India’s corporate-owned media has been pro-government and could easily be blamed for helping Prime Minister Narendra Modi retain a majority in the lower house of parliament, but can we absolve liberal and left-leaning newspapers? Perhaps not fully, for independent newspapers, too, practice “old-fashioned” journalism, which unwittingly empowers divisive parties and politicians to dominate public discourse.
One hallmark of old-school journalism is its view of an election.
The Oxford Dictionary defines an election from the point of view of a voter: “a formal and organized choice by vote of a person for a political office or other position.” Similarly, Encyclopedia Britannica says that “an election is a formal group decision-making process by which a population chooses an individual to hold public office.”
However, journalists in India, as elsewhere, have traditionally looked at an electoral exercise as a test for a political leader, or a “horse race” between candidates or parties. That’s why they often use terms like “battle,” and focus on the interests of the political class, in their election stories. (Perhaps it’s a legacy of the time when there was no Internet or social media and common people had little or no access to those in power, and the journalists thought they could serve people by informing them about the elite.)
As a result, the voters, who are the real stakeholders in an election, are pushed to the periphery of public discourse, which is then dominated by what parties and politicians say during an election season for their convenience and advantage, whether or not those statements reflect the demands or the needs of the voters.
This is precisely how the 2019 general elections were covered.
Candidates from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sought to raise the issue of Hindu nationalism and terrorism, alluding to the lynching of dozens of Muslims on suspicion of cow slaughter or eating of beef over the last five years – which took place mostly in the BJP-ruled states – and the recent tragic attack allegedly by a Pakistan-based terror group on a convoy of vehicles carrying Indian security personnel in Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir state that killed 40 troops.
The BJP’s apparent objective was to activate Islamophobia, fear of terrorism and of Pakistan to divert public discourse away from the numerous blunders made by and failings of its administration. The blunders included the demonetization of the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes, the imposition of the indirect Goods and Services Tax and the waiving off of loans of some of the richest industrialists. The BJP-led government also failed to solve the farm crisis that led thousands of farmers to end their own lives and to check corruption in high places and unemployment.
Hindu nationalism and Islamophobia can, therefore, be called “fake issues,” which are more dangerous than “fake news” for a democracy, as they are highly emotive and divisive and are aimed at diverting attention away from genuine needs and concerns of the voters.
The BJP’s election strategy also included portrayal of the opposition as weak and imprudent. For example, Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the main opposition Indian National Congress party, was ridiculed on social media.
Independent newspapers unknowingly gave the BJP what it wanted, which was to dominate the election coverage in such a manner that media would have little time or resources left to feature the voice of the opposition or the voters.
The liberal media was obsessed with Modi, the BJP chief Amit Shah, and their friends and supporters in the corporate sector. While they featured the Modi-Shah duo as the “villain” of the Indian democracy, they failed to give enough space to opposition parties and leaders. The voters naturally thought there was no other “hero,” or an alternative to Modi.
Left-leaning media did send their reporters to voters, including in villages where the majority of the residents are dependent on farming, but only to ask questions that the BJP wanted raised – whether or not the threat from Pakistan was an issue for them or whether or not Muslims were any less patriotic than the people from the majority Hindu community. Even if Hindu nationalism wasn’t an issue, it became an issue because journalists raised it by overzealously negating it.
For example, journalists reported from a small village, called Bishada, in the northern Uttar Pradesh state’s Dadri district, which is infamous for the mob lynching of a 52-year-old Muslim man, Mohammed Akhlaq, over rumors of cow slaughter. But they sought to discuss the lynching incident, instead of issues like unemployment, with the voters.
The journalists thought they were being brave by going after the “powerful” BJP, but they failed to see how even their negative coverage was helping the party. While the majority of the people in India were struggling to earn just enough money to live on, loud political voices succeeded in making them debate for or against Hindu nationalism and Islamophobia.
As I traveled to several states with my colleagues at StoriesAsia, a collective of independent journalists, to cover this election, we rarely found a voter talk about an issue the BJP had raised, unless we asked them a pointed question about what the party was saying. Their concerns were mostly about the lack of access to water, sanitation, healthcare facilities, primary schools, roads, pension and so on.
Here’s an analogy. Let’s say, a group of employees is to evaluate their management but a manager proposes an extremely emotive and divisive question to the moderator, who then leads the group in a debate on why that issue must not be debated, thereby allowing the management to escape the evaluation altogether.
Fake issues easily piggyback on the old-fashioned style of an election coverage, which seeks to inquire into which party and candidates are doing what to win the polls, rather than look at what the needs and the concerns of the voters are and which party and candidates can best address them. It’s a subtle, but hugely significant, difference in perspective.
Surprisingly, even profit-hungry businesses have moved largely toward the bottom-up approach in their operations, but journalists still allow the elite to dictate to voters what election issues should be. Media must change this anti-democratic, top-down system of covering elections. Until then, Indians will have to live with a government they didn’t deserve.