Elections are such a wonderful, airtime-filling carnival for the media that they are unwilling to let go. After the swearing-in ceremonies this week, they will finally have to call it a day, though the “fourth front” speculation has become a new bandwagon to hop onto for a while. But, meanwhile, a little audit is in order, to see who gains what from the process.
It is difficult to imagine elections in say, the US, without a pivotal role for the media, television, online or print. They air issues and publicize candidates for the benefit of voters who have to make up their minds. But what makes the recent elections in Uttar Pradesh noteworthy is that the tireless coverage was largely for the benefit of those who were not going to the polls.
Did voters in UP make up their minds on the basis of what they saw and read? Did the candidates benefit? Saturation coverage did nothing in electoral terms for the candidate favoured: the outcome suggested the media was more smitten by the Gandhi charisma than the voters. And if the vote share analysis indicates that Mayawati held on to the Dalit vote, and Akhilesh Yadav crafted his victory principally through a ground strategy which included cycles, and no less than 800 rallies, it suggests that media coverage of the candidates and what they stood for could not have counted for that much. Mayawati does not depend on the media to reach her constituency, and Yadav’s good-natured cracks after the results were in suggested that he did not think he owed his victory to media coverage either.
How much of a role district editions of the Hindi newspapers played might hold part of the answer. The state’s leading newspaper Dainik Jagran adopts a consistently oppositional stance to the United Progressive Alliance at the Centre, and to the Congress party in UP.
And to the extent that local corruption and crime are a staple in the daily district editions of several big papers here, they must have helped make governance an issue. Unless there is more research, that can only be a surmise.
Whom is the media supposed to be relevant to in an election? To the would-be voter in the state where it is being held? Or to people across the country watching the elections unfold? Do elections do more for the media to fill airtime and garner advertisements than the media does for candidates or would-be voters? I suspect they do. Times Now did its best to milk the exit poll phase with minimum outlay. It promised a 100% focus for 100 hours, waited for other channels to present their exit polls and proceeded to analyse them. Vinod Mehta cheerfully describes in his Delhi Diary what he calls a bums-on-seat marathon with very little to go on besides the exit polls. Elections also do something, presumably, for the TV analysts who find it worth their while to spend extended hours—day after day in this case—having a theory swapping session that is broadcast to the nation.
But our redoubtable chief election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi has a more charitable view of what the media contributed. If voter turnout was the big triumph of the 2012 polls, he is happy to give credit to local television and newspapers in the states that went to the polls for strengthening his hand. The Election Commission (EC) reached out to newspapers and television channels asking them to be a force multiplier in the campaign to bring women and youth out to the polling booths and they obliged generously, he says. Whether it was ETV, Zee TV, Hindi Hindustan or Amar Ujala, they responded enthusiastically with public service messaging, and did it pro bono. Partly as a result of this, the female voter turnout was 80% more than it was five years ago. There was also another kind of media at work: women brand ambassadors for each state to help get voters out. Bhojpuri singer Malini Awasthi was appointed brand ambassador of the UP state Election Commission and recorded videos that were extensively used. If media helped the turnout, we have to grant that it played a yeoman public service role.
Quraishi is also clear that the Election Commission relied substantially on the media to be its eyes and ears on the ground and EC’s foot soldiers were asked to take all reports seriously and follow them up. At the same time, this was an election where paid news was hunted down and its perpetrators nabbed.
Finally, while elections may be a great leveller, television is not. The Gandhis will still get airtime without ever having to appear on an anchored TV programme. Lesser mortals like Akhilesh Yadav and Sukhbir Singh Badal patiently made time for appearances on channel after channel even after victory.
Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website thehoot.org. She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.