If you wish to make it in Indian journalism you have to be a political reporter in Delhi. I was told this in 1988, months into my first job in the profession. This is true in 2014 as well, just as it will be ever after.
Politics covers every strand of human activity in India. To know India you have to know its politics.
Life as a political reporter is full of lessons. It is endless, exhilarating and gratifying. It can fill you with character or it can drain you of it. Much of this is true of all areas of reporting but it is particularly so with politics.
The first election I reported on was 1989, with Natwar Singh in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh. Hema Malini is the current contestant there from the BJP. Singh, an important member of the system, lost on a Congress ticket.
The other General Elections I covered were in 1991, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2004 and 2009. This makes it seven Lok Sabha polls. Five times I toured for assembly elections.
Delhi in 1993 when Madan Lal Khurana became chief minister in the first assembly as we now know it; Rajasthan in 1998 when Ashok Gehlot won big for the Congress; Andhra Pradesh in 2004 when Chandrababu Naidu lost after 10 years; Chhattisgarh in 2008 when Raman Singh won a second time; and Bihar in 2010 when Nitish Kumar began to ever so slowly turn the state around.
The following are some of the important lessons I learned from covering a dozen elections. They help me decipher the complex universe of Indian politics.
1. You can’t go wrong with people. 7am is decent to start talking to people although an hour or two later is just as productive. I’ve met voters in fields, tea shops, hotels, marketplaces, bus stands, railway stations, dhabas, factories, homes, offices and industrial estates.
I’ve had political conversations with all except sports professionals. People always tell you what they’re thinking. If you have integrity and an alert brain, you can correctly assess the outcome. I got 12 elections right.
2. You can go wrong with politicians. Meet them you must, even do half-a-day with a contestant. But their interviews are full of drivel. The worst thing is you can believe their lies. It happened once with me.
I could see that Murli Manohar Joshi of the BJP was losing in Allahabad . But I wondered how the unimpressive Rewati Raman Singh of the Samajwadi Party could win. This made me change my copy at the last time and insert a sentence suggesting that Joshi would win. He lost. It was the only time I got a result wrong – individual or party.
3. Always meet the big guns, even for a minute. They communicate all the time even if they’re not saying anything verbally. I have retained impressions garnered from fleeting or longer meetings with key politicians.
The insights I got help me read their mind, even years after. Varun Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad, Chandrababu Naidu, Harkishen Singh Surjeet, Prakash Karat, Raman Singh, Ajit Jogi, Vasundhara Raje, Narendra Modi and many others. Exchange a few words or at least be in a room with them. What you garner is invaluable.
4. Make notes and retain them. It doesn’t matter what size the notepad is but you must use one. Write everywhere, as you talk, stand, sit or are in a vehicle. There’s something deeply intimate about a notepad that is not so with audio and video files.
I was able to retain a high percentage of what I saw, heard or smelled – about 90 to 95 percent. I tested this in parliament often. My notes had everything that the official reporters had compiled in Lok Sabha. But not everybody can remember extensively. The notepads become building blocks of possible books later.
5. Keep an open mind. Only the ignorant can be totally neutral. Those who know politics even a wee bit will have likes and dislikes. You would vote, for instance, and this involves taking a side. But an election campaign is the worst place to let your ideology show.
You will always get it wrong because you’re only seeing what you want to. I’ve seen scores of journalists colour their reports or simply make mistakes from this. You’re at your best when you let the truth flow. Newsroom editors can have many questions but you must be able to hold your ground.
6. Don’t overdo the stats. You will often hear of constituency profiles – this is how I started covering elections in 1989. But it can get numbing and meaningless.
The number of voters, the gender breakup, voting percentages, number of candidates, number of polling booths, etc., is of no use to you. You need to know the numbers broadly but that’s it.
You're a reporter, not a statistician. Use figures only to illustrate something you say. The most important thing is what the voters are thinking and doing. Get a hang of that.
7. Trust only yourself. Ignore the urge to network with other reporters. No one else will do your job for you. It makes no sense to bank on what other reporters know.
Most times the herd can make you feel guilty if you don’t eat, drink or bond with them. Don’t bother. You can eat and drink all your life. But the story is gone if you lose the moment. I almost never meet local journalists on tour until after the job is done. I stick to my plan.
All insights have to be firsthand. Your editor won’t need you if you deliver what others already have.
8. Maintain boundaries with politicians. You can either have friends or sources. A reporter needs sources, not friends. Politicians have a low opinion of those they can manipulate.
They fear and respect those they cannot. My most reliable, and therefore best, sources knew where the line was drawn. Small talk after sundown helps. But don’t make it a habit.
I’ve seen a few senior journalists lobby with politicians, one of them just months ago with the AAP. Some of them are outed – like in the Radia tapes – and it’s never the same again.
9. Stick to your budget. Ignore those who flaunt the wealth of their organisations. Not everybody works for the BBC, CNN or Al Jazeera. You are not judged by the hotel you stay in or the car you travel in. You are judged by your story.
Television is noise. Shut it out. The written word is where the skill still is. You need to feel secure, for which adequate money is needed. The most important thing in covering elections is speed of travel. The faster you move the better off you’ll be. That’s where the bulk of the budget should go.
10. Have fun. This is an election in India. It’s the envy of the world. It’s the maximum fun you’ll have as a political reporter. When the day is done, however long, let go.
Watch a movie, listen to music, eat, read, talk to a friend or partner. Whatever. I have often been educated by night walks when on tour. Don’t treat it as work. Just amble away if you feel like it.
The sights and sounds at night are usually a world away from the day. I have a trick that always works for me: I hit a local cinema for a night show. It’s a delight. No two places are the same. Go ahead. Enjoy.
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Vijay Simha is an independent journalist and sobriety campaigner based out of New Delhi.
Vijay blogs here and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.