Rajdeep Sardesai talks 2014, polling, and the present state of Indian politics


Rajdeep Sardesai is one of the most respected names in Indian journalism. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he worked as a print reporter for The Times of India, becoming Mumbai city editor at the age of 26 and covering the Mumbai riots in 1992-1993. In 1994, he moved to television at NDTV, working first as a reporter and then an anchor. At NDTV, his hosting of The Big Fight and coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots made him a household name. Sardesai then left NDTV to start his own company, Global Broadcast News, in collaboration with CNN and TV18. In 2005, Sardesai launched CNN-IBN, while serving as editor-in-chief of the IBN18 network that included CNN-IBN, IBN-7, and IBN-Lokmat. He left the IBN18 network in 2014, and is now a consulting editor for the India Today Group. He also anchors News Today at Nine every night on India Today. Sardesai has won numerous awards for journalistic excellence.

Last year, Sardesai published a best-selling book on the 2014 Lok Sabha elections,  2014: The Election That Changed India. After reading and reviewing his work, I met Sardesai at his South Delhi residence yesterday to talk about the book, the meaning of the 2014 elections, media coverage of opinion polls, and the present state of Indian politics. The transcript of the conversation below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The 2014 Lok Sabha elections

Sam Solomon: One of the things I liked the most about the book was that, well, I followed the elections from the United States and it seemed to me that there was this huge Modi / BJP wave that just came out of nowhere and took the country by storm. That’s how I saw it as an observer looking through foreign media. What I liked about your book was how it very much contextualized the election and walked the reader through the many different challenges, scandals, and civil uprisings that the UPA-II government faced. I was left with a comparison of the 2014 Indian elections and the 2008 US election in that both had charismatic figures who were able to capitalize on a very unpopular government–in the United States, it was the Bush administration, of course. How much do you think that 2014 was a vote and mandate for the BJP and Modi versus a rejection of Congress and UPA-II?

Rajdeep Sardesai: Every election — and I think you put it well — has to be seen in a particular context, and the times in which you live in. The 2014 election therefore must be seen in the context of the period from 2009 to 2014, the last five years of the Manmohan Singh government.

Waves don’t happen overnight. They build over time. So five years of frustration with a slow economy, seemingly mass corruption — or at least high-level corruption, a leadership that was seen as weak, created an environment where Indians were hankering for change. And change reflected in various ways. There was the political anxiety over the lack of leadership. There was a sense of economic anxiety over the fact that the economy was tanking and inflation was double-digit. Jobs were not being created. And there was a cultural anxiety about the fact that this notion of Indian nationhood was in some sense of stress. And I think all of this combined to build a certain anger towards the Congress.

And then people were looking for alternatives. Along comes Narendra Modi who promises a four-letter word called “hope,” which reflects in his muscular leadership — saying, “I’m going to be a strong leader. I’m going to fix this system.” — and who promises a return to better days when it comes to the economy, acche din, as he called it; and also promises to address the cultural identity and emotions of nationhood and religion and culture by wearing his Hindu identity in a sense on his sleeve. The combination of all this meant that an alternative had been created to fill the vacuum of, or provide some kind of a response to this urging for change.

So to answer your question I think the primary impulse was the desire for change to get the Congress out. And then there was a secondary impulse which saw Narendra Modi as the right person to in a sense symbolize that change. And when the two coalesced, it created a wave. So you had ripples, you had anger and hope coming together, and throwing up a wave.

SS: You mentioned the political anxiety because of leadership issues within Congress. You mentioned economic anxieties because of inflation. But you also mention cultural anxieties in the sense that the cultural identity of India was under stress. I’d like you to expand on that, because that’s something that I’m not as familiar with, coming from–

RS: The cultural identity?

SS: Yes.

RS: I think what has happened in recent years is that there is a sense among young Indians — and old, but largely among young Indians — of rootlessness in that we’ve lost touch with our traditions. While we embrace modernity and we embrace the New World, are we losing touch with the old? There’s a feeling of a need to reconnect to our past and at the same time to assert the idea of a proud India. A sense of national pride is missing. So, a sense of national pride missing, plus a sense of rootlessness in that what happened to our great Indian traditions?

Modi appeals to those who feel that way, because he talks about the idea of reviving our traditions, be it yoga, be it our spiritual traditions, be it our villages’ traditions. And underlying it there is a certain sense that the Muslim out there, the Indian Muslim, in some ways is responsible for our fate. I think there is that. It’s an undercurrent. And Mr. Modi was conscious not to keep it in– I think he realized that if he tried to push that too aggressively, it might alienate some people, particularly the middle class and those on the fence. So it was an underlying theme through this campaign of playing what you would call “soft Hindutva.” You invoke national pride from time to time in your spiritual tradition. That was one part of it.

