It Takes Three To Trend

‘With the dates for polls announced this week, sweaty anticipation and nervy excitement is sweeping the length and breadth of this politically sensitive State of Tamil Nadu’.

Huh! This is exactly the ‘intro’ I would have come up with if I were a political correspondent writing a piece on the impending elections in Tamil Nadu. Basically, saying with utmost confidence what the entirety of a State possibly feels without even stepping out of your cubicle is what political reporting is. Political journalism is all about — meta alert — making sweeping generalisations. Yeah, just like a humour column, but with even lesser facts.

You don’t have to believe me; just ask yourself the question when was the last time a political journalist got his/her predictions right. I can imagine some of you asking: ‘Didn’t most of them say Modi would win the last general elections?’ Hahahaha. That was the election which, without putting too fine a point on it, even your neighbourhood dog that spends most of its wakeful hours licking its private parts and barking at its own shadow, could have been spot on about. But even here the pollsters, the upgraded version of political reporters, the guys who are supposed to get you the actual numbers, didn’t quite pull it off.

But with pollsters you have to be conservative and set your bar a bit low. Last year, the NDTV poll team, with top journalists and specialists stationed across the State and in the studio, got it totally wrong after the official election numbers were actually out. That is right, they couldn’t read the figures in front of them, which is entirely acceptable if they were smoking weed till that point. Otherwise, it was such a monumental goof up that if it had happened in any other field they would have been out of the industry itself. But here in journalism we have different standards: We don’t have any.

But make no mistake about it, election-time reporting is actually fun and exciting because you have to go out on the field, and it involves what every journalist lives for: Expense account and travel allowance.

Ha. Ha. That is a mild, harmless jab at my own tribe. What I want to say is it is when you step out and interact with real people with real problems out there in the streets, as a journalist you get a real and honest perspective, which is people with real problems don’t care about your journalism or for that matter any journalism.

But as a true journalist you shouldn’t let small matters like truth hold you back, you must go out and diligently seek out people and your aim should be that you find at least three of them with fairly similar views, because in journalism — I suggest you write this down — ‘three’ represents the critical mass at which a trend or wave is taken to kick in.

For instance, in this TN polls, you go to a constituency and you meet three people who say they are going to vote for Karunanidhi’s party, you can extrapolate it to mean that there is a wave in favour of the DMK. On the other hand, you run into four guys who say that they will cast their lot with Jayalalithaa, you can assume she is spectacularly bucking the anti-incumbency wave. If five guys insist that they would likely vote for Vijayakanth, you must immediately deduce that they you are inside the DMDK office and in all probability speaking to Sudeesh and friends.

Anyway, for those asking from what authority I am giving out these pieces of info, well, my first-ever ‘assignment’ in journalism was a by-election in Mylapore in 1994. I don’t remember what necessitated that by-election. But if I recall right, I didn’t know even then why that election was happening.

Being my first-ever big reporting event, I was fully enthusiastic, and on a warm evening I made my way through the famed Maada Streets, and within minutes — you may call it beginner’s luck — I managed to find a good seat in the Karpagambal Mess, which in those days served top-class rava kesari and adai avial.

Food done, I ventured into the streets again, and bumped into a man standing in front of a bank, and after introducing myself, I asked him about the election and who will win, he said, ‘all politicians are cheats. Anyway, I will not be voting’. Curious as to what could be the problem, I asked him why, to which he gave a very sensible answer that has stayed with me all these days: ‘sir, I am from Bihar. I am just here on business’.

Another person I ran into tried to strike a deal with me: He said he will answer my question, if I answered his, which turned out to be: which is the shortest way to Kamadhenu Theatre? ‘My girl friend is waiting there,’ he said as he hurriedly left without answering my queries.

The third guy I pigeonholed turned out to be from the nearby Ramakrishna Mutt, and after patiently listening to my spiel, he took out a paper and pen and wrote out that he was on a mouna viratham that day.

Back in office, I began my piece, ‘[A]s you trudge through the confusion of the cross streets of Maada, you cannot help feel that it kind of reflects the mood of the voters, who seem decidedly undecided on whom to vote’. This I could do after speaking to people who were not even eligible to vote.

So you get the idea that I am a pro in making stuff up, which, in case you needed a reminder, is the core of political reporting. And this is exactly the kind of reports that you will be reading, including in this paper, all through this election because that is what the length and breadth of Tamil Nadu is waiting for.