Through the looking glass
By Anish Vanaik
23 May 2014
Reflections on the Indian media in the 2014 Indian Parliamentary Elections.
In summarising India’s 2014 General Elections, the media pundits have proclaimed a breathless flurry of firsts. Among the more substantial of the contentions is the unprecedented role of the breathless pronouncers themselves. Struck by the saturation of images of Narendra Modi (India’s new Prime Minister elect) during the election campaign, veteran journalists started asking questions very early on about the role played by the media in consolidating around him. As the results have become clearer, the conclusion that this election has marked a watershed in the extent of mediatisation of electoral politics in India is unavoidable. This enlarged role of the media is a momentous development, and certain to continue. It is also one with serious implications for the very nature of politics in India. In particular, for those of us who believe that democratic politics has a role to play in empowering progressive social transformation, there are difficult questions here worth confronting.
The ‘Modi wave’ accomplished nothing less than the transformation of a person marked by the stain of the worst communal violence in India for the last 25 years into a benign and acceptably authoritarian figure. The images and slogans streamed relentlessly: from the elevation of Gujarat to a utopic island of development, to publicity stunts like Modi’s helicopter ‘rescue’ of Gujarati pilgrims stranded in Uttarakhand; from full front-page advertisements in newspapers, to the systematic propagation of the myth of Modi’s ‘clean chit’ by the Supreme Court; from television interviews (where gently lobbed queries elicited careful and genteel replies) to wall-to-wall coverage of Modi, addressing (through holograms, when not in person) heaving crowds at rallies and roadshows. Over the course of a year, Modi’s persona as the firm, efficient, patriotic and misunderstood man that India awaited was co-crafted by PR agencies and primetime anchors. For the first time, the campaign was also carried online. While substantially less important than television, a visible presence on social media – Twitter, Facebook and even mobile phone apps – appears to have become essential for major political players.
This effort, the most intense ever seen in India, to keep Modi in the public eye was sustained through staggering campaign expenditures. While estimates vary and are, in the last instance, unverifiable, the range of expenditure reported for the BJP is INR 500 crore to INR 5000 crore on advertising alone. The BJP, the party with the deepest pockets, is also estimated to account for two-thirds of the overall expenditure in these elections. This bought near-monopolistic television coverage. According to one estimate, 33 percent of primetime television coverage was devoted to Modi – over three times as much as the next highest coverage of any other personality, and eight times as much as that of Rahul Gandhi.
New communications and new constituencies
There are at least two reasons why it makes sense to claim that control of the media has only recently become a key element of a successful electoral strategy. Between 2001 and 2011, much of rural India threw out its transistor radios and replaced them with televisions. This was not simply an upgrading of a household amenity, but a vast expansion of the economy of images.
The power to create associations and elicit emotions from an audience (‘branding’ in advertising jargon) has been immeasurably enhanced through the steady diffusion of the television throughout the country. Modi’s electoral promise in particular – of an economy allowing for greater prosperity and consumption – is well suited to a medium saturated with injunctions to consume and images of how to do so. Other aspects of his appeal to Hindu values, both covert and overt, have a long history of reinforcement in Indian entertainment. From the late 1980s early to 1990s, the success of TV shows such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, to the ethical norms (centred on patriarchal-familial imperatives) evoked in the K-serial soap operas in recent decades, indicate that Hindu culture has come to hold the centre of gravity in Indian television series. As the flickering glow of television reaches into more and more rural households, even in relatively impoverished states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the estate of this economy of images is set to expand.
The second, more speculative, cause of the enhanced significance of the media relates to a demographic that has held the balance in this election: the youth. In both rural and urban India, large numbers of young voters have supported the BJP. As early and enthusiastic adopters, they form a natural constituency for media outreach. The BJP’s social media campaign, for instance, was specifically targeted at this segment of the population. Modi’s references to YouTube in his victory speech indicate an acknowledgement of the worth of his online presence. The tweets, blogs and ‘Modibots’, it would seem, are here to stay.
Capturing the fourth estate
How has the media been harnessed into propagating, for the most part, one party’s agenda? Can it be acquitted of this charge? The sanguinity of liberal commentators about the strength of democratic institutions in India has little basis when it comes to the emerging structures and practices of the news media. Over the past decade and more, the firewalls between owners and editorial staff in all media houses have been dismantled. This has proceeded in lockstep with the increasing concentration of ownership at the upper echelons of the media. Revenue streams and the furthering of owners’ interests now routinely jostle with more journalistic concerns in newsrooms.
Numerous scandals implicating the media were unearthed over the course of the campaign. Instances of paid news inserts number in the several hundreds and are now being investigated. A sting operation even revealed opinion polls that were designed to slant towards the highest bidder. These more sensational revelations have been only the most obvious blots on the independence of much of the Indian news media.
More worrying was the palpable sense that newspapers, television channels and magazines were prepared to tailor coverage and their editorial stance for less concrete enticements. In two high-profile instances, senior editorial staff were replaced so that the journals concerned could adopt less combative stances towards the BJP. At a more mundane level, reporters in mainstream dailies speak of pressures being put on them to make copy conform to the inclinations of their editors. The mainstream Indian media, in these elections, stands exposed as one that is likely to be neither independent of, nor vigilant towards, the diktats of the powerful.
The understandable preponderance of television in Indian news media has also led to a more structural infirmity. For a long time now, it has been clear that television news is poorly suited to cover slow moving and structural forms of deprivation and violence. Veteran journalist P Sainath’s memorable comparison of the number of reporters sent to cover the India Fashion Week with those sent to cover farmers’ suicides in Maharashtra neatly encapsulates this incapacity to prioritise what is worthy of news. During the elections, this emphasis on the spectacular led to a concentration on personalities rather than issues. The Centre for Media Studies’ analysis of the TV coverage of the 2014 elections revealed that more airtime was concentrated on personalities (37 percent) than on parties (20 percent). Thus, in the looking-glass world of the mass media, the actual issues around which elections ought to be fought are relegated to incidental status.
