We are well into a year filled with electoral contests in various States, which will be followed by campaigning frenzy for the Lok Sabha elections scheduled for mid-2024. For political journalists, this will be a busy year of travel and coverage. It will also be one where we will need some defence in the face of that frequent and pointed question, who do you think is winning?
In earlier days, before we became serious and divided in our ‘WhatsAppverses’, elections were a carnival, and emotional investment in the outcome was restricted to candidates and political parties. At the most, to make things interesting, we would set up an office pool and the person winning the bet would buy us a round of chai and samosas at work.
Not so now. In today’s deeply partisan political environment, reporters need to read the room (or WhatsApp chat group) before revealing the answer to that all-important question of who we think will win. This is frankly a tougher job than filing despatches from the campaign trail.
After several years of being shunned by many for not giving echo chamber-compliant answers (even if the results proved that I was right), I felt I needed a strategy to protect myself. But what could this defensive strategy be? Who could I go to for help in strategising? I then realised that being a political journalist, the answer to my question lay in the very pool of people who resolve political connundrums, namely, the Indian electorate.
The first big learning for a political reporter on the field is that there are vocal voters and silent voters. Almost always, there are some who are candid about their support for a party whereas others who often belong to the more vulnerable social groups remain silent and appreciate the secret ballot. In electoral reverses — results contrary to the majority of the media narratives — it is the silent voters who make up the undercurrent of support for the less expected party to win. Listening to these silent voters amid the cacophony of those providing the more socially ‘safe’ opinion is one big way of getting an election outcome right. But this is not an easy task.
In almost all the election campaigns I have covered, I have developed a healthy respect for the capacity of the voters, especially the non-local ones, to bamboozle journalists. Even before we can put forth our (mostly) intrusive questions, the voters make an assessment about our background and leanings. The conversation is usually peppered with opinions that we are predisposed to hearing; opinions that reaffirm a certain confirmation bias. The job of the journalist is to escape being fooled and to read the phrases and words being used in order to understand the subtle messaging.
These two lessons from the Indian voter — of largely speaking with their vote and maintaining the secrecy of the ballot; and, if forced to commit to an outcome, to read the room correctly — are invaluable. This is not an encouragement to lie or display pusillanimity; after all, a journalist’s despatches paint the picture of what they have seen. It is simply a lesson on how to answer that all-important question on electoral outcomes and negotiate a social minefield carefully.