It is not a good sign that, a day after one of the most important political developments of the year, entire newspaper columns are being devoted not to the news itself but the way it was covered and reported. NDTV's ridiculous decision to call the Bihar election in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party as early as 9 am on counting day will go down as one of the more befuddling moments in an election that had everything from tantriks to crackers in Pakistan.
In the evening on counting day, NDTV co-founder Dr Prannoy Roy came on television to explain how his channel managed to mess up so massively that it awarded the election to the side that had actually lost.
First, Roy apologised for getting the exit poll, done in conjuction with Hansa Research, wrong. The channel's poll had given 125 seats, a slight majority, to the BJP's alliance and 110 to the Grand Alliance. The final numbers ended up giving just 58 to the BJP alliance and 178 to the latter. This, however, was not seen as that big of an error – at least not relatively, because people rarely expect pollsters to be right in India.
Roy went on to explain the bigger error: Data that suggested the BJP and its allies were far ahead of the Grand Alliance and a decision at 9 am, an hour after counting had begun, to call the election in favour of the BJP.
"On every Counting Day, like today, all news channels get data from one agency... This morning, the first data that came in to all news channels was completely wrong. Our trend analysis was based on this data like it has been for 35 years – it's never been wrong so far," Prannoy Roy said.
Roy blamed the data, saying "all channels had to change their data halfway," and claimed that they have asked the agency for an explanation. (In fact, no other channel had decided to call the election in favour of either side, and CNN-IBN soon after was clearly showing a lead to the Grand Alliance).
"We apologise to you, our viewers, for the confusion that was caused," Roy said.
What he didn't however get into discussing was how the entire episode illustrated just how fatuous TV news analysis can sometimes be, because for that hour Roy's illustrious panel discussed exactly what had gone wrong with the Grand Alliance's tactics that had led to a BJP victory. After an hour of pontificating about how Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav had lost Bihar, the channel realised the error and went about discussing how essentially the opposite had been true.
"It was almost as if they were reporting on a bunfight in the Drones Club, not a election that had the country riveted, that actually meant something to the people watching television," wrote Mukul Kesavan. "Arguably the most experienced team of election pundits on television couldn't tell the difference between pundits not taking themselves too seriously and pundits not taking responsibility for bad data and facile, frictionless explanations."
That development, however, might not even end up as the most farcical of bad election calls this year. That prize might instead go to the closely watched pollster, Today's Chanakya, which tweeted an apology for getting its exit poll results wrong, claiming it simply mixed up the results of which alliance was up and which was down.