Nobody was more resoundingly defeated yesterday than us political pundits. The distance between us and the electorate, that first became evident in the 2014 general election, has grown, not lessened. So I am going to begin by asking why. What has happened to make us so removed from the public mood? Why do mighty TV anchors boast about their ‘extensive’ travels in poll-bound states and then predict victories for all the wrong people? Why do veteran political correspondents use reams of newsprint to make completely wrong prophecies? Not happy questions to be asking in a political column, but if political journalism in India is not to become a bad joke, then they must be asked.
The first thing we seem to be doing wrong is taking sides. Most political pundits in our ancient land have been bred on the ‘secularism’ diet, whose most important ingredient is contempt for political leaders unashamed of being Hindu. This distorts our vision. So communal violence under a BJP chief minister is automatically amplified and massacres under a ‘secular’ Congress leader dismissed. In Gujarat in 2002, both Hindus and Muslims died, but we called it a pogrom and the demonisation of Narendra Modi began. In 1984, there was a real pogrom. Only Sikhs were killed, but most political pundits described the violence as ‘anti-Sikh riots’.
The Indian media’s demonisation of Modi was so effective that leaders of important countries treated him as if he were the first Indian politician responsible for organised ethnic violence. Muslim communities across India swallowed this myth, so in Uttar Pradesh, which has a history of terrible communal riots, it is only Gujarat 2002 that Muslims give as their reason for hating Modi. On my travels I often asked Muslims if they remembered the names of chief ministers who presided over horrific riots in Bhagalpur and Meerut-Maliana. Nobody did.
The problem also is that most political pundits continue to believe their own myth-making. Modi continues to be a monster for us, so even if he says something that is not ‘communal’, it becomes anti-Muslim in our eyes. Personally I found nothing offensive about his suggestion that villages should provide land for both graveyards and cremation grounds, but it became a huge anti-Muslim issue in the national media. Pundits pondered over it for weeks on primetime. Clearly nobody has noticed that most Hindus are no longer prepared to accept that they should be treated to fewer government freebies just because they are not Muslim. In Uttar Pradesh, what nobody seemed to notice either was that the old equations of caste and creed are no longer as relevant as they were even in 2012. Another reason for primetime prophecies going awry.
Our ‘secularism’ so distorts our vision that in Uttar Pradesh we celebrated the arrival in the campaign of Dimple Yadav as if a new political star had been born. Dynastic democracy is a disease that is directly connected to political corruption, but this is rarely discussed on primetime or in ponderous newspaper editorials. It is shameful that the Yadavs have turned our largest state into a family estate. Shameful that the brother of the Chief Minister should pose proudly in a Lamborghini worth more than Rs 5 crore when villagers have no access to decent schools and hospitals. But these issues went unnoticed by most political pundits as we ranted on about the ‘communalisation’ of the election campaign because of the Prime Minister’s ‘kabristan-shamshaan’ remark.
Everywhere I travelled during this election campaign, I met young people who talked of development as the thing they wanted most to see in their lifetime. When asked to explain what they meant, they said it meant a decent job, a decent home, good schools for their children and the hope that they would see a better, more prosperous India in their lifetime. These were things discussed only in passing by us political pundits as we railed on about the evil effects of demonetisation on the poorest of our citizens. On this count I must plead guilty. I met so many people who had suffered on account of their money disappearing overnight that I believed that the BJP would suffer a loss of votes. I was wrong. If anything, it appears to have worked in its favour because it made the Prime Minister seem like a man who was ready to risk his personal popularity in his crusade against corruption.
When the dust settles on this painfully long election campaign and normalcy returns, us political pundits need to take the advice we usually give losers when election results come. Introspection. This is what we need to spend some time doing. Journalism is, as it has been famously said, the first draft of history, and in recent years, we whose responsibility it is to write that first draft have been doing a very bad job.