Long before India became ideologically polarised and social media spawned – to use Benedict Anderson’s term – an “imagined community”, as generous with its plaudits as it is nasty with its jeers, reporting on elections was an exhilarating experience. Reporters captured the mood, the colour and vibrancy of election campaigns, and even though we did not always explicitly predict the eventual winner, from our reports, any intelligent reader could sense the party we were betting on to get a majority.

Reporters did not feel the pressure if we got an election wrong. This was because we knew nobody would accuse us of wearing ideological glasses that fogged up the political reality depicted in our reports.

Reporters were forgiven for getting an election wrong. It is not so now.

Now reporters are asked why they used the word “edge” and not “wave”, as so many today are asking of journalists who failed to predict that the Bharatiya Janata Party would cross the 300-seat mark in Uttar Pradesh in the recently-concluded elections. There is no room for nuance. In either the first or last line, reporters must declare who they think is the winner. The rest doesn’t matter.

Under pressure

The ensuing pressure has prompted journalists to justify their reporting in the manner of lawyers defending impossible briefs. This is why those journalists who said there was a surge in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party but one party or the other was stopping it, or that the saffron party was ahead of others, have taken to preening before the imagined community of social media, whose members have lavished praise on their prescience.

But do the terms “surge” or “ahead” convey the sense of an overwhelming victory that was the Bharatiya Janata Party’s in Uttar Pradesh? I think not.

TV anchor Rajdeep Sardesai was brave to risk “forecasting a likely BJP win in Uttar Pradesh”. But the term “likely win” doesn’t imply a sweep, does it? However, Sardesai did say that “in a seemingly ‘wave-less’ election where 403 constituencies are witnessing fierce competition almost everywhere…there is a reason to believe that lotus is poised to bloom” in Uttar Pradesh.

Does the word “bloom” imply a thumping victory? It does.

But bloom is also often used in headlines whenever the Bharatiya Janata Party wins a state, particularly after a hiatus, as has been the case with the party in Uttar Pradesh. Did Sardesai see a wave but preferred to play it safe? Or is a wave impossible to discern in a state witnessing a fierce triangular contest?

Such confusion is partly because of the pressure from the imagined community of social media where hounds will snarl, lampoon and troll journalists. If a reporter calls the election in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party and it loses, as it did in Bihar and Delhi for instance, the reporter is labeled a “chaddi”, a term coined so because members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological mentor, used to wear khaki shorts not too long ago.

If the reporter’s copy depicts the saffron brigade slipping or caught in a tight contest, but the BJP goes on to win handsomely, the reporter will be shamed and accused of letting their secular-liberal or communist ideology blind them.

The divide in the journalist fraternity dates to 1990. It was the year in which BJP leader LK Advani clambered onto a rath in the hope of mustering support for a Ram mandir in Ayodhya. His journey had been preceded by Prime Minister VP Singh introducing affirmative action for Other Backward Classes. The fury of the debate split journalists.

But this ideological divide in the media became unbridgeable in 2002. That’s when it became kosher to accuse colleagues of ideological biases in reporting, or suspect them of promoting political agendas through their copies. Here is a personal account, which is likely to tell readers why, and how, the tide in the media turned.

LK Advani's rath yatra in 1990 was when opinion about journalists first began to be polarised.

The Outlook dilemma

Before the 2002 Gujarat Assembly elections, the late editor of Outlook magazine, Vinod Mehta, was faced with a dilemma: should he drop an opinion poll predicting a victory for the Congress over the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose campaign Narendra Modi, then the chief minister, was spearheading?

Mehta believed, as so many others did too, that Modi had deliberately let the Gujarat riots of 2002 teeter out of control. Though Mehta was not particularly displeased at the opinion poll’s prediction, he was acutely aware of his own ideological inclination. He neither wanted egg on his face nor did he want to besmirch Outlook’s reputation. There was also the irresistible lure of the poll turning out to be bang-on.

So Mehta called Outlook’s correspondent in Gujarat, Darshan Desai, to ask him what he thought of the opinion poll’s findings. Desai said that he was filing a report to the contrary – that the Congress was facing defeat.

