Politics, perhaps, are nowhere as personalized as they are in India. This is tellingly visible in election coverage by news media.
Sure, personalities did dominate the recent American elections—however, these personalities used this visibility to draw attention and invite debate on issues. While our politicians launched personal attacks, raked up controversies over caste and religion, even called each other names. Developmental issues don’t seem to be in any reckoning!
CMS Media Lab analysis of the election coverage by select news papers (The Times of India, The Hindu, the Dainik Bhaskar, the Dainik Jagran, Sandesh, the Anandabazar Patrika, Eenadu) and news channels (NDTV 24x7, CNN IBN, Aaj Tak, Zee News, DD News, Star News) shows that personalities dominated the coverage of elections. Almost 62% of the election coverage in TV news channels and 40% in newspapers was devoted to various personalities. The graph shows how much coverage various politicians across parties received in these elections.
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In search of drama, the media, especially TV channels, made hate speeches by novice politicians the highlight of their coverage of these elections.
The analysis of March and April newspapers and news channels shows that Varun Gandhi was one of the most covered politician. He topped coverage in television and was a close second in newspapers. In fact, Varun Gandhi received more prime time election coverage than all other Gandhis (Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka) put together. Varun also got thrice the coverage his own party leader Narendra Modi received.
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The second prominent figure contesting for precious news space was the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani. He was active and went all out to ensure coverage across different medium—including the Internet, billboards, etc. Advani received roughly two times the coverage Prime MinisterManmohan Singhdid—both on TV and in newspapers. This is no surprise; even in the 2004 elections, Advani received more coverage than any other politician, including then prime minister and BJP leaderA.B. Vajpayee.
The top 10 television stars of this election coverage other than Varun Gandhi and Advani include Sanjay Dutt, Lalu Prasad, Narendra Modi, Mayawati and of course the Gandhi family (Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka). Sanjay Dutt leads the celebrity bandwagon this time—and received more coverage than seasoned politicians. Missing from the top 10 list were Manmohan Singh, popular leaders such as Pranab Mukherjee, P. Chidambaram and many of the important southern leaders. The honours list in newspapers included Varun Gandhi, L. K. Advani, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi, Mayawati, Lalu Prasad and Manmohan Singh.
The media has focused on these personalities at length—analysing their strategies and covering their exploits on the campaign trail. The focus has very much been on the race and the party’s tactics during these elections. There has been significant space and time devoted to the evaluation of the latest spin from politicians and parties and much speculation on alliances that can or will be formed after these elections.
In many ways, the news media has brought these politicians closer to the common citizen and exposed both their weaknesses and strengths. And often, the unpleasant has received more coverage than the pleasant. Details on who said what about whom have been overplayed—in print and on television. And the use of words such as gudiya (doll) and budhiya (hag), have been highlighted—often making a big deal of small differences.
The decline in turnout in the last election has meant broadcasters also attempted to generate public interest in the electoral process. Also visible were large number of public campaigns led by civil society and some media companies to encourage citizens to vote.
Still, instead of focusing on the political debate, media coverage of the elections is moving in the direction of trivialized reality TV type programming. The obsession with how the politicians are doing, rather than with the serious political issues such as the economy, health, terror and human rights, has reached new heights in this election.
For our news media, the first act of our election drama ended with the polling. The second act has started with Wednesday’s exit polls. Saturday and the week ahead will mark the begging of the third act: the actual results, possible alliances, and the formation of the new government. And the news media will play an important role in this. Watch this space.
Graphics by Sandeep Bhatnagar / Mint
P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies. Your comments and feedback on this column, which runs every other Friday, are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org