The media is a very important institution of democracy. The survival and success of India’s democracy owes a great deal to the vigour and vibrancy of the media. Both the electronic and print media have grown enormously in the past few years. The explosion of the broadcast media over the last 10 years has reached many voters with a surge of information and this has narrowed to some extent the gap between politicians and voters. More significant than the numbers is the change in the nature of the media—from government control to overwhelming private control. The new and hard-hitting privately owned media tends to question everything and has been a driving force behind exposing corruption. The media can justifiably take credit for making corruption a significant issue in the 2014 general election. The centrality of the media to modern political life is something we take for granted, especially at the time of elections. However the actual function one can attribute to the media, in politics in general and in elections in particular, is highly contested.
With thousands of newspapers and hundreds of news channels in several languages, Indians are spoilt for choice and diversity. But in many ways, such growth and diversification has come at the cost of accuracy, journalistic ethics and probity. Even as the number of news sources has grown exponentially, the information given by these countless sources is quite similar. This raises serious concerns about the trivialisation of content and the impact of the increasing concentration of media ownership in the hands of large corporate groups. Since much of the media is privately owned and driven by profit motives, commercial compulsions distort the free and fair dissemination of information. Television news, which reaches out to those who cannot read and write, has clearly become an integral part of our democracy and must be central to an analysis of media and elections. Besides, it sets the agenda which the print media is prone to follow.
The 2014 general election is a particularly important and divisive election and the role the media plays in it is very significant and needs analysis, debate and a certain amount of introspection. Never has the media’s role been more important. At the same time, never has it been so misused to set the political agenda. There is a lot of evidence about what’s played up and what isn’t and the way things have been structured and bent in the run-up to the impending Lok Sabha election.
The media coverage of the 2014 election started in December 2012 when Narendra Modi was re-elected as Chief Minister of Gujarat for the third time. The field was set for him with unremitting speculation about whether he would be the prime ministerial candidate or not for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Until the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) stunning debut in the Delhi Assembly election in December 2013, television news channels and social media had little time for anyone other than Mr. Modi who was seen as the country’s only hope against the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). According to the media, Mr. Modi could steer the country out of the crisis by providing strong leadership, and the leadership vacuum was driving the frustrated electorate into the BJP’s lap. This heavily loaded construct, that decisive leadership is the answer to India’s woes, has been propagated by the corporate sector and the urban middle class, which views the Congress as corrupt, dynastic, and inefficient and a reckless benefactor of the poor. This entailed a high voltage campaign to amplify anti-incumbency against the UPA, which unfolded with a sustained attack on the UPA government. Given that the middle classes are angry about the economic slowdown and hold the UPA responsible for it, it is not surprising that the political ‘discourse’ has been remarkably homogeneous, in its emphasis and stressing of the following points: denunciation of the UPA, especially corruption, criticism of the limitations of Congress leadership and the dynasty, and the Gujarat model of development. Arguably, the media has moved from ‘manufacturing consent’ to ‘manufacturing dissent’ against the existing government before it returns again to creating consent.
Taking a cue from Mr. Modi, some media houses and editors have dubbed the 10 years of UPA rule as a ‘wasted decade’, completely ignoring its positive contributions. Going further, we are being told that nothing has happened in the last 60 years and voters must give Mr. Modi a chance of 60 months to transform India. In one stroke, the whole past has been demolished, but the media did not challenge this, as a matter of fact, it has lent credence to this by simply repeating the perversion of India’s contemporary history. The media has been quiet about the significant poverty alleviation initiatives of the UPA government. To claim that the situation has changed would be wrong, yet, it’s not a picture of doom and gloom painted in the mainstream media. There are positive signs of social improvement. Yet the rights-based welfare schemes are under attack and reviled as ‘dolenomics’ even though it has slowly given rise to the principle of social responsibility for fulfilling people’s basic needs. Notice the near unanimous condemnation of the right to food as profligate. There was an unprecedented attack on the National Food Security Act (NFSA), as an instance of irresponsible populism that will destroy the growth story forever.
Reporting for the 2014 election will be remembered for its almost complete focus on individuals, hardly ever on the issues at the ground level. So far, this is how the political discourse in the run-up to the 2014 general election is shaping up. Modi has assumed a larger than life dimension, dwarfing all other elements of the political discourse and public agenda. If television news channels are to be believed, Mr. Modi has all but won the upcoming election. Shorn of sufficient staff on the pretext of a slowdown, television news channels relied heavily on the live feeds from the two leading parties, most conspicuously from the Modi camp. This new trend allowed channels to hook up to the BJP’s live feeds and relay it to unsuspecting viewers giving rise to media hype. It is only when some editors raised uncomfortable questions in internal meetings that some channels started identifying it as ‘BJP feed’ on-screen in an under-sized font. Even so, live television coverage of Mr. Modi’s speeches has reached saturation point. There is a disinclination to ask hard questions of Mr. Modi and to critically examine the authenticity of the themes and issues of his campaign.
