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LS polls: Did the Fourth Estate uphold the duties of citizenship?

It is time for the media to introspect on how the Lok Sabha election was covered and on whether they failed to ask important questions, writes Sagarika Ghose.

india Updated: May 14, 2014 01:31 IST

The marathon campaign of 2014 is at an end and as we await the final result, opinion and exit polls are forecasting wins for the Narendra Modi-led NDA. Like 1977 the party of ‘change’ is set to make big gains in North India to come to power, but unlike 1977, when the towering leader was the woman in government, namely Indira Gandhi, today by contrast the towering leader is the man in the Opposition, namely Narendra Modi. In 1977, the Opposition Janata Party was an unknown quantity, but today the Opposition BJP has media clout, corporate clout and a big face. The government even after 10 years in power appears to have no clout, no big face and looks limp. The roles were reversed in 1977.

So as the campaign ends, it’s time to introspect on how this election was covered. Did the Fourth Estate uphold the duties of citizenship? Or did the media convert this election into IPL Season 4, where far from being a citizen, the media became a well-marketed investment proposition? Did we in the media reflect the mood of the voting population or did we simply become 24x7 infotainment that failed to ask important questions or reflect the sombre mood among voters?

During campaign 2014 I travelled across states to record 30 public chaupals. I found voters passionately engaged, yet sober and thoughtful. This mood was reflected in the orderly queues outside polling booths. Choices were by no means clear-cut.

In fact, the mood was far removed from the continuous excitement that the media were broadcasting, or the supposed public euphoria that the media were conveying about the ‘messiah’ leading the Triumphant March of the Great Nation.

Notwithstanding an unprecedented adulation of Modi among the urban youth — akin to a film star’s fan following — the dominant mood among voters on the ground seemed to be a pragmatic impulse to make the best possible choice for an economic turnaround. In Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata, the Modi wave hit the wall of regional parties. But the media remained guided by event managers, by manufactured ‘trends’ on social media, and became a 24x7 fan club.

I found much admiration for Modi’s economic model, but misgivings about Modi’s political model, namely subordinating party to personality and clamping down on freedom of expression. This dichotomy between Modi’s forward-looking economic model but his rather repressive political model was voiced to me on several occasions. We in the media perhaps failed to adequately cover this doubt, this nuance, and this dual perception of Modi. Hindutva and hopes of growth form important components of Modi’s appeal, but reservations about ‘tanashahi’ (dictatorship) remain. Muslim anger about Modi remains. Even among those impatient with that increasingly tawdry word ‘secularism’, there is near total opposition to any more religious violence.

Yet politicians and the media seemed locked in a mutually hypnotised dance, bouncing from action-packed moment to action-packed moment, from dharna to rally to Press conference, the camera led by the nose by party strategists in a never-ending formula film with a climax a minute. Modi’s bravura performances, the determinedly anti- intellectual, harshly-worded diatribes, the ‘dabang’ tone became an endless source of entertainment — a star act swallowed by the media with the adoration of college boys at a Rajnikanth film. Where were questions on the kind of language Modi — a prime ministerial candidate no less — was using, or why he was repeatedly falling foul of the Election Commission, or why were severe religious polarisation and the Hindu-Muslim divide so depressingly brought to the fore in an election supposedly about ‘development’?

When a domineering personality seeks to occupy centre stage, is it not the duty of journalists to remain sceptical and restrained?

In 1977, the poorest Indians defeated Indira Gandhi without the media, social media or high-profile media campaigns. The film star cult of NTR rapidly suffered defeat after tasting victory and Amitabh Bachchan couldn’t cut it in politics. At a time when politicians are not heroes, Modi is the pre-Daniel Craig James Bond, a slick-haired Sean Connery who dashes invisibly between multiple places with never a hair out of place. In mature democracies politicians earn brownie points for getting down and dirty in the Obama-type sweaty shirtsleeves mould.

But for Modi, who is selling aspiration, wealth creation and a better life, colour co-ordinated kurta suits are part of a superbly dressed-yet-tough-talking persona, on which the media lavishes gushing appreciation in sharp contrast to the sneers heaped on Mayawati for her pink salwar kameezes.

The backlash against English-speaking ‘pseudo secularists’ and Oxbridge-educated brown sahibs of the UPA may be fuelling the Modi revolution, manned by Apps-empowered newly middle-class residents of Bharat, suffused with Bollywood-style Hindu chic, anxious to take a shot at the mainstream and toss out the Macaulay-putras once and for all. Brash men of action are in, soft-spoken intellectuals are out.

The question is, do journalists see themselves as participants in this so-called bharatiya class war against firangi privilege? Or should they be one step removed and instead raise questions about certain anomalies in the Modi campaign that this long election has exposed, just as we have tracked the weaknesses of the UPA?

The media’s record in campaign 2014 has sadly not been a good one. We reflected the undeniable surge of opinion in favour of Modi but created euphoria where there was none. The camera was easily manipulated by event managers, leading to loss of autonomy. We reflected the undoubted salience of Modi but failed to capture the many shades of opinion that exist about him. The inordinate time spent on a glossy campaign on TV stood in sharp contrast to the thoughtful questioning sobriety of the voter. In 2014 Citizen Media lost out to star-struck media.

Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor, CNN-IBN

The views expressed by the author are personal