The media’s growing role carries auguries of new configurations of politics in the coming years. Given the levels of expenditure in these elections, the comparison with the role of the media in Europe and North America is invited and apposite. In places like UK, Italy and the US, media perception makes or breaks political fortunes. Despite their varied electoral systems, each of these has seen powerful and corrupt nexuses between politicians and media owners: Silvio Berlusconi (himself a corrupt media mogul), the linkages between the Murdoch empire and Tony Blair and David Cameron, and Fox News championing of the Republican Party.
Two outcomes are visible in these otherwise disparate international contexts. First, the overwhelming importance of the party leadership (often the single party leader). Second, the difficulties of smaller parties, less well considered by business interests, to break into the parliamentary big league (though Italy, with a proportional representation electoral system, is a partial exception). If this is the path that India is going to traverse, the implications are very worrying. The presidentialisation of parliamentary elections signals a movement away from deeper and more direct forms of empowering the voter. In a country where the diversity of interests and issues ought to be reflected during elections, reducing the vote to a clash of personalities diminishes the substance of democratic representation. This is all the more dangerous in a parliamentary system, in which the legislative wing is linked to the executive, leading to an even more extreme concentration of power than in a presidential system where the executive is separated from the legislature. The uneven playing field in the Indian context is dangerously skewed. To put this in perspective: the BJP is estimated to have spent up to INR 5000 crore on advertising and media campaigns during the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign whereas the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) entire fund of donations from December 2013 until 20 May 2014 was just over INR 36 crore.
Political formations that do not align themselves to business interests now face acute dilemmas. It is quite clear that India runs the risk of an extreme narrowing of the political terrain. Campaign finance reform, a vibrant state-owned and independent media broadcaster and an independent media regulator are all measures that those sincerely committed to democratic politics must pursue.
It seems unlikely, however, that the national and regionally dominant parties – the greatest beneficiaries of the uneven electoral playing field – will seek to flatten it out. In such a situation, how can a politics unable to attract money and media survive?
To begin with, it must be admitted that the situation in India, particularly in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, is a far cry from media saturation – the percentage of rural households owning TVs was respectively 23 and 10 percent in 2011. In these states, which continue to dominate the national electoral landscape, campaigning and the exercise of monetary power will continue in more traditional and less totalising ways.
As a force with a strong volunteer base and transparent funding procedures, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the AAP’s most significant forms of mobilisation in these elections is a critical task for all progressive forces. Their wide adoption of traditional electoral methods – padyatras, meeting and speaking to voters face-to-face, and local meetings – was distinctive. These were combined with a social media presence comparable only to the BJP. Unable to counteract the impact of traditional print and electronic media, social media has not been a great leveller in these elections. Its deployment by AAP to raise funds, encourage transparency and interact with the traditional media does suggest that it could contribute to such a levelling. But that lies in the future.
AAP’s three most successful electoral raids should be understood as constituted by different degrees of media involvement. In Varanasi, their campaign was a hybrid of media coverage and hype, the presence of a key leader, and on-the-ground mobilisation. The effort to overcome the longstanding saffron base in the city and its augmentation by Modi’s larger-than-life image must, nevertheless, be counted unsuccessful, though perhaps grounds have been laid for a future challenge. In Delhi, the fact that the AAP held on to and even increased its vote share is encouraging on precisely that count. A political base created in the assembly elections has been sustained through demonstrated determination and a form of principled politics. Despite losing all the seats, AAP has emerged as the most significant challenger to the BJP everywhere in the state.
The most interesting case, perhaps, is Punjab. Here was a prosperous state with a high degree of media reach. The Badals of the Shiromani Akali Dal, along with their other vested interests in the state, control a major set of Punjabi-language television channels, and have stakes in the largest cable provision company in the state, Fastway. Nor have they been chary of using this power to control the nature of television coverage during elections. The Congress in Punjab commands comparable amounts of money and media goodwill. That an AAP campaign, strapped for funds and without major national or state-level figures, was able to do as well as it has in this media environment is a remarkable achievement. The fact that they have been beneficiaries of widely-reported dissatisfaction with the Akalis must not take away from the lesson that sustained mass mobilisational work can, under conducive circumstances, help win elections even without media assistance.
The most longstanding and striking instance of this proposition comes from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Maxine Loynd argues that the BSP has neither had, nor sought support from the media establishment. This was in large part because the mainstream media – given its caste makeup and ideological moorings – has consistently ignored and underreported the BSP. Instead, the party has relied on local myths, networks of party workers, face-to-face contacts and, through its symbolic and practical actions (both when in and out of power), the loyalty of its Dalit base. Where the AAP relied initially on making a big splash to eventually sideline big money and big media while building its base, the BSP has spent years building a base that might make the big media irrelevant.
The fate of both AAP and BSP in these elections – with four and zero MPs – underlines the increasing difficulties that radical and progressive forces face in the dawning era of media-driven elections. The main thrust of this period is likely to be towards a looking-glass world, in which the interests of big businesses and vocal personalities are likely to masquerade as the general will. It is a cliché to state that India has vibrant and active social movements. Even as they are being squeezed out in the television age, these movements will have to mobilise on a larger scale and adapt to incipient social media with great alacrity to have their voices heard.
~Anish Vanaik has recently completed a PhD in history at Oxford University.