One indispensable effect of this hype is repeatedly suggesting a Modi wave. The purported Modi wave is shown on the basis of opinion polls, and not ground level reports, which are chiefly interested in guessing who would be the next Prime Minister. The focus is entirely on personalities, ignoring the larger issues involving the election. By all accounts, other factors matter more: the choice of candidates, local-level alliances, and the performance of State governments. What often gets overlooked is that opinion polls end up making the elections a horse race and a media spectacle. There are compelling reasons why some social scientists argue that opinion polls not only measure opinion, but also foster false consciousness and end up as self-fulfilling prophecy.
The media’s infatuation with a single narrative is drowning out political diversity and pluralism in this election, particularly the weight of regional parties and marginalised groups and their concerns. There is a tendency to accept unquestionably the terms of debate as set by the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, regardless of whether this conflicted with the existing norms of the democratic framework. Thus the media is not troubled about Mr. Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots; it is not questioning the process of investigation, particularly the role of the Special Investigation Team (SIT) that led to his exoneration by a lower court. Instead, the media is going along with his acquittal as the last word on his innocence in the 2002 violence in the face of contrary evidence. Again, it is astonishing how the role of the Sangh Parivar or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is engaged in hectic strategising for the election campaign, is hardly ever discussed. One of the BJP’s key tactics was to paralyse Parliament. This is frequently discussed but it is done by apportioning blame on both the Congress and the BJP, even though the latter is principally responsible for five years of parliamentary paralysis. We must not forget, Arun Jaitley, the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, had famously redefined the meaning of parliamentary work by arguing that the instrument of disrupting parliamentary proceedings is a ‘legitimate weapon’ in the arsenal of the opposition, and disruption is an indispensable tool for making the government accountable.
Numerous examples could be cited of the ways in which the mass media construct images that could have been appropriated for political ends. The media’s approach to the Ayodhya issue is a case in point. Yet, again, secularism and pluralism have been reduced to ‘minority appeasement,’ just as it was done in the 1990s when L.K. Advani pitted ‘positive secularism’ against ‘pseudo-secularism’. Instead of stepping back and examining the blatantly political impulse behind the renewed critique of secularism, the media has more often than not absorbed the political agenda and debate as set out by the Hindu nationalist groups.
What accounts for the willingness of the media to buy into the Modi propaganda and build-up regardless of whether it was an accurate representation of his real political intentions and personal attitudes? Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media , talked of the influence of ‘propaganda’ and ‘systemic biases’ in the mass media and explained how consent for economic, social and political policies is manufactured in the public mind, a result of the way advertising and media ownership is structured.
The major changes in the media landscape evident in the new structure of ownership can explain the phenomenon. The trend is clear: media houses have turned into big business; big business groups are buying huge stakes in the media; politicians, political parties and individuals with political affiliations own and control increasing sections of the press; media owners are entering into politics in a big way. The media is big business and big business is in the media. There ought to be serious concerns about the increasing concentration of media ownership and cross-ownership in the hands of large corporate groups which are strongly backing Mr. Modi as the next Prime Minister because he has pushed the political rhetoric more towards markets, reforms and investment, even though the BJP has not laid out a specific economic platform, and chosen instead to run on the general economic record of Gujarat under Mr. Modi.
The change in coverage of the AAP is a striking example of this shift. The media’s treatment of the AAP changed diametrically once the political party started hitting at corporate corruption, through their stance on electricity tariffs, and more noticeably after AAP party leader Arvind Kejriwal went to Gujarat to ‘inspect’ and ‘assess’ the Gujarat model of development and began raising questions about crony capitalism in Gujarat. Look at the media reaction after this, especially to the recent criticism of the media by Mr. Kejriwal.
Let us make no mistake, there’s a media bias. The media in India does not merely report; it is a player in Indian politics and elections. While there may not be a concerted attempt to stifle voices which are independent, the media does take sides and tends to editorialise news reporting. Media bias is not a unique feature of the Indian media. It is true of the media everywhere. For example, the tilt was apparent in large sections of the U.S. media coverage of the 2012 Presidential election. It is noteworthy how the U.S. press has handled charges of media bias. Not denying the tilt, the U.S. mainstream media picked up those charges of partisan coverage and put them on record, while others have not only taken note but have also got into the act of analysing the charges in the public domain. So, there is a vigorous debate in the U.S. on the role of media and its biases, indeed, several leading U.S. newspapers are quite open about their political affiliations, whilst in India media bias is not a topic of discussion during or after the elections.
Oddly enough, the Indian media’s idea of fairness and objectivity is to systematically question all politicians and attack all sides. The media shuns any discussion of bias. Media freedom is sacrosanct despite mounting evidence of distortions like ‘paid news’, ‘coverage packages’, ‘private treaties’ with big corporations and ‘doctored opinion polls’, not to mention a tilt to the right in all media platforms, including satire, spoof and parody. Yet, the media is not open to criticism that is legitimate and long-overdue.