India’s Cable News Predicted a Big Modi Win. How Did They Get It So Wrong?

Through the months of India’s sprawling national election season, the country’s hundreds of cable news outlets all seemed to be trying to outdo each other: They predicted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would win, and win big.

The actual election results on June 4, however, saw his fortunes plummet so low that he secured another term only with the help of coalition partners.

It was a shocking result to many, and now India finds itself wondering why so few foresaw the popularity of an opposition movement. Some outlets had predicted that Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., would win as many as 400 of the 543 available seats in Parliament, but in the end, it won only 240.

Many see the disparity as a sign of how thoroughly the prime minister had cowed the mainstream media, and how his control of the information system had grown so complete that the hype obscured voters’ true sentiments.

During Mr. Modi’s decade in office, a mix of pressures and incentives turned mainstream news channels into cheerleaders of his every move. They presented the powerful prime minister as an unstoppable leader, too overwhelming for any opponent to challenge. Debating him on policy, or even on his delivery of his promises, was out of the question.

Many reporters at established news outlets embraced what Mr. Modi had normalized: taking pride in his Hindu-first vision of India. Those who investigated the unsavory side of his tenure, including independent bodies that sharply critiqued his policies, were ostracized, raided or otherwise forced to surrender.

When exit polls emerged on election night, one channel even declared that Mr. Modi’s alliance was winning 30 Parliament seats in a state that had only 25. Another anchor seemed to ridicule his own network’s reporters for suggesting there had been discontent over economic stress.

That the vast majority of outlets were far off the mark in their projections suggested one of two things, analysts said: Indian citizens were too afraid to speak their minds, or too suspicious of the broadcast media to trust them with their real opinions.

“Media was actually campaigning for the ruling party,” said Yogendra Yadav, a political activist and a veteran election analyst, adding, “They are a blot on our democracy.”

Mr. Modi and the mainstream media underestimated just how much of the information space had moved outside the bubble they had created, analysts said. As the mainstream outlets have lost credibility, a parallel system of online news reporters with a more independent outlook has grown.

In fact, much of the election was playing out on the internet. Opposition figures found online spaces to be vital outlets for airing criticism of Mr. Modi, who they say has made India less democratic and more unequal.

“The centrist journalism is missing, and it is a loss for this country,” said Saurabh Shukla, a co-founder of The Red Mike, a YouTube channel.

Mr. Shukla, an award-winning reporter who left his job at a news station to start his YouTube channel with another journalist, said there was a clear contrast between what was being shown on TV news and what he and many other journalists saw on the ground.

In a sign that even Mr. Modi was becoming aware of the disparity, he sent his ministers to engage with YouTube channels to discuss the accomplishments of his party. At times, he even trolled the mainstream media that was singing his praises.

“If you are in the media, and if you are waving a Modi flag in devotion — who will keep you?” the prime minister said to four interviewers from a New Delhi-based media organization.

With a population of 1.4 billion, India has more than over 350 news broadcasters across 880 satellite TV channels. It also has the most YouTube users in the world.

Since gaining independence in 1947, India had built a reputation for having a vast and independent-leaning media culture, interrupted only by the months of emergency and censorship imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s.

That independent streak has been changing over the years of Mr. Modi’s leadership, though, as leaders in his Hindu-nationalist bloc have found a host of ways to apply pressure to keep media groups in line.

Reporters and editors critical of the government started leaving traditional news outlets, moving online one after the other. Unlike television news channels that spent hours on Mr. Modi during the campaigning period, this band of independent reporters talked about people, their stories and their problems.

Among them is Ravish Kumar. After leaving his prime-time news anchor job, Mr. Kumar started broadcasting on YouTube. For months he has focused on issues like rising rural unemployment and loopholes in competitive exams that have pushed hundreds of thousands of students to join protest marches.

While Mr. Kumar, whom more than a million people watch almost every day, questioned Mr. Modi about using religious polarization to win votes instead of talking about his developmental track record, his peers on TV news were using prime time to attack Mr. Modi’s opponents.

Network news anchors used their interview time with Mr. Modi largely to lob softball questions unrelated to national issues, such as “Is this election a formality?” or “Why don’t you get tired?”

Another independent journalist, Ajit Anjum, reported on voters’ anger toward a federal minister after spending days in the minister’s constituency in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Many news channels predicted she would win in a landslide, but she was trounced by her low-key rival, a longtime campaign manager for leaders of the opposition. It was another accurate projection from an independent YouTube news channel.

“YouTube has given a tough time to B.J.P. and its media supporters,” said Mr. Shukla, the journalist. As more election results emerged, a growing number of viewers seemed to turn to online news viewership for follow-up coverage.

Several independent media organizations came together for their own election-night coverage, and many Indians followed them online for more sober analysis than they were getting from shouting matches on TV news.

It’s unclear whether the sudden rush to independent journalism will stick.

“I don’t know if this will continue,” said Mandeep Punya, a freelance journalist. He added that while more people are watching his content, a new law has made it easier for the government to censor online stories.

Challenges from the government notwithstanding, online news providers earned a leg up in trustworthiness during this election cycle. Their accuracy in forecasting the results stood in stark contrast to how cable news networks’ predictions fared.

Mr. Yadav, the political activist, said after traveling around India’s Hindi-speaking north, home to the traditional base of Mr. Modi’s party, that he expected the B.J.P. to win no more than 260 seats. Few believed his estimate, especially among television news commentators. But he was right.

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