UP: Move Over Pollsters! The New Political Surrogates Are Journalists In The Battle For Perceptions!

Saturday, February 25, 2017

You usually can’t win a political campaign without momentum. With momentum, campaigns roll to victory, without it, they linger into defeat. So unless campaigns have a comprehensive plan to gain momentum, aiming their tools and strategy toward building this indispensable lifeblood of politics, it is difficult to attain victory. 

So what’s momentum? In physics, momentum is the product of velocity and mass. In politics, it's much harder to precisely define. But a dictionary meaning is “an impetus gained by a moving object” which could be easily applied to a political campaign. 

One very effective way to give your campaign momentum is to invent something “new”: a word or phrase, an image, a concept or idea. This tactic is extremely effective because it makes your message worth talking about, makes your candidate or party instantly identifiable, and makes sure that your activists can not only convey your message quickly, but are motivated to do it well. 

So the SP family feud followed up with the inking of the alliance with the Congress and the declaration of aiming for 300 plus seats viz a wave in their favour instantaneously gave the Alliance huge momentum. In 2014, the Alliance registered 30% vote share whereas to win in a three cornered contest what is minimal required is roughly 33-34%, and depending what vote share the runner-up trails behind, 35-36% look suffice to whip up a Tsunami Wave and the target of 300+ seats look very doable. So the momentum strategy gave SP a dream start over rest of the field.

In contrast, Mayawati and BSP had little new to offer and hence this tactic of aiming for momentum play for them was the hardest to pull off. In 2014, they registered a tad less than 20% and to reach a 34-36% vote share threshold, leave alone momentum play but what they really required was a Wave of Tsunami proportion in their favour to win UP outright. Without any momentum play, leave alone a Tsunami Wave, BSP accordingly had absolutely no chance to win and their best hope now is a hung house where they could play kingmakers with their seat numbers.

BJP on the other hand faced dissipation of the Modi Wave that even their party members admit could be in the range of double digits. This is momentum play in reverse viz negative momentum. When you face negative momentum of a double digit magnitude, it is like falling off a cliff where force of gravity can pull you down to depths you hardly have any control over. But what stood to BJP’s advantage was their high vote share base – 43.5% in 2014. They needed now an effective crutch to arrest their momentum fall. BJP had hoped demonetisation would be such a crutch that would limit their decline to at least 10% and that would ensure a neck-to-neck race with the alliance, if not suffice to squeak through a narrow win. Unfortunately for them demonetisation turned out a damp squib. They discovered to their horror that instead public dissatisfaction with demonetisation was so widespread that they were forced to drop all reference to it in their campaign. With no other option, they had to turn back to their time tested formula of communal polarisation. However, from ground reports it looks apparent that UP is not lending itself to communal polarisation to the degree it did in 2014 Lok Sabha elections viz the impact of communal polarisation is extremely feeble though apparently polarisation had some impact on stemming the slide they were facing. 

Traditionally pre-polls and exit polls provide insights to momentum shifts during different phases of polling. During Phase 1&2, the ban on exit polls largely cut-off such insights. Besides, public confidence on the neutrality of polling agencies is at an all time low. The vacuum was filled by social media and to an extent mass media that suggested the Alliance Juggernaut was moving smoothly as per expectations. Then out of the blue, the controversy of the Jagran telecast of exit polls exploded and with the arrest and cases foisted on the editors, the circulation of leaked exit poll data, whether fake or genuine, commentaries of performance of different parties just quickly dropped off. 

Jagran being a pro BJP media, the whole incident is being increasingly suspected to be orchestrated by BJP. Why? The effect of the arrests caused commentaries in social and mass media to be now much more guarded and coded. At the same time, the journals of journalists on the campaign trail now began to occupy the centre stage. The battle of perception is one of conditioning minds and in turn, conditioning voter choices. As one article observed:

“Starting from western UP, moving through Rohelkhand, central UP and then Bundelkhand; as elections move east with three phases of voting still to take place, perceptions are being constantly made and broken. And in a scenario of a clear triangular fight between the BJP, BSP, and SP-Congress alliance, it's this perception that can make a crucial difference. 

Leaders, therefore, get more aggressive and more desperate in their statements. Strategies are being revisited, reinvented or discarded to keep perception in their favour. ‎As a senior BJP leader says, "Election is also about perception and mind games. And we address it quiet seriously."

So begun with Phase 3 what we saw was a radical shift in the headlines and narratives of journalists that sometimes even diametrically contradicting their earlier reports with many questioning whether what are published are indeed paid news.  We have however taken some headlines at random and try to decode what it really says and discern possible intentions.

1. “No one is sure which way the wind is blowing in the ongoing Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections; The electorate seem confused and silent”; 403 Separate Battles Will Decide Assembly Elections

Obviously none of the journalists visited all 403 constituencies. They are stating the obvious - every state election is an aggregation of the constituency battles. So what is new in such headlines? The challenge of journalists on the election trail is to extrapolate the individual micro level trends of their constituency level visits to an understanding of macro trends. Journalists have just publicly admitted that they fail to have these skills.

More significantly, after this candid admission, why should anyone take their prognostics, whether one party is increasing or decreasing momentum, others faltering or getting their act right, etc  

2. “Some reflections on election reportage - and capturing the uncertainty on the ground”;

All predictions factor inherently have to deal with uncertainties. The challenge is to hit the bullseye despite this. Instead we find journalists choosing to complain about it not to reassure us of the methods they adopted to reduce these uncertainties.

3. “Mayawati & BSP vote is under-estimated, a dark horse” 

As one media observed "The strategy adopted was to divide non-BJP votebank and galvanise party support. So, while the BJP claimed the fight was against the BSP in phase 2, it was Samajwadi Party-Congress in phase 3 and BSP again in phase 4. The strategy was to weaken the real challenger by pitting one against the other."

Accordingly, the intention appears to erase away the perception that it is a one horse (Alliance) race and thereby replacing it.

4. “The Akhilesh Yadav campaign is losing steam.. This election remains an open game but for now, I see the BJP inching ahead of SP-Congress”

This is a tacit admission that Alliance was ahead and suggests it lost “momentum” opening up the game. The question is how much was the Alliance ahead and how much steam have they lost in more quantifiable terms? If 35% is the threshold one needs to cross, then the Alliance should have been at or greater than this threshold at some point of time. BJP is clearly at one point of time below it.

Regarding momentum, Nate SilverUs based  legendary pollster writes:

” When people say a particular candidate has momentum, what they are implying is that present trends are likely to perpetuate themselves into the future. Say, for instance, that a candidate trailed by 10 points in a poll three weeks ago — and now a new poll comes out showing the candidate down by just 5 points. It will frequently be said that this candidate “has the momentum”, “is gaining ground,” “is closing his deficit,” or something similar.

Each of these phrases is in the present tense. They create the impression that — if the candidate has gone from being 10 points down to 5 points down, then by next week, he’ll have closed his deficit further: perhaps he’ll even be ahead!

There’s just one problem with this. It has no particular tendency toward being true... We can look at a pretty chart, and see the lines converging toward one another: our brains tend to assume that they are eventually bound to cross. But at least as often, they do not. And a candidate’s ‘momentum’ proves to be ephemeral”

5. “There's more Hindu-Muslim polarisation on TV than on the ground.”

Polarisation effect is over rated

6. “The thing with such talk is you never know who's spreading it and why. It's fictional sometimes, often exaggerated, occasionally true”

When it is election reporting, we get more noise and disinformation and rarely the truth. Never take media or journalists at face value. Most of the time, their reports are agenda driven.

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