A Zee News reporter descends upon a street in Hooghly and darts about buttonholing jhalmuri sellers, students on the road, a rickshaw-puller and sundry other citizens. “Didi ya Modi?” Some say Didi, others say Modi, and some dodge the question. He asks a follow-up “Kyun?” sometimes, not always. Then he’s off, wandering along, nabbing others. When they are not hollering in a studio about issues that are more national-political than civic-local, television journalists on the election beat — be they from Delhi or Calcutta — skim along uncovering so little that you begin to wonder if there is a method in this charade.
Indeed there is. The advertiser is interested in eyeballs, but eyes around the country would glaze over if there was anything genuinely civic-local about the coverage of a state election. Narendra Modi sells, Didi sells, harping on the Bharatiya Janata Party expanding its footprint sells. Identity politics, a euphemism for casteism and communalism, sells, as do allegations of syndicates and ‘cut money’. What will not sell for TV audiences outside Bengal is anything that focuses on the quality of life of ordinary people. Jobs, healthcare, roads and wages, for instance. You have to hope that local editions of regional newspapers will take care of that.
The polls in West Bengal, the most saleable of the state polls in advertisement-generating terms, can be used to test several hypotheses about the purpose the media in India has come to serve in an election. Does it further accountability by looking at the governance record of the incumbent, or does it privilege politics over governance every time? Who will win, and by how much, and what will that mean for national politics?
It became the norm a very long time ago that elections were the only occasion when resources-starved media outlets in a crowded, advertising-dependent universe would send out reporters to actually cover the hinterland, talk to people and assess change. Because the election season is also when advertisers presume higher viewership and loosen their purse strings. So villages get visited, farmers, youth, women and shopkeepers spoken to, and assessments are made about winning and losing, but also about the progress of development in general. But when a state contest is framed as the BJP setting out to capture one more state in the Union, the ‘state of the state’ aspect is drowned out by the political noise.
Tracking governance and hiring local reporters for beats are expensive. Telecasting political speeches and debating political developments in studios on a daily basis are not. A number of Hindi channels are scrambling to cover this election. They wouldn’t do that in a non-Hindi speaking state if this contest wasn’t seen as an out and out political winner in terms of audiences.
Is the media a platform or an instrument? When a TV network uses an election to start up a new regional channel, is it responding to a business opportunity, which is fair enough, or is it parachuting in to give an edge to a particular political party? (In an earlier time, you could have asked that question about newspaper groups using an election to start a new edition, but for a while at least it seems most unlikely that any newspaper will think of further expansion.)
TV9 and Republic TV have used these elections to launch a presence in West Bengal. The latter launched itself with an ‘Ami Arnab’ speech in which Arnab Goswami made an emotional pitch, promising to uphold citizens’ issues and hold politicians accountable. But you could ask what the chances are that Republic TV, given its pro-BJP track record, would launch just in time for the politically-charged West Bengal election and, yet, be thoroughly non-partisan in this high-decibel contest.
Commercial TV channels apart, these elections have indeed seen a flowering of media platforms designed to be instruments, mostly for the BJP. The Wire reported last September that it tracked around 30 websites and video channels, the majority of which emerged since 2018, six in 2020, most of them biased towards the BJP. Barring two, all produce content in Bengali, some of it fake news. None of the news sites had ownership information, or dates of incorporation, the report said, nor did they carry reports with bylines. The few that did had only first names of the purported authors. Creating media to serve its purpose is part of the BJP’s strategy and it does the job assiduously.
Do newspapers do better than television in assessing the overall governance record? They do, based on data. Several assessments of how this state ranks alongside other states on a host of parameters have been published; one business paper called it “Paribartan in bits and pieces” and detailed a mixed record in job creation, lagging behind some other states in per capita income but improving over the decade in both agriculture and rural infrastructure.
Finally, can the media predict electoral outcomes successfully? Media houses commission polls to supplement their election reporting. However, the additional input this time is the emergence of a “Mood for Poriborton” report from a Telangana-based election analysis agency called Peoples Pulse. Its claim to credibility is that its author, the political scientist, Sajjan Kumar, surveyed all 294 constituencies in West Bengal between September and December 2020.
His prediction of a clear edge for the BJP in 160 seats based on strong anti-incumbency is providing analytical grist for a range of leading media outlets. The assertion is that the BJP is not winning; it is the default beneficiary of an anti-TMC vote. The edge given to the Trinamul Congress in the polls done till now is countered by his theory that there is a silent voter who has made up his or her mind but will not reveal it. This could be the election then which will either make or break his reputation.
The author is a media commentator and was the founder-editor of TheHoot.org