To carry or not to carry the opinion poll, that was the question thrown up for discussion at the editorial meeting in which I too was a participant. Perhaps never before had an opinion poll on a state election been discussed before in such detail in Outlook.

Someone asked: “Why should we be afraid of getting the Gujarat elections wrong? Pollsters, after all, are not infallible. Their predictions often go awry.” That decided it for Mehta – both the opinion poll and Desai’s report were featured in the same edition of Outlook.

Once the election results were announced we were ridiculed – letters poured in lambasting Outlook for being anti-Hindu, pro-Muslim, anti-Modi, pro-Congress and so on.

But the cruelest cut was to come a little later. An account of it is in the book, Off The Record: Untold Stories from the Reporter’s Diary, whose author Ajith Pillai was the Outlook bureau chief at that time.

Pillai wrote that when Modi was asked to explain his incredible victory, he advised journalists to direct their query to Outlook as it knows “everything about elections”.

The journalistic fraternity in Gujarat picked on Desai. He was taunted and jeered at, his story predicting Modi’s victory conveniently forgotten. Finding the journalistic environment suffocating, Desai moved to Lucknow. This, at a time Twitter wasn’t around, and Facebook was still two years away from making its debut.

Arvind Kejriwal celebrates the Aam Aadmi Party victory in the Delhi elections in February, 2015. Photo: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

These social media platforms are now integral to our lives, as is Modi. Have so many journalists been quick to confess to their mistake of not having read the wave in favour of the BJP to avoid being humiliated on social media? Behind this phenomenon, the cult of Modi is a decisive factor, operating subconsciously.

After all, journalists did not atone even though there was near unanimity among them that the Aam Aadmi Party would get a seat or two, not 28, in the 2013 Delhi Assembly elections. Just how many of us thought that the political fledgling would bag 67 seats in 2015?

To have missed out on the wave in Delhi was perhaps worse than not spotting one in Uttar Pradesh. Delhi is home to journalists, and yet they were found to be woefully disconnected from its people. Was it because of their elitism, their biases? Nobody asked them that.

Unfortunately, and unfairly, those who did not discern a wave in Uttar Pradesh will be condemned for lacking in objectivity, regardless of their past records on getting many elections rights. Outlook ran the Radia tapes and eroded, to an extent, the Manmohan Singh government’s credibility. Yet for most BJP leaders and supporters, Vinod Mehta remained as one who was incapable of seeing, and writing on, the misdeeds of the Congress.

Getting an election wrong is not a commentary on a reporter’s poor journalistic skills. There are just too many imponderable factors at work. For instance, when does a wave surface in an election, three weeks before or just 72 hours before polling? Much depends on where journalists have travelled and when.

Last-minute changes

I know two journalists who travelled to West Uttar Pradesh at two separate points of time. Call them A and B. They know each other. A visited West Uttar Pradesh a good three weeks before it voted in the first round of the seven-phase elections – and did not think that the BJP had an edge there.

A’s taxi driver, a Yadav boasting of a network of friends in Uttar Pradesh, took B to West Uttar Pradesh after the voting was over there. He told B that A would get it wrong because the voting pattern did not proceed as it had seemed it would three weeks earlier. There were apparently last-minutes changes in the preferences of different social groups, a feature quite common in North India, largely on account of communal polarisation.

The imagined community of social media will not take such factors into account. The hardline nationalist in the imagined community of India has few yardsticks to judge one’s nationalistic fervour – for instance, do you stand every time the national anthem is sung?

The unforgiving sentinel in social media has just one way to judge a journalist’s objectivity – did the journalist call an election in favour of the BJP, which ultimately won? But objectivity does not become an issue for such sentinels if a journalist’s predictions of a BJP victory are proved wrong, as happened in Bihar and Delhi.

Terrified, a fair number of journalists have told me that they would ensure that their reports during the next elections don’t convey even a hint of who might be the eventual winner.

The next Assembly election is in Gujarat. Would anyone be willing to do a Vinod Mehta? I think not. Gujarat is Modi’s home state. We journalists will prefer to err on the side of Modi as the cost of doing so is negligible. Nobody would accuse us of biases or of lacking in objectivity if we do so.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.