The other part, to be fair to the man, was his notion of good governance and providing a sense of economic revival using the so-called “Gujarat model.” So I think both these processes were taking place parallelly. There’s one process which is looking at the cultural regeneration of Indian society and the other is looking at whether we will be an economic superpower. So you promise Indians that a) we will become an economic superpower, and b) you promise them that you’re going to revive national pride in the idea of India as a strong, to some extent Hindu, nation, but not say the word [“Hindu”].

We’re a young country. We’re a country where a very large part of the population is below the age of 30, 35. This India is impatient for change. Modi tapped into that sense of impatience in this election. Change of all kinds: political, cultural, economic. “Let’s get rid of the old order. The Nehru-Gandhi family represents the old order. Let’s project a new India.”

On the present state of Indian politics

SS: Another thing I liked about the book — I’ve volunteered for a number of political campaigns, and you really get a sense of how masterful [BJP President] Amit Shah and the BJP team were at projecting a certain image and organizing a campaign and a movement within India in 2014.

A Pew Research Center study came out in this last week that showed that Prime Minister Modi is still very popular. Now that the 2014 election and that movement for change is a year and a half behind us, why do you think it is that Modi retains such high levels of popularity?

RS: You know, [psephologist and politician] Yogendra Yadav, who you might have met, or–

SS: I’ve been trying to meet him.

RS: He puts it well. You could maybe find a US analogy to this. When your political landscape is filled with dwarves, then even someone who’s reasonably strong appears like Superman. That’s exacting what’s happening.

Just look at the opposition. They lack credibility. They lack maturity. They don’t really symbolize any positive feeling.

Modi symbolizes a sense of positive change, positivity. That’s something that is his big calling card. You’ve got to give him credit for that. He’s a terrific communicator. He’s very good with mass media. We are in the age of media.

Look on the other side. There isn’t a single speaker on the other side who comes close to matching Modi’s demagoguery. There isn’t a single person who seems to have this energy at the moment. And all that means that naturally he appears as– If there’s a figure of reasonably comparable quality, I think you might have different figures to what you saw.

Remember also Pew was largely an urban sample. And urban India is particularly attracted to this idea of a mass communicator, who is reaching out to them constantly. I think that’s Modi’s great strength.

SS: In your epilogue, you talked a lot about the need within Congress to do some soul-searching, and how the party’s attachment to the Nehru-Gandhi family now might be holding the party back from doing better at the national level. If the 2014 elections weren’t enough of a signal for the party to do that, then what would it take for the Congress party to actually restructure, reconsider their leadership, and be less of a dynastic party?

RS: A very good question to which really one doesn’t have an answer beyond saying that every political party, I think, has to reinvent itself at some points. The problem with the Congress party is that in the last twenty-five years, thirty years, I mean… We could go back to when Congress was split when Indira Gandhi takes over in ‘69, and since then it’s been a family-run party. That’s what? Forty-six years, with one small interregnum when Narasimha Rao was prime minister for about seven or eight years.

Now, family-run parties in today’s India are going to find it more and more difficult to connect with younger voters. Younger India is driven by meritocracy, more than anything. You cannot simply ask for votes because, “My father and my grandfather was Prime Minister.” The problem with the Congress Party is that because it’s been there for so long, there are no internal democratic structures for it to reinvent itself.

I believe, therefore, that frankly the Congress party’s only hope is for it to, in a sense, either wither away completely, and we get a new kind of party, which is unlikely. Or the Congress party decides that [they] will allow — but that’s not going to happen, really — a decentralized Congress party which empowers state leaders in a country as diverse as ours.

SS: You’re saying that’s not going to happen. You don’t think–

RS: I don’t think it’s going to happen because I think the party will fragment. My sense is that the Congress party over time will start fragmenting, if it continues like this. Because either it reinvents, which it is finding more and more difficult because it lacks the internal democratic structures to reinvent itself, or it withers away.

My larger-parted analysis is that all great Indian empires have lasted 50 to 75 years. The great rulers of the Mughals, from Akbar to Aurangzeb, were about 80 to 90 years. But largely 50 to 75 years is the general duration of the great Indian empires, the Mauryans and the Guptas. Two or three great kings. I think the Congress party has really exhausted its period.

