‘2019 is Not a National Election’: Town Hall with Dr Prannoy Roy

‘2019 is Not a National Election’: Town Hall with Dr Prannoy Roy

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“2019 is not a national election at all, it’s a federation of states election,” said Dr Prannoy Roy, co-founder of NDTV and a veteran journalist at a town hall with The Quint. Based on insights from his latest book The Verdict: Decoding India's Elections and his decades-long experience in journalism, Dr Roy spoke on how the BJP is ahead of the Congress in understanding the importance of alliances, his favourite counting day experience, absence of women voters and the tabloidisation of news.

How is the 2019 election different from other elections you’ve seen?

I think elections have changed very dramatically in India, ever since the first election in 1952 till now. It’s a total sea of change. The voter in the first 25 years after 1952, from 1952 to 1977, used to vote back governments 80% of the time. That means it was pro-incumbency. You could be elected, you could not appear at your constituency, you spend time in Delhi corridors of power, you go back and they will vote you back. Why? It was the era of the “trusting voter,” a bit naive and full of hope. A hopeful voter, because he saw India getting Independence and thought, now we are really on the move.

Unfortunately, 25 years later, things changed dramatically because she felt let down over those 25 years. She kept voting them back, and they kept doing nothing. So, from 1977 to 2002 was the “angry voter,” and more than 70% of governments were thrown out. They were just furious at the lack of development in their villages, in their towns and they would not even distinguish between a good or bad or average government, and they would just throw them out.

Since 2002, the 3rd phase, it’s a much “wiser voter.” 50% of governments are voted back, 50% of governments are thrown out. And the ones that are voted back are generally those that have done some work, and work not just in the macro sense, but in the micro sense in the villages. And the big change has been the rise in participation of the woman voter. That has been the transformation.

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Do you think local issues will take a backseat in the backdrop of the Pulwama and Balakot strike? And also, as you are travelling, do you see Modi Wave 2.0?

I mean it’s a very valid question and a common question – is there a wave? But again, a big change that has happened now is that, votes matter less in winning an election than alliances. They used to hardly matter in the first 25 years, but now almost 50% of seats are won because of forming an alliance and not forming an alliance. So, the first thing to understand is, that this is not actually a national election at all. It’s a federation of states’ election. So, I would say when you are analysing elections, look for each state differently, the issues in each state. Look for whether there are alliances or not, because alliances are hugely important. People say, but do the votes get transferred or not, will SP votes go to the BSP? But analysis shows that not only do the votes get transferred, when you have an alliance, you get a boost of 8%. Because people say they have got a good chance of winning so there is a kind of centrifugal effect because it attracts voters.

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What would be your advice to a young journalist, in the world of post-truth? Where it’s becoming increasingly hard to convince people of a journalist’s credibility?

I would say that you just have to do your job and not worry about the blogs and the people that write against you. I think you are right, it’s not just post-truth. I think the big problem globally in the media, in every aspect of life, is an absence of trust. Corporates don’t trust each other, governments don’t trust each other, nobody trusts the media, media doesn’t trust the government, which is a good thing. But building trust is the key to sustainability in this kind of environment. To break through this disintegration of trust on all fronts.

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You mention in your book that in the 2014 election, as many as 23.4 million women were disenfranchised, and their right to vote was denied. Has the situation improved at all in 2019? And if not, then how do the women swing the vote?

Okay, those are two questions. One, is the missing women voters. Yes, it was 23.4 million in the last election and it’s 21 million now, but it’s not a significant improvement, because if you look at the trend line, it has gone from no women missing to an average of 19 million women over the last 15 years, since 2002. So this time, there are 21 million women who are over 18, who are Indian and who can’t vote. And I have seen youngsters, three ladies walk into the polling booth, and one of them can’t vote. It is shocking, and something needs to be done before this election.

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Specifically, talking about the 2019 elections, you’ve stressed upon how important alliances are and there’s a lot of chatter, at least on social media, on how Congress has lost the plot when it comes to alliances. Do you agree with this?

I think it’s not just this election, but the BJP is way ahead of the Congress in understanding the importance of alliances. They understand that 4 percent can transform an election, Congress has no clue. They have no idea, they are terrible at negotiating, they live in some 1970 dream world, I think, thinking they still dominate this country and they have. They are hurting themselves by not forming alliances, like they cannot even imagine. I think, take the case of UP, they have a 6 percent vote, 6 to 8 percent, if that is added to the SP-BSP alliance, that would be another 14 out of 80 seats. That would be a huge amount. In fact, what they have done is completely suicidal. They have put in a very, very strong candidate, the one person BJP is worried about is Priyanka Gandhi. The better she does, the more votes she will cut from the alliances, the better for the BJP. So, the stronger the Congress turns out in the UP, the luckier the BJP is. Maybe the Congress is fighting for the 2050 elections.

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As someone who represents the news anchoring business, where do you stand on the recent phenomenon of sensationalised TV news and shrill anchors? And the impact it has on audiences?

So, there is a trend, all over the world, towards tabloidisation of all kinds of news. You have tabloid newspapers, you have tabloid websites, even NatGeo is turning towards sex and violence. They don’t say ‘life of whales’, they ‘sex and violence aspect of whales’. So, tabloidisation is a trend that’s happening all over.

