNN-IBN, and even Aaj Tak to a lesser extent – at variance with its English sister channel India Today—were giving a substantial lead to the Grand Alliance. On India Today, this disagreement between the two was explained thus: Aaj Tak was following reports from local sources but India Today would stick to its figures which gave the NDA a good 20 seat lead. NDTV went on to predict that given the trends the BJP would form the next government in Bihar, Times Now discussed the BJP’s surge. Even Doordarshan, which is the tortoise in counting, showed BJP leading.
However, regional TV channels such as ETV Bihar and Kashish TV were predicting quite the opposite: the Grand Alliance was in the lead, NDA was lagging behind.
So what was going on here? Anyone switching from national to regional news – and even those like Bihar CM Nitish Kumar who did not watch TV– would have been confused and bemused. We have grown accustomed to opinion polls and exit polls differing in their estimates but so far everyone had agreed to agree on the counting. No wonder, both Nitish and Lalu referred to their puzzlement at the early trends at their victory press conference in Patna.
An hour later, about 10.30 am, the ‘national’ TV news channels and BJP leaders were eating very humble pie. The counting now showed that BJP + was well behind the Grand Alliance. And it fell further and further behind—there would be no more reversals of fortune.
At 10.25 am, a triumphant Bhupendra Chaubey on CNN-IBN (its exit poll that was never telecast had forecast 180 for Nitish-Lalu) said the Grand Alliance was forming the next government with leads in 142 seats.
All those watching TV would have been highly amused by how quickly panelists changed their tune: having discussed reasons for BJP’s victory, they now had to give reasons for its defeat. Sometimes, they used the same arguments: it was Modi’s agenda for development that was giving BJP a win: no, no, it is Nitish’s development work that has worked wonders for him!
So what happened in hour that turned victory into defeat and vice versa?
On NDTV 24×7, Prannoy Roy said it had never happened before- there was a very fundamental error. Chaubey boasted that unlike the other channels, CNN-IBN had conducted its own counting on the ground along with ETV—which is why they got it right. Yogendra Yadav jokingly said, it was ‘the triumph of the locals over the national’ (NDTV 24×7)—and he seemed to be right.
Most national news channels go by figures put out by Nielsen while the regional channels went by the reports of their people at the counting centres.
Still, the ‘errors’ in the counting remain unexplained but they were of a piece with the exit polls on Thursday which also got the result wrong: they predicted a very close battle between the two sides with an edge this way or that.
As we all know, there was nothing close about it. What explains the poor performance of the exit polls? In 2004, most famously, TV news had also failed to predict a UPA victory against a sitting BJP government. Is it that the channels are wary, chary of predicting a BJP loss – when it is in power at the Centre?
Whatever be the reasons, those agencies which conduct these polls need to reconsider their models; and news channels need to think whether it is worth carrying predictions that are wrong and end up embarrassing them.
Finally, perhaps everyone should wait for the last vote to be counted before they predict a winner — and discuss victory or defeat? After all, we do count on them to get the verdict right, right?
— NDTV (@ndtv) November 8, 2015