To my mind, the party as it was is over. It will still remain simply because it’s been there for long, so therefore there will be remnants of it all over the country. But as the strongest national party? That’s over. That’s over, because you cannot be a family-run party and sustain it over a long period of time. Unless you are able to throw up a family leader who is truly visionary, who is truly someone who has been lifted by their bootstraps. And Rahul Gandhi has shown no potential to do that. So he is like the last emperor of a dying kingdom.

In other words, you’re right. If 44 seats [the number won by Congress in the Lok Sabha elections last year, a historic low] couldn’t wake them up, then nothing else will.

SS: What about losing in Bihar?

RS: You see, so therefore now the only option, really, is what has happened in Bihar is going to be the national model. You try and combat Modi’s chemistry with arithmetic. All his opponents come together in some form and combat the chemistry that Modi has. So he’s neta number one, he’s the leader number one, and all of you are trying to combat that neta number one. That’s your only hope.

SS: But do you think that will work in the context of Bihar?

RS: In the context of Bihar, it’s a 50-50 battle at the moment. I still give the edge to the BJP because I think, much like in the 2014 general election, there’s a mood for change. And Modi represents change in Bihar. [RJD leader and former Bihar chief minister] Lalu and [JD(U) leader and present Bihar chief minister] Nitish have been in Bihar for 25 years. That’s a lot of time.

SS: Although admittedly the BJP was in coalition with–

RS: But in the public imagination, these are the two rulers who have been ruling us for twenty-five years. “I want change.”

Out of the 17.5 crore [175 million] voters, 3.5 crore voters are under the age of 25 (sic). [Lokniti colleague] Shreyas may have better figures than me [Bihar’s electorate has 6.7 crore voters, and 1.7 crore are between 18 and 29]. But that’s about 20% of your electorate. And that 20% has seen nothing but Nitish and Lalu, and they want to see something new, not connected with Lalu. So I think that will be the game-changer.

SS: Another development that happened after you wrote the epilogue for the book related to the opposition discussion we’re having here was the victory of AAP [the Aam Adami Party] in early 2015 [in the Delhi state elections].

RS: I’ve actually got a new epilogue.

SS: Oh, you do?

RS: In the paperback. You can pick up the paperback. It’s a small paperback. The paperback has a new epilogue. Yeah, the victory of AAP.

SS: Ok, so since I haven’t read that epilogue, what do you make of that victory? Do you see that as a Delhi-specific phenomenon? Do you see AAP as being able to project itself beyond Delhi and become the main opposition party to the BJP?

RS: The best way to put it is if you see the Aam Adami phenomenon as a national phenomenon based on the Delhi elections, you will be horribly wrong. But if you see the Aam Adami Party phenomemon as purely a Delhi phenomenon which has absolutely no national resonance, you will be equally wrong.

So therefore you’ve got to look at it this way. The Aam Adami Party won the elections because they understood, they were able to capture this mood for hope and change in Delhi better than the other side. [AAP party leader] Kejriwal was a change agent for Delhi. He’s not a change agent for India. Not at least at the moment.

Delhi’s demographics suited him: large migrant population, large population that lives below poverty line and just above it, living in slum clusters. Plus, the middle class likes the idea that he was seen as an anti-corruption crusader and thereby were ready to give him one chance. A combination of strong middle class support and strong underclass support, plus the minorities and the traditional Congress groups saw him as the principal opponent to the BJP. All of which gave him his advantage.

And that’s not going to happen nationally. Nationally you need a stronger organization. You need a network. You can’t just work on your leadership. The Aam Adami Party’s network is principally confined to Delhi. So that explains my first point that it is at one level principally a Delhi phenomenon.

However, it also suggests the limitations of Brand Modi, or the Modi-Amit Shah style of governance. It shows that at the end of the day, yes, you [Modi] are India’s neta number one, but you also have to have a certain region-specific or city-specific politics which will endear you to the electorate. So for a state election like Bihar, simply relying on Modi’s charisma as the BJP is relying on it at the moment may not be enough. That’s why I said it’s 50/50 at the moment, because, yes, Mr. Modi is the most popular leader, even in Bihar. He was perhaps the most popular leader even in Delhi. But when it came to making it a chief ministerial contest — who do you want as your chief minister for Delhi? —  Kejriwal scored. And now in Bihar that’s the politics that Nitish is playing. “Modi at the end of the day is there in Delhi. We’re the guys here. I’m the chief minister.” Nitish has a lot of good will. The people do see him as someone who’s attempted change. Change in Bihar is… This is an ancient land that will take years to transform itself. It’s been left behind in the last forty years.

