Another Election, Another Estimation (Psephology Phwrrr!)

Those were simpler days in psephology. Exit polls did not hold the exalted station in news making that they do now. At least they were not as maligned and misunderstood as they seemed to be today. There were only two channels that were broadcasting election results. One was led by Prannoy Roy who was the undisputed master of the swing. His program ran with the needle of judgement standing tall over and info graphic of the seating pattern of the Lok Sabha pointing to the future of the nation. Staid Doordarshan had barely discovered bar charts, though one has to admit they learnt fast.

This is a tale from an election past. Events of grand national import were taking place, tragedy even. But this is a smaller story, an anecdote even.

This was the year Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a suicide bomber while campaigning. The nation was in shock, but of course the juggernaut of democracy had to move on. Elections continued. But the results were less predictable than before at least at the constituency level.


I was a young student then and stepped up for a newsroom job during the elections. They needed people to man the phones and keep track of results coming in from the constituencies across the nation. Each of us worked a state – mine was Karnataka. We worked in twos, or at least had someone watching over us all the time. Shifts, as one does. There were frenzied moments when six constituencies seemed to have moved along rather fast and in tandem. Other frustrating ones as we waited for the results, checking our phone lines to make sure we missed out on any sliver of news.


As I said, these were simpler times. We merely had to differentiate between a lead, and a declared win, keep track of the parties and candidates and of course the margins by which they were leading. Oh, did I tell you – counting was manual in those days. It took ages. I believe they showed movies on television then, but we were above all that. We were the first information people.


And that is where the trouble started. We were supposed to be first. But the other channel always seemed to have a tally of more seats declared than we, Doordarshan did. If we had a total count of 200 available, they seemed to have information of 210 declared. All approximations of course. Memory is rather fuzzy after all these years. How was this possible? We had our persons stationed in the same place, calling just as the results were declared. Their people were listening to the same announcements. How could they know more? How could they get their information faster?


As soon as we, manning the state hotlines (oh yes, we had cool words like that) got the news, we scribbled it and ran to the newsroom. It was turned to script and announced within two minutes. There was no delay in this chain.


Some of us stepped up to investigate. Nothing official about it. We were young ‘uns a bit cheesed off about coming second in a two horse race.


And then we figured out what was going on. Or at least we thought we did. It had to be this – all other possibilites had been eliminated, we knew with sherlockian confidence. The other team was cleverly estimating ahead of wins. They were including the massive margins and the near wins in the declared wins total. Whereas, we the stodgy sarkaari minions were going by the book and announcing formally declared results.


Well, two could play the game as well as one.


And that is what we did. (No, as I said, there was nothing official about it. I do not know who took the decision, and after all these years it did not matter)


Those of us manning the hotlines now not only kept a tally of the declared wins, but also of the near wins. We had a separate column where we recorded the total of the two. The results that went out were just a few moments ahead of their time. But now the private sector was not ahead of the public sector. We had proved our fealty.


Or so we felt.


For the other team pulled ahead again. How was this possible? The risks were huge – the other results were not ready to be declared, the margins not large enough to estimate victory. We could not overstep into what was clearly guesswork given the information we had. How were they doing it? The best brains were put to work again in front of the competitor’s TV feed. Rapid numbers were crunched. Their lead of declared wins over our numbers was analysed. And the answer was startlingly obvious. They were feeding off our feed. They had assumed (or so we thought – there is no way of verifying now, there certainly wasn’t then) that the Doordarshan feed would stick to the traditional rules and only declare seats won when the final announcement had been made.



We had taken very few chances, very very few – the seats were clearly won (or lost), so we were still on firm ground. But the race to the latest numbers was on the verge of going out of control. It would have been so easy – Use their declared numbers, as they had used ours, add the estimated dead-cert wins, and announce. A slippery slope that was inevitably headed to disaster. The statistically inclined amongst us quickly figured out that in 3 iterations of this game we could declare more seats than actually existed. Our experiment was called to a rapid halt. A tense fifteen minutes when we waited for our estimates to show up in the official announcements. Of course they did – we were good. And the lag was less than a quarter of an hour. Our announcements of course were very boring for the next few minutes. But we were safe again. Nothing inaccurate had been reported, no harm done. We were back to being the horse on which the snazzy others could ride in glory. We, the safe trotters knew that when it came to the crunch we were the ones who could be relied upon to carry the real story.


We may not have won that race, but victory in the battle was clearly ours on the day.


Or so we believe.


At least we learnt a lesson in estimation that day.


(This story comes to me from the mists of time. Do not ask me to recollect more, even the people from then are forgotten)