Unfortunately, in India, ad agencies are not as mature as the ad agencies abroad where tabloidisation does not get high revenues. The revenues that the Sun or the Mirror get, per eye ball, compared to the Times – the Times say, gets six to seven times higher per eyeball, although their viewership is 1/5th. Here, just what are the TRPs say, give the same amount. When advertising agencies mature, and say you’re a tabloid, and we don’t want to see, our client doesn’t want to see our product associated with this kind of violence or sensationalism and we will pay you much less, it will be a market-based control on everyone trying to get eyeballs or trying to go tabloid. So, there is a separate aspect which is not talked about, is to understand that at the moment, the way advertising is funding television and perhaps websites as well, is that it’s encouraging tabloidisation, by just looking at the numbers.

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Out of all the elections you’ve experienced, which has been the most exciting counting day for you?

The best, I would say, the early days were better. It used to take three days to count the elections. You wouldn’t know what’s happening, you would get slow progress, so you had to do a lot of analysis, a lot of projections, you’d have to stay up all night. How many of you have stayed up all 3 days and 3 nights? Nobody, right? So, that was exciting because it needed a lot of maths and statistics to see early trends and I can tell you an example. I have always followed elections, whether on-air or not, since I was a kid. And I remember once, after the Emergency, 1977, we were all sitting around in a barsaati, following election results, like we did all the time, and our only source was the All India Radio. And AIR was still under the emergency atmosphere, so it just kept giving 5 and 5, 10 and 10, 15 and 15, both sides were always equal. But they would name the constituency, which one was Congress losing, which one the Congress was winning, and by the ones the Congress was losing, we knew it was a sweep for the Janata Party. Even though the radio was saying it was 20-20. So, I would say that’s probably the most exciting, though that was not on air. It was sitting in a barsaati, but it was so exciting that a lot of feni was had after that – sorry, apple juice! Scottish nimbu paani, no no. No Scottish nimbu pani in those days, my god, couldn’t afford it.

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One of the issues which is being raised a lot, is subversion of institutions. And as someone who follows the court, it’s a serious concern there. That should be a big issue this election, but you don’t really see this being raised in a political rally. Is there a way to make that important, and make it an election issue?

I would say that, I quote an MLA in a Karnataka village, I asked him what are the issues in this election, and he said, look elections are like an exam, with many exam papers, and you have to get distinction in all of them. So, it’s not that any one can be the biggest issue of the election and it’s just the only issue. So courts probably will not resonate much in the exam paper list in a village, because they are so far removed, they have so many deeper problems. But it will resonate among the opinion makers in this country, they do have an impact on lot of other people. So, in the urban areas, particularly in the metropolitan cities, yes people are watching and they are worried.

As a psephologist who has travelled the length and breadth of the country, what’s the one key thing that you have identified about the Indian voter?

I think, one very trivial thing. I would have gone to maybe 1,000 villages over the years and talked to thousands of people in pilot surveys. You ask them who they are going to vote for, and they all have one same reaction, a big smile. It’s the universal smile of India. “Who you going to vote for?” It’s just lovely. There is no rancour, there is no aggression, there is anger with the politicians, voters are really upset with politicians in India, no doubt about that. But I would say, I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that the Indian voter today is smarter than any other voter around the world. Awareness of issues in the villages of Pulwama, are there 400 people who died or not, all that, just comes from them all the time.

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You said that after 2002, the current phase that we are in, ‘wise’ voters exercise their votes. Based on that, whichever result comes in 2019, how will we do the analysis for that? We don’t have any data, we don’t know whether we are growing at 7 percent or not. We don’t know about jobs, anything. So how will we know whether the voter has voted wisely?

I must say that you are not getting any good reliable economics data, and it’s a tragedy, but the Election Commission of India has fabulous data. Plus, if you are doing opinion polls, you get great on-ground data which you can analyse. Unfortunately, elections are not just determined by issues, there are a lot of tactics involved.

First of all, an issue is only an election issue if it covers two aspects. One, it’s got to be important to the voter. Say, corruption. Very important, day to day corruption. We went to a village – many widows, they get 1000 rupees a month. To get the money, everything is very hi-tech, and etc., but to get that money, she has to pay the bank manager, 1000 rupees every month. What kind of a bank manager sees a widow, who’s poverty-stricken and takes 500 rupees from her? So, there are technical issues, such as turnout. In America, there is something called the dark arts of voter suppression where certain categories of people, things are made difficult for certain people to vote. We don’t know how much of that has come to India, but that needs to be studied. But the data on voting behaviours and analysis can be done quite easily. It could be turnout, why people have voted which way. It could be turnout. It could be violence just before election. Generally, we have found that in the “wise” voter phase, people vote for MLAs or MPs that do something in their village or constituency. Not just GDP, but the GDP can go to the cities, can go to the richer, can go to the exporters. If it doesn’t come to their villages, then they won’t vote for that person.

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The results of the 2019 elections will be declared on 23 May, and whichever way the results go, it will have an impact on Indian journalism. How do you see the future of Indian journalism?

Well, to be honest, actually I am very encouraged by what has happened over the last year. I think if you looked at Indian websites, WhatsApp messages, Twitter, there are very much obsequious than they are now. I think now people are speaking out and speaking out in fearless terms. And I really, really find that we might see a repeat of 1977.

Dr. Prannoy Roy is the co-founder of NDTV and a veteran journalist, his book “The Verdict: Decoding India's Elections can be found here.

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