So I think therefore that Delhi showed the limitations at one level of the Modi-Amit Shah juggernaut, while at the same time it also should be principally seen, in terms of the political victory of Kejriwal, as a Delhi phenomenon. If he tries to now suddenly charm the people across the country, it’s not going to happen.

On polling in India

SS: Moving to the topic of polling, one of the other things I liked about your book is that it talks about changes in media over your career in journalism since you started at Times of India. You talk about how television journalism has changed. What I’m interested in looking at is how media coverage in general has changed regarding opinion polling during that time.

RS: Media coverage of polling. The interesting thing is that there has been this great debate in India over whether polls influence elections. And this eventually led to the banning of exit polls during the multi-phase elections.

Polling has gone through various stages. When we first started it, and particularly in the 80s and 90s, there were just one or two polling agencies. NDTV would do a poll. Someone else would do a poll. There wasn’t this maddening competition. As a result, there was a great deal of excitement when there was this one big poll that was going to come out, or two big polls. There was excitement. And at the same time I think there was a certain credibility associated with it. And this continued through the early 90s as well.

I think from the mid-90s, as television started growing, television channels felt the imperative, particularly in the last ten years, the imperative that every channel must have a poll. Every channel must hire a polling agency. Every channel must do their own research. So you suddenly had a multiplicity of polls in India.

With multiplicity of polls coming out, with conflicts in numbers, numbers often going off the mark, a certain skepticism set in. When most channels and most polls got 2004 wrong — they could not predict the Congress revival and the BJP decline — the skepticism and cynicism seemed to be confirmed. Until then, generally, most polls got national polls more or less right. State polls we could get wrong, particularly in Tamil Nadu, which was a difficult state to poll. But 2004, the numbers didn’t quite tally.

I think a certain skepticism has set in since then which has only been accentuated because the number of polls have increased, the quality of polling has declined, and therefore even the rest of the media now, the non-TV media, doesn’t treat polls as seriously as they did, say, ten years ago.

But TV media continues to treat them as a big event. It’s now become an event. “Let’s do it for five hours! Let’s bring in guests and build it up!” It’s become like a tamasha, which is an Indian word for some sort of massive event. So it’s become a television event, because you hope that people will watch you on that day because Indians have a great interest in numbers. As a people, we like to know numbers.

Let’s be honest. In the era before polling, you would measure public opinion by going to the local vendor, local taxi wallah, and you didn’t really know what was happening. It’s not as if those in the 70s were able to predict Indira Gandhi’s rout in ‘77, for example. There were no opinion polls, and even all the political pundits who said Mrs. Gandhi would return were wrong. So we’ve never had an accurate barometer to measure public opinion in this country. In the 80s and 90s, polling gave a certain scientific basis to it.

However, what the public was demanding after a while was, “I’m not just interested in the science of polling. I want the exact number.”

SS: And the seat number, not the vote number.

RS: Yes. If you give me 120, and actually someone gets 110 or 130, I’ll say you’re wrong. So the public converted polling into a mad sum. And partly we also did so by putting so much pressure on ourselves, by making this this big event. “We’re going to give you the right numbers! This is where you’ve got to come to know who’s winning and who’s losing!” And in a country as unpredictable as India, that was a dangerous game to play.

I think we’ve suffered a bit as a result and therefore the media coverage, as I said, has become a little skeptical. Because people feel that at the end of the day, these guys are just gambling with the numbers. They don’t really know. And the unfortunate part as a result is the scientific– It provides you a sort of mirror. Mirror’s the wrong word. It provides you a broad brush of what could happen, and the underlying trends. But nobody’s interested in those anymore. The trends that are emerging, where are the young voting, caste dynamics, all these elements that CSDS [the Center for the Study of Developing Societies], for example, focuses on. The public out there are not interested. The public wants that one number.

SS: They want to know who’s going to win.

RS: Not just who’s going to win. What’s the number?

SS: I’ve been talking to different people about polling in India, and something that I keep hearing is a lack of transparency regarding survey methodology. This was mentioned in the “Spot On” article in Caravan two years ago, but also in a lot of Yogendra Yadav’s commentary. Regarding this lack of transparency, do you think that the fault lies more with pollsters, with media that doesn’t ask for greater transparency among pollsters, or with the public audience consuming these polls?

RS: I think it primarily lies with the pollsters and the companies that hire pollsters. You hire pollsters, pay them money, just to ask them to give you a number. You don’t ask about methodology. There’s no rigor. The absence of rigor on the part of pollsters and the part of the companies who are hiring pollsters is the problem.

Why blame the viewer? The viewer wants a number, yes. But he’s not telling you not to have a rigorous polling exercise.

