As they watch Mayawati’s press conference in Lucknow, a group of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) activists in west Uttar Pradesh praises Behenji for handling media questions.
But it is only recently that the BSP supremo has started taking questions. Earlier, she preferred reading out statements, before quickly wrapping up.
That, along with BSP’s informal forays into social media, indicate the party may be waking up to the need to engage with the media. But hold on. The efforts end there, for the party cadre is still suspicious of the media. There appears a paradoxical relationship, where BSP supporters are interested in how media covers them, yet keep a distance from it.
The policy of distance has percolated down from Mayawati.
A BSP district secretary says, “She has told us to avoid media. And if at all we speak to it, she has said go with a written statement so that they can’t distort.”
A prominent leader, who has been an MLA, confirms this. He says that he had begun appearing on TV panels, when Mayawati cautioned him. “She did not say don’t do it. But she said we have to be careful; media will try to trap us; it may harm the party. I got the hint and stopped going.”
Roots of Suspicion
The distance can be traced to the party’s suspicion of media’s ownership, composition and coverage. At the Bali village in Meerut’s Hastinapur, young Dalit men are standing as a BSP candidate campaigns.
Gopal Singh asks, “Why does the media not cover us? When upper castes have a gathering of five people, media shows it be to 50, and when we have a gathering of 500 people, the media shows it to be of five people.”
This is echoed, some distance away, by the Moradabad mandal coordinator of the BSP, Mahendra Singh Prajapati. “The media is biased. When you do polls, you come to towns and talk to upper castes. You never go to villages and talk to Dalits: so you never write about our strength.”
When HT put to them that the problem was that the BSP itself did not engage with the media, they were not convinced.
Instead, Singh in Hastinapur said, “The media is controlled by capitalists. And capitalists are in the pocket of the PM. So why will they cover us?”
The fact that both media owners, and most journalists, are non-Dalits adds to the mistrust. This suspicion has grown with the entry of political consultants. Satish Prakash, a Dalit intellectual in Meerut, explains, “From the BJP to Nitish Kumar to Congress, parties are hiring PR advisers to manage the media. BSP does not have such political consultants.”
Need for adaptation
But there are voices calling for change. Earlier, the core BSP voter — the poor Dalit — did not consume media and was not affected by it. Today, he does.
Satish Prakash says, “TV is the cheapest form of entertainment today; every Dalit home has TV. BSP needs to be more visible to reach out to its own voters.”
Social media — particularly in the form of Facebook and WhatsApp — is also far more widespread today. There are informal WhatsApp groups set by groups of Dalits where they share political material.
The 2017 polls will be a test of how critical media is to political fortunes. If BSP wins, it will show that a party’s core strength derives from its base and quiet organisational work. But if it loses, it may be time for the party to refashion its approach to the media and shed its policy of distance.