BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. With over 650 million voters, elections in India are an extraordinary exercise in democracy. Yet, beyond the spectacle, this year's elections didn't seem too exciting. Unprecedented economic growth and warming relations with Pakistan seemed to ensure a strong majority for Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his ruling party called the BJP. But, as you probably know by now, the pundits and prognosticators got it very, very wrong. The Congress Party, led by Sonia Gandhi, came out victorious, and India has a new Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. Shailajah Bajpai is a columnist for the Indian Express in New Delhi, and she's been casting a critical eye on the Indian media during this whole drama. Welcome to the show.
SHAILAJAH BAJPAI: Good evening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, India has had an explosion of media since the last election -- more cable channels, more news in regional languages. With all these new ways to reach the people, first of all why did Vajpayee fail to connect.
SHAILAJAH BAJPAI: Just prior to the election, there was a government advertising initiative which stressed this India Shining feel good factor -that the economy was booming, that there was prosperity in the country. That kind of set the tone for what was going to come.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And India Shining was basically the American-style slogan that was used by the BJP to promote their candidate and their party.
SHAILAJAH BAJPAI:Well, yes, and you know it came from a suit ad. There was a raiment ad which actually talked about looking good, and they coined it from looking good to feel good. So they actually took the slogan from an advertising campaign [LAUGHTER] for suits.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so was Vajpayee then trying to run an American-style ad campaign and it just didn't fly?
SHAILAJAH BAJPAI:That's what becomes interesting. Mr. Vajpayee was meant to be the selling point of this government, and yet you know I've just been working on a study of the election coverage, and we found that, in fact, in the first month Mr. Vajpayee is missing completely from the media, and yet he was their biggest asset. So they were starting wrong there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why do you think they made that choice?
SHAILAJAH BAJPAI:It's his age. He's not able to campaign any longer in the manner that he was, and you know, again on the media we saw that very clearly. Then the media campaign of the BJP, which had actually taken the unprecedented form of even, you know, we were all getting phone calls from Mr. Vajpayee.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you're saying that Vajpayee was actually used in an electronic phone campaign--
SHAILAJAH BAJPAI: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- what about Sonia Gandhi's campaign?
SHAILAJAH BAJPAI: When we saw her on television, she was always amongst the people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
SHAILAJAH BAJPAI:She was seen. And there's another important decision that she took this time, and I think that probably is very important at a level that we didn't know at the time, was that this year she made a decision to give interviews to television -- she made herself available to the media in a manner that she has never done previously. And she spoke in Hindi. It was very important.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Let's turn to the media now. They blew it as badly as Vajpayee, and yet they had correspondents everywhere, they had polls, and they were completely blindsided.
SHAILAJAH BAJPAI: I think the major reason was that everyone in the urban centers, they all bought into the idea that a) India was shining, so I think the media, which is also urban-based, they bought into that idea - that there's really no contest, so should we go any further?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why did the polls get it wrong?
SHAILAJAH BAJPAI:I don't think we've still been able to understand that one, but I am going to suggest that I think some of the polls actually were not getting it so wrong. I feel that some of them did not want to come out with it for reasons of political economic survival. I'll tell you something: after the second phase of polling, all the polls showed a drop for the ruling coalition and the Sensex- that's the stock exchange -took a huge beating. You know, there was this immediate dip, and there was this terrible fear: is the media leading to this, and in fact, there was a considerable criticism of the polls and suggest that they, in fact, were ruining the economy and making the stock exchange fall.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I think it says something for Indian democracy that even though the media are very influential, and even though the media got it completely wrong, the people elected the candidate they wanted.
SHAILAJAH BAJPAI: It's very interesting, and I felt very good about this at the end. Everyone told us that this election is only being fought on the electronic media, and in future it will always be fought on the electronic media. I think what's been very positive, perhaps, about this election is that in fact it's not going to be fought on the electronic media. It will be fought where it should be democratically fought, which is at the hustings and on the ground level.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. It was a pleasure talking to you.
SHAILAJAH BAJPAI: Okay, Brooke. Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Shailajah Bajpai is a columnist for the Indian Express. She spoke with us from her home in New Delhi.