People want to cut corners. I know pollsters in this country who say, “We give you the numbers.” But they won’t tell me what is their polling sample, what is the unique way– Today’s Chanakya, for example, who got one election right last year and suddenly believes he’s the Oracle. He doesn’t reveal to me his methodology or the sample size.

Now there’s another view to put out the raw sample and make public the data. Now, no pollster puts out the raw sample and makes public the data, but the likes of Arvind Kejriwal and Aam Adami Party want you to put out the raw sample and public data.

So what I think is needed is much like in the US or the UK. You need a uniform standards authority, which makes it compulsory to have disclosure of your basic methodology, and then allows for verification of that. If you don’t do that, then you’ve got fly-by-night operators who will simply give you numbers. It’s become a numbers game, not a methodologically rigorous exercise.

SS: Presently in India, there is no so such authority?

RS: There is nothing. Absolutely nothing. The Election Commission should be the one which should be looking to set up such an authority.

Who knows? Opinion polls can be bought now by political parties in this country, because you’ve got political parties that hire pollsters, in any case to do internal polls. And some of those internal polls are then leaked out and carried out as independent exercises.

On social media and politics

SS: My last question is related to the role of the Internet and social media in Indian media. This is something I’ve read a lot about in the United States. The Obama administration has been trying to go around the traditional routes of media by posting speeches and delivering big news items through Facebook feeds, Twitter feeds, YouTube videos on the White House page. Is there a similar phenomenon in Indian media where Internet and social media have changed the balance of power between media and politicians?

RS: I think it’s interesting to look at the role of social media. And Narendra Modi, in this election — I write about it — his team used social media remarkably intelligently to try and reach out to the younger Indian, particularly the younger urban audience. More importantly, to try to set the terms of the agenda for the debate. Because with social media you can do one-way communications. Put out your speeches, put out your thoughts, no need to respond. And he was able to do that.

And a lot of politicians are now starting to do that. So I get calls from Nitish Kumar’s office saying, “Would you like to do a Twitter interview with the Chief Minister?” I couldn’t have imagined for the hell of it that the Chief Minister of Bihar would want to do an interview on Twitter. “Can you guys organize a Twitter interview with the Chief Minister? Would your organization like to do one?”

In the last election in Maharashtra, the Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan had a social media team which was putting out all his speeches. He lost. So again, it showed the limits. At the end of the day, social media is not going to win or lose elections in a country as vast and diverse as India. What it can do is amplify some of the surround sound. Mr. Modi was very successful in doing that. But the fact is he was still winning. So I don’t think that social media is going to be the space where you win or lose elections. But social media is the place where you can amplify your voice. And that’s going to happen more and more. There will be more micro-messaging. There will be even leaders like Nitish Kumar from the old school who are willing to take Twitter questions.

SS: So you would say then that it’s changed the nature of your work in that now you’re getting requests to do interviews with people over Twitter. What I’m interested in is how social media and Internet, not just how it’s changed politics, but the way politics is covered, the way the public understands politics, the way the media talks about politics.

RS: I think it does. It reduces a lot of serious political issues to 140 characters. It’s only vitiated the atmosphere in terms of making it “them versus us,” much more polarized. On Twitter or on Facebook, you’re supposed to take a stand. You’re not supposed to talk in shades of gray. You either hate Modi or love him. You either hate Rahul, as most do, or love him. So I think that’s what it’s done. Social media has polarized the politics of this country even further, and reduced a lot of it to idle chatter at times.

That’s unfortunate. Having said that, the sheer magnitude of a country of this size means that eventually there is a public debate which takes place at different levels. So there will be a debate at the level of social media and there will be other debates taking place in other spaces. How much does one influence the other is an interesting question. TV still remains a major space to do debate.

But to give you an example, I wrote a column four days ago, an open letter to the Chief Minister of Maharashtra. He replied yesterday on the same column space in The Hindustan Times and in a Marathi paper. Immediately it becomes the top trend yesterday on Twitter, #DevendraSlapsRajdeep on Twitter. So his supporters put it on Twitter.

Now I’ve written a reply to his reply. So it’s print media and social media working together. I do a television debate tomorrow, that will also become the subject of chatter on social media.

So in Indian media, there’s a greater interlinking of media. There’s too much of media, frankly. And in all the noise, whoever captures the noise captures the media space. Does he win the election as a result? Questionable. I mean, whether Nitish or Lalu wins in Bihar will depend not on how they perform on social media, or TV media also. It’s about whether Bihar wants change or not.

SS: Thank you very much.


3 thoughts on “Rajdeep Sardesai talks 2014, polling, and the present state of Indian politics

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