How satta bazaar influenced news coverage of Bihar polls

Most TV channels declared a decisive win for the BJP-led alliance based on data that 'came straight from the EC'.

 |  4-minute read |   09-11-2015
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At 9.20am, while news channels were showing NDA as leading, and some went on to say the alliance would cross 140, I tweeted:

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Fortunately, I had the advantage of a team of committed individuals directly updating me from where the counting was taking place. All of them were surprised with the results coming on TV, and it contradicted the feed coming to us.

So how did the news channels get it so horribly wrong until about 10am? The answer might shock you.

Everyone is aware that the "satta bazaar" was heavily in favour of the BJP. Until even a day before the results, bets continued to come in with the NDA clearly emerging as the favourite. I must confess, I have no vice, including gambling, but I was in touch with one of the big boys who run the show in the dark underworld of betting.

What happened between 8am and 9.30 to 9.45am, when every single national news channel said that the NDA was leading, was that the odds shifted at the bookmakers, to odds that put NDA plus can cross 140-150 seats. Like I said, I was in touch with only one guy, and from what he shared with me, in that period of about an hour-and-a-half, bets worth Rs 20-25 crore were placed at his "agency", mostly on the NDA.

Again, this was just one bookie and there are several thousand operating in Mumbai and thousands, if not more, in Gujarat. Imagine the volume of bets placed on the NDA in this period. If the person I know was claiming 20 crores, the figure across India must have easily surpassed a few thousand crores. It was in this period of 90 minutes that most of the bookies exited.

The logical question the reader would then ask is: Were the channels involved in this racket? The answer is no.

But just like spot fixing in cricket, it is possible for the big boys in Mumbai or Gujarat to break just a couple of journalists or stringers. Mind you, one doesn't need all the journalists for this, and most of those that I know personally are honest and would never indulge in something like this. But there are certain black sheep in every profession, and that's all that these "election spot fixers" want. They don't even require jounalists, even outsourced stringers can do.

We all know that journalists, in their haste to break news, often do not cross-check data, especially when it comes from a colleague, even if he or she works with another organisation. Therefore, it is possible that updates that were sent from the ground to the channels could have been unintentionally manipulated and wrong. Of course, I repeat, not all journalists sent wrong data on purpose to their stations, but it is worth pondering over how every news channel until almost 9.45am got the results horribly wrong, and almost all of them had the same data.

What is interesting to note is most channels said their data came straight from the Election Commission website, which never showed the kind of leads the channels gave the NDA. One senior editor on air even gave reasons on why Nitish Kumar was rejected, terming his mid-term resignation a "drama", while another veteran editor was praising Amit Shah as a master strategist, who learnt from BJP's Delhi defeat. By 10am, one channel was discussing the BJP-led government in Bihar. All this while the mahagathbandhan was gaining a decisive lead.

It is no secret that most of the bookies love the BJP. Could this mean that these operators - who mostly run from Mumbai and Gujarat - can also influence an exit poll? They don't need to "buy" all exit polls. But even if one poll can be managed, which is not difficult, and we saw a sting on that, it creates confusion and opportunities in their gambling business.

I would like to emphasise, it is not my case that every poll survey firm is available, that channels are corrupt, or that every journalist can be bribed. However, I go back to my spot fixing analogy, all you need are two or three people and in the haste to be the first to break news, it is possible to mislead organisations.

Interestingly, another high turnover in the "bazaar" was how many seats the BJP will get as the single largest party and does it cross the 100 and then the 110 mark. Again I found no channel reporting that the BJP was not going to be the biggest party until late into the counting.

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All channels must come together, self introspect and also work with the EC in framing guidelines so that the episode does not repeat. The EC sadly proved itself to be a toothless constitutional organisation in the face of a campaign filled with hate. Atleast now, post the elections, they can review the Bihar polls and lay down guidelines for both opinion and exit polls and ensure they are complied with during the election coverage.

I do not want any government interferance, all I am asking for as a viewer is channels themselves look at this aspect and work out regulations with the commission for transperancy.

Writer

Tehseen Poonawalla Tehseen Poonawalla @tehseenp

Tehseen Poonawalla is an entrepreneur, life coach and a student of Indian mythology.

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