One of the natural consequences of a prolonged lockdown is the surfeit of what can best be described as ‘timepass’ activities. Among those that I found quite enjoyable — and hugely instructive — was trawling YouTube for old documentaries and TV programmes of another era. In the process I have sat through many hours of BBC election night broadcasts for the polls of 1955, 1959, 1964, 1966 and 1970. In due course I shall complete the lot and move to the coverage of US presidential elections.
Elections have fascinated me and, having been involved in all the counting day programmes since the Indian general elections of 1998, not to mention countless state Assembly polls, I was particularly interested in the evolving styles of presentation, the quantum of partisanship and the use of graphics and technology. While these can await elaborate dissection at another time and perhaps a more specialised publication, what interested me above all was to experience the results as it unfolded to those watching on the day.
To me this was an important experience. History, as we often know, is written with the benefit of hindsight. We know, for example, that the Congress Party led by Indira Gandhi suffered a crushing defeat in the 1977 general election held after 19 months of a draconian Emergency. The scale of the Congress defeat, particularly in North India, makes it seem that the outcome was widely anticipated by everyone. I wasn’t in India to experience that election and had to depend on perfunctory reports in the Western media and occasional letters from friends who were in the thick of the campaign. From these sources, two things were apparent. First, that the mood, especially after the desertion of Jagjivan Ram from the Congress, was vehemently anti-Congress; secondly, that the widespread feeling was that while the Congress would be jolted, it would return to power with a narrow majority.
I have not been able to discover the records of the TV telecast of the results on the internet. But the Soviet-style programme would not have been terribly interesting. Contemporary accounts suggest that Doordarshan wilfully chose to focus on the results from South India, where the Congress performed creditably, and chose to delay news of the Congress reverses for as long as possible. By then, I am sure the bush telegraph must have communicated the news of the Prime Minister’s defeat in Raebareli and Sanjay Gandhi’s failure in Amethi. Still, getting a glimpse of how Doordarshan broke the news to the Indian people would have been interesting.
India has moved a long way since 1977. Just as looking at the BBC’s election night coverage in the 1950s and 1960s has only an archival relevance, invoking the 1977 election — or indeed any election prior to 1996 — is purely academic. The media has mushroomed, thanks to both deregulation and technology. What the state-controlled broadcaster does and doesn’t do is swamped by other sources of information that range from multiple TV channels in different languages, the press and, most important, social media. However, the principle of tracking an election “in flight” — the avowed objective of the Nuffield College studies on British general elections since 1945 — remains intact.
May 30 is the first anniversary of the second term of Narendra Modi. It will be observed and commemorated in a relatively restrained way, courtesy the looming danger of COVID-19. The achievements of the government, particularly in the very purposeful 10 months that culminated in the Delhi riots shortly before the lockdown, have been noted and both appreciated and pilloried. However, given the dramatic jolt given by the lockdown to every Indian, there is an understandable tendency to divide politics into pre-COVID and post-COVID compartments. In my view, this should be resisted.
The conventional wisdom-in-hindsight is that Modi coasted to an easy and predictable victory a year ago. Certainly, the magnitude of the victory and the impressive margins, not to speak of the failure of the Congress to make any headway for the second election in succession, makes it seem that way. In reality, it wasn’t quite so effortless.
Anyone who goes back to the original sources will be struck by the fact that Modi’s opponents quite genuinely and sincerely believed that the BJP would be deprived of its majority. It was believed that the much-lauded Samajwadi-BSP alliance in Uttar Pradesh, the Mamata steamroller in West Bengal and the united opposition of all of India’s Muslims and Christians would send Modi packing. Remember the contrived excitement over the Rafale deal, the emotional pitch of the anti-demonetisation campaign and the frenzied partisanship of a powerful section of the media that saw itself as a part of the Opposition. Also, let us not forget the united front of all the economics professors living outside India that sought a return to the culture of doles and sops. Together they created the impression that Modi should be packing his bags, despite Balakot and the surgical strikes.
In hindsight, May 2019 was an emphatic defeat for the old Establishment that was united in its desire to end the Modi raj at all costs. They may have preferred the Gandhis back in the saddle but they were quite willing for anyone but Modi. On the morning of counting day, these worthies looked expectantly to BJP wickets falling one by one. They looked forward to resuming their control over Lutyens’ Delhi. Some were talking of the BJP being reduced to less than 10 seats in Uttar Pradesh.
It didn’t happen that way and the party hats for the Restoration had to be put aside for another day. The significance of May 30, 2020 is that these very same people now believe that COVID-19 has given them a chance to reacquire relevance, on the backs of popular misery. From 2014 to 2020, it is the same faces and the same forces trying to bring back the Old India that now exists only in the archives of YouTube.
The writer is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.