Friday, Feb 03, 2023

The Third Man

A sting reveals a man in the middle attack on the compact between voter and candidate.

“One man rolls out the roti,/another eats it. But there is a third man who neither rolls it out, nor eats it./Who is that third man?” With that tantalising verse by the Hindi protest poet Dhoomil, the freshly remade channel News Express launched into Operation Prime Minister, five hours of programming compromising 11 opinion poll agencies. By agreeing to stretch the truth to secure business, the agencies embarrassed themselves horribly.

But the channel’s claim that this is “the biggest sting operation in 67 years” is slightly excessive. No reporters armed with little Baby Brownies ever caught the Raj with its pants down in some moment lost to history. The legacy of the sting dates back only to Bangaru Laxman, not to Mountbatten of Burma. And rigging opinion polls can’t possibly “make a mockery of the oldest democracy”. Iceland could be the oldest, or the Isle of Man or the Iroquis Nations, depending on what you understand by “democracy”. But India certainly isn’t the oldest.

The programme was anchored by Vinod Kapri and Nishant Chaturvedi, who had done interesting constituency-level coverage of the Delhi Assembly elections, which had drawn erratic responses as media either overcelebrated or underappreciated the disruptive politics of the Aam Aadmi Party. But Opinion Poll Live had put the camera in the face of the people who would elect the next government — tagline: “Netaji, get ready to listen to your voter” — and had called the election surprisingly close.

Which may have occasioned some thought about why so many channels generally call elections poorly.

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Because pollsters are happy to tailor results according to the political preferences of commissioning channels, the sting claimed. The trick is to provide two reports, one considered and for the record, the other tweaked for a consideration and tailored for broadcast. Some idiots actually explained this on camera — no outright lies, just careful choice of ranges and margins.

News Express went out to canvass the opinion of Arvind Kejriwal, who saw evidence of a political conspiracy and began asking irritating questions. Like, how much has Modi given to each channel and polling agency? He recalled that in the Delhi elections, the projected BJP tally had risen steadily from 20 to 40 seats as the elections neared, and the popularity graphs of Vijay Goel and Harsh Vardhan had soared. Now, a similar BJP wave is being predicted nationally and the channels which hire agencies like C-Voter owe an explanation to the electorate, he said.

The grapevine has it that Headlines Today has already suspended its contract with C-voter for the forthcoming general election. The pollster has had relations with Times Now and India TV, too. The former is quite image-sensitive and the latter had had a makeover. Fresh paint brings new sensitivities.


What’s to be done? While one section of the media is insisting on the urgent need to legitimise polls with transparency about methodology — guidelines by another name — another rejects oversight, believing that poll agencies which fail to meet audience expectations will ruin their reputation and lose the market.

Ah, the disease of optimism. It is highly unlikely that you remember which agencies called the last general election wrong. There were many, and they continue to flourish. When public memory is short, reputation becomes unimportant and its loss insignificant. Anyway, do people really vote by herd mentality, following waves raised by opinion polls? And do stings move them at all? Neither Operation PM nor Zee’s sting on Vindu Dara Singh caused an uproar. People shrugged and carried on. They know how to deal with the world and on election day, no third man will get in the way.

First published on: 01-03-2014 at 00:26 IST
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