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Are Lok Sabha polls a blip on western media's radar?

Among other things, Indian elections have been dubbed as the greatest democratic show on earth. Despite the magnitude, the US media seems largely disinterested in covering India's electoral process.

india Updated: May 12, 2014 22:17 IST
Tania Goklany

Among other things, Indian elections have been dubbed as the greatest democratic show on earth.

And, this year's Lok Sabha elections are no different with a marathon nine-phase polling over a period of six weeks with 814 million registered voters - the numbers surely are eye-popping.

Despite the magnitude, the US media seems largely disinterested in covering India's electoral process.

British comedian and political satirist John Oliver's video on the western media's lack of concern about it became viral and tongues too started wagging questioning their coverage.

Is the US media really so disinterested in the Indian polls?

Ellen Barry, South Asia bureau chief of The New York Times, disagrees with "the caustic Mr Oliver's" assessment.

"We've run a large volume of material on these elections, as have other American outlets like the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post," said Barry.

The India correspondent of the Washington Post, Annie Gowen, however, says "Sadly, the video that went viral was likely the first exposure to these elections for many Americans despite our best efforts."

Americans can be somewhat myopic when it comes to foreign elections, even in a country as important as India, she adds.

Andrew North, the South Asia correspondent of the BBC, says the general decline of western interest in India in the recent years is because of the slowing economy "which could all change after the elections".

This time around, the polls have been all the more exceptional because of the participation of a large number of first-time voters, increasing influence of regional parties, unprecedented media coverage of party campaigns at home and surging poll-related activity on social media.

"As a journalist, my job is to communicate details, local facts on the ground to a wider audience. The reality and complexities of India need to be described overseas without distorting facts," said Jason Burke, the South Asia correspondent of The Guardian.

Candidates who have emerged as key players this elections are primarily Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, Aam Aadmi Party's Arvind Kejriwal, whose party was formed barely two years ago.

Combo photo (from left to right): BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and Aam Aadmi Party convenor Arvind Kejriwal.

"The focus on Modi is inevitable because he is seen as the frontrunner and (Rahul) Gandhi and Congress are on the back-foot. It looked as if the Congress had given up until Priyanka Gandhi showed up as far as their campaigns are
concerned," said North of the BBC.

From the perspective of the western media, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is a familiar lot of politicians and there's a lot of interest in them generally, according to Burke.

"Modi, however, isn't as familiar, but there is a considerable amount of interest in him as it seems very likely that he'd become the prime minister," Burke adds.

Modi has been tagged as "The favourite" by The Washington Post against "The familiar: Rahul Gandhi".

However, the leading candidate of the world's largest elections is a rather controversial figure.

His refusal to accept responsibility for Gujarat's 2002 pogrom against Muslims or offer an apology for the bloodshed is something that imposingly stands in his way of assuming the high office.

"Such a failure of moral character and political ethics on the part of Modi is incompatible with India's secular constitution, which, in advance of many constitutions across the world, is founded on pluralist principles and seeks fair and full representation for minorities," is what artist Anish Kapoor, novelist Salman Rushdie, filmmaker Deepa Mehta and 23 others wrote to The Guardian.

On being asked if The Guardian was taking a stance saying Modi shouldn't be India's PM, Burke said "We just published the (open) letter. We reported it as a news story, we didn't take any stand on him".

All leading opinion surveys believe Narendra Modi is set to become PM as they projected BJP-led NDA to breach the majority mark in Lok Sabha. (AFP Photo)

With such personalities in the fray for the top office, issues seemed to have taken a backseat in campaigns.

Although "personality-based campaigning" in India is not as new as some commentators complain.

"It seems Indira Gandhi showed the way, with Congress entrenching the practice by turning to another Gandhi personality, her daughter-in-law, to restore its fortunes," North says.

Campaigning has also seen a lot of mudslinging with politicians trading insults and focusing on their rivals' wives and husbands instead of policy prescriptions.

"The media has allowed this to happen," North says adding that "The focus has been more on personalities battling to come up with the catchiest insult than press politicians on their policies".

Articles on Modi and Rahul's war of words and Kejriwal's common man act have appeared on the India-focussed online platforms of certain US-based newspapers.

The focus on India's elections more or less remains a blip on the western media's radar and it is still a long way off till they cover Indian polls as comprehensively as the elections in Afghanistan.