India Uncut

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Thursday, February 24, 2005

The psychology of Indian Idol voters

Yazad Jal has a post expressing outrage at Mid Day's campaign to get Mumbaikars to vote for Abhijeet Sawant in the final episode of Indian Idol because he is from Mumbai. Yazad asks:
Will you vote for someone in a game show just because he's from your city? Or your region? Or religion? Or caste? Or would you rather go on ability? And what do you think of a newspaper which prefers to toss out ability in favour of more sectarian reasons?

Well, long before Mid Day started running this campaign, people were voting on the basis of other things than ability anyway. Consider how long Ravinder Ravi lasted, to the astonishment of the judges and fans, despite singing so badly. Apparently there was a pitched campaign for him in Ludhiana, and a legion of supporters shattered by his (well-deserved) defeat.

I've been watching the show from the start, and it's interesting to see how vote banks of different people have shifted with their elimination. For example, Rahul Vaidya was the strongest candidate much of the way through, but while he is an excellent singer, he has a polarising personality: people tend to either like him or dislike him. The first category of people was strong when there were many candidates in the fray, as the second category's votes got split. But as the candidates dropped out, the vote banks of the eliminated candidates shifted to people other than Rahul, and by the time there were four people left, he was no longer the leader, and was eliminated after the round of three.

Ditto Ravinder Ravi. He had his die-hard fans who kept him alive, but the votebank of every eliminated candidate shifted to other people, and his number of votes remained stable, until he was eventually eliminated.

But shouldn't the winner be chosen on ability, you ask in consternation. Well yes, of course it should. But in reality, it can't be that way with so many people voting. With most of the finalists being more or less equally good singers, one's qualitative assessment of a singer tends to be swayed by subconscious biases, and the sum total of those biases ultimately makes the difference.

Both the finalists, for example, are excellent singers, and any difference in their abilities will be such a nuanced, technical one that only experts will be able to pass judgement on it, and even they may differ. Most of the people voting will effectively vote on the basis of other considerations, convincing themselves that their choice is the better singer, but actually swayed by other things. (The number of factors influencing that could range from where the singers are from, what kind of songs they sing, what kind of clothes they wear, how much the voter can empathise with them, and so on.)

So who will be the first Indian Idol? Abhijeet may win because he is taller and good looking. Amit Sana may win because he came second in the last round, and his followers may vote more desperately while Abhijeet's may get a bit complacent. (One reason why this trend might be strong: Sana's throat infection. His chances might actually get better if he sings badly, and they can't be harmed, because everyone knows by now what a good singer he is.) I think most regular viewers of the show already know who they will vote for. It's just a question of mobilising the base, which made such a huge difference in Bush v Kerry.

My two favourites among the final 11 were Rahul Saxena and Aditi Paul, though. I think Saxena lost out early because everybody assumed, including me, that he's so damn good that one doesn't need to waste an SMS or a phone call voting for him. Aditi just chose the wrong song, and had a bad day. Among people who didn't make it to the final 11, I thought Sudeshna and Ronkini rocked.

While stating a fact, by the way, I am not proposing a value. Just because biases play a big part in determing such contests, I am not justifying it, or saying that should be the case. Of course the winner should be the person who is qualitatively the best. But who is to judge that?

Update: Rather than be graceful about his defeat, Vaidya is already crying foul about being voted out, blaming it on a betting syndicate and saying: "I have heard that I lost because some bookmakers in Dubai had to make a lot of money." I believe that his lack of grace is the cause and not the result of his being voted out. Sawant and Sana are nice, humble guys, a refreshing contrast to Vaidya's braggadocio. That did matter, I think, even for people who felt that Vaidya was the best singer of the final three.
amit varma, 12:12 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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