City City Bang Bang, Columns, Writing

Decoding elections on TV

The elections in 5 states have come and gone as the dust settles on the winners and the losers, it is time to think about the one group that can never lose, given their supernatural powers- the television channels. The television coverage of the elections is by now a well settled routine, and involves the familiar three stages- breathless anticipation before the event, breathless and reckless commentary during the results and breathless speculation afterwards on the issues raised in the wake of the final outcomes (is youth finally coming of age in Indian politics, Is identity politics dead, is Brand Rahul on the decline and other such perennially absorbing questions).

The key characteristic that runs through all the coverage is an overriding sense of aggressive certainty that is used to package insignificant levels of knowledge. At every stage, the anchor is sure of the reality that he or she has constructed and assails participants of the show as well the viewers with his or her version. For instance, after the exit polls, each channel used their findings to grill politicians about what they do would do now, having assumed that the final outcome was now a mere formality. Any attempt to point out the speculative nature of the findings was met with dismissive contempt and treated as a standard diversionary tactic. Of course, each channel had its own distinct version of reality, and this differed significantly from poll to poll, but that did not any material difference to the air of authority with which these tentative projections were hardened into retrospective fact.

By now it is clear that the exit poll needs only to exist; its actual content is of no relevance at all. It is a device generated as a by-product of the elections, and stands on its own, free of any great responsibility to what might actually happen. It is a stage prop that substitutes weeks of frenzied speculation with the apparent solidity of spurious knowledge; its biggest strength is in what it purports to be. It is consumed by itself, and serves the purpose of bridging with some plausibility, however thin, the gap between our hunger for knowing in advance about the future and the future itself. As in the case of any television event, the relationship between the anticipation of the event and the event itself becomes tenuous and is treated as optional. In any case, by virtue of the fact that there are so many exit polls, and that it is in a channel’s interest that not all come up with the same prediction, it is pretty much certain that these polls will end up giving us an array of choices about what the final outcome might be.

If the exit poll created an illusion of certainty, one would have expected the results themselves to be much more grounded in facts. After all, months of uncertainty was giving way to some clarity about what actually happened. Eventually of course, clarity did settle down upon us, but after a long and bloody battle with wild assertion. Every channel reported the counting differently resulting at times in one party leading handsomely on one channel while lagging in another. Early on, some announced that the Congress had won in Punjab and most anointed Nitin Gadkari and Uma Bharti as the architects of the stunning BJP performance in UP. Hasty assertion was followed by premature contrition as channels apologetically confessed to their misreading of BJP’s performance in UP, before more results came in the story changed yet again. Most channels were not content with speculating on the eventual outcome, and went ahead and performed full analyses of the implications of each pseudo-outcome with the same breathless enthusiasm that they reserve for everything including the latest film release.

The need to commit wholeheartedly to every transient reality and the desire to treat every moment as definitive is a defining characteristic of television coverage of most events. As a result what we end up seeing on television is a world that is never in the process of being formed; it is always fully formed and merely needs an anchor to fulminate about it. Every new event is a startled invention; things do not flow into each other but leap in abruptly into the frame of the present before being replaced by another discrete happening. The very idea of analysis needs time as we look back put things in relation to each other and make sense of the reality around us. On television what we see is stream-of-consciousness outpouring masquerading as analysis; we experience the sensation of being trapped in a roomful of noisy time. Time takes on a horizontal quality, every moment is loaded with everything; we cannot wait for things to eventually happen we act as if they are happening all the time.

Unlike the written word which gives us permission to skip over it, the television image cannot be skipped, it can only be changed. The written word allows for escape, we deal with a pompous windbag quite easily by just skipping the paragraph or flipping the page. The ability to enter and exit written text at the reader’s discretion allows for opinion to be consumed without feeling coerced. It is impossible to sip at television; it seems to gulp us down. Since it cannot afford the luxury of rambling irrelevance, it needs always to find a version of exacting certitude to fill in the fallowness of time. Every sound bite is a stamp that hammers the moment into our eyeball. Television substitutes the authority of knowledge with the knowledge of its own authority.

The solution of course, for viewers is disappointingly simple- watch only when things have happened. Chances are that one would have missed nothing. Or of course, one could just read about it the next day. Less noisy that way.

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