India Votes: Media Mirrors Democracy at Work
Syed Ali Mujtaba
An opinion poll conducted jointly by a satellite TV channel and English daily in the end of March, for the April- May Lok Sabha election, predicted a clean sweep for the BJP led National Democratic Alliance. Some political parties, reacting to the poll results, felt agitated that it was a deliberate attempt to give head start to particular political formation even before the electioneering had begun.
It generated a debate in the country that how Media is capable of doctoring political swing through opinion poll and influencing the public opinion. The political parties upset over the poll prediction recommend to the Election commission to ban all such opinion and exit polls till the end of voting. However, their recommendation was shot down by the country’s Attorney General saying that it violates the right of expression can not be implemented.
One thing came out clearly from that controversy was that media has come to acquire a greater role in shaping the counters of Indian democracy and no political party can afford to ignore this reality. The growing clout of media is such that the entire political campaigning in 2004 election is being conducted through media. The political parties have deployed highly professional media managers whose job is devise strategies to swing votes in their favour. The psychological warfare conducted by the political parties through media is the most conspicuous feature of the ensuing elections.
Even though, the same hackneyed issues are at the centre of public debate, the role of media has assumed greater significance then ever. The plethora of print media both in vernacular as well in English and Hindi languages at regional and national level is helping in shaping the public opinion. All the morning and evening newspapers, magazines and periodicals are busy devoting a huge space to the election coverage. One may find interesting write-ups about candidates, constituency profiles and other election related stories. All make a profound impact in affirming public opinion about the political parties in the poll fray.
More than print media, it is the satellite and cable TV network that has made inroads into Indian homes. The 24 hrs news channels with fleets of reporters spread out into the country giving live coverage attract viewers in large numbers to the small screen. The competition among them is to be the fastest in breaking the news. This makes the idiot-box the most sought after commodity in one’s household.
The very dynamics of television medium especially with its telling visuals have a dramatic impact on the voters. In fact, two faces of India can be seen simultaneously on the same small screen. One face is shown in various soap operas and entertainment programmes that glamorise India and its people to unbelievable level. One is awe struck seeing soap characters living in affluence and plenty, the interior decoration of their houses, the way they eat and dress, all leaves one guessing whether these folks are really fellow countrymen?
The other face of India is shown through the news channels. As one tune to hear Vajpayee or Sonia’s electioneering speech, one cannot avoid seeing half dressed, starved faces Indians flocking to the election venue. People living in mud huts, pothole roads, broken electric poles, non functional tube wells, are all common images on the news shows. The huge difference between town and villages depicts the grim reality of the country and reminds where real India stands today. Never before common Indian had greater access to India than the advent and proliferation of TV news channels.
The TV news channels have made possible a new form of democratic dialogue between leaders and the electorates. The multiple channels have numerous lively programmes that range from discussions to debate and compete to provide saturation election coverage. In this great media debate, leaders and political parties have become more as facilitators and custodian of the process than power figures in the electoral process.
What is being witnessed, in the election 2004, both BJP and the Congress are trying to sell similar products through media. Every day the BJP and the Congress come up with new inundations against each other on the small screen. Congress Spokesman Kapil Sibal, comes up with the allegation that the Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani should be arrested for making substandard purchase of AK 47 rifle for the security personnel. Arun Jaietly of the BJP, charges that Congress President Sonia Gandhi to be questioned in purchase of Bofors gun deal of 1987 when her late husband Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister.
The media manipulation through spin doctoring is also being witnessed as the dates for casting the ballots approaches near. A media report flogs the dead horse of the Bofors gun deal made some 18 years ago by publishing an interview of a Swedish investigator and this spins the whole electioneering and suddenly ‘Bofors’ becomes hotly debated issue once again in India. The story is picked up by the BJP which demands from Congress President Sonia Gandhi to answer the charges levelled against her in that media report.
In the age of selective sound bites, preferred visual clips, planted stories, media has acquired an inscriptive role to influence the electorates in the country. This fact is being recognised by all political leaders and who are going whole hog in media management to catch the imagination of the people. The political leaders and media have become inseparable and one wonders how the former will survive in the absence of the other.
The election in 2004 is being held at a time when India is increasingly getting connected to TV, phones, cell phones and internet. India has more than 100 million TV sets, 80 million land-line telephone, 30 million cell phones and about 10 million computers. India’s over 30 per cent of a billion people belong to 20-35 years of age. Nearly five per cent of them have been born after 1985 and have grown up with the technological changes taking place in the country, to many of them modern technology is more a way of life than a matter of choice.
This point to the fact, that Indian middle class, no matter how miniscule it may be, has come to play a role in Indian politics. It is this SMS generation which is driving the country forward. No political party, as a result can afford to ignore this powerful young Indians. In fact, some say that the political party which is capable to influencing this youthful lot the most will hold an upper hand in the election.
However, the other side of the story is, no matter how hard the media may try to structure the course Indian democracy, 70 per cent of the people in India still live in villages and in their lives technology plays no role. Most of them are so poor to afford the luxurious of TV, telephone, and computers. These technologies in any case are redundant to them as there is no electricity available for their operation. Similarly, newspapers too fail to make any impact as more than 40 per cent Indian still can’t read or write.
Willy-nilly it is this large segment people that would ultimately decide the outcome of the elections. In their equation, it is not the political issues or political parties or the leaders that matters. To them the primordial loyalties of the representation of their caste, religion and kin group that counts. They look in terms what election can offer them in terms of education, employment and development of their kith and kin. The related incentives during elections including the lure of money along with host of other inter-related issues guides them for whom to vote. This harsh reality is the bottom line of Indian democracy.
Nevertheless, as the election fever grows, all the frills of electioneering are carried by the media. The political parties and their leaders are trying every trick in their bag to woo the voters. Media is facilitating them to sell their products with aplomb. The growing role media in influencing India politics is something that can not go unnoticed by any one in the country.
As Indians are going gung-ho, on ‘India Shining’ and ‘India Cheated’ duel, the counting of votes will only reveal which political party or formation has succeeded in seducing the electorates most. As of now, the mass media is mirroring the images of the juggernaut of Indian democracy as it rolls.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a television journalist currently working in Chennai,India. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org