Why Indian media isn’t influencing voter turnout

Why Indian media isn’t influencing voter turnout

Most people agree that media is a very powerful tool in promoting healthy democratic rights of nations. Others praise media, saying without this people would not be advanced the way they are now. Media supplies people with news, education, entertainment, analysis that informs society and is a part of society that should never be ignored. And that is why an informed media is often referred to as the fourth estate of democratic politics.

Today, in India, we have a mind-boggling 88,000 registered newspapers. Of these, about 5,000 are published regularly and include daily morning and evening newspapers. There are also about 400 television channels and this number is likely to mount by the time India has national elections in early 2009.

There is little doubt that the growing number of television news channels as well as newspapers have provided wider and deeper coverage of elections. But how has the media boom impacted a critical aspect of democracies: voter turnout?

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A look at voter turnout trends in the last four Parliament elections and also data on voter turnout in some assembly elections, including Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and the most recent elections held in Karnataka, viewed in light of sharp increases in television audiences and newspaper readers during the same period leads to one startling conclusion: There appears to be very low correlation between Indian voter turnout and growing media—and presumably information—sources.

Perhaps it makes sense to look at the role of media and the kind of coverage that they offer to prospective voters.

An illustrative case is the recent UP assembly election. Parties and their candidates in this election spent an estimated Rs700 crore on their campaigns. The eventual victor, the Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP) share was the least—around 10% as compared with the then incumbent Samajwadi Party, which spent four times more and the two national parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, which together spent about 35% of the total.

The Mayawati-led BSP proved it is possible to woo and win over voters from relatively more hi-tech media campaigns (which usually account for about 40% of total poll expenditure), debunking recent conventional wisdom among political parties that heavy spending on expensive media campaigns can win over votes.

The BSP barely advertised, nor did its candidates or events receive much media attention except in some locally printed newspapers. Studies after the election showed that voters for the BSP had a much lower exposure to media than voters for other major political parties. As a result, the lack of coverage by the media of BSP’s candidates didn’t matter much to the largely economically marginalized support base of the party.

Mayawati proved how even today, non-mediated, informal networks remain more significant in spreading news in rural India than does mainstream media.

This ought to be a bit of a wake-up call for the Indian media in terms of the need to look at audiences that will actually shape the outcome of the next set of elections. Perhaps it is time the news media played a wider role in creating public opinion and made special efforts to influence rural voters who are still not overly affected by the growing urban middle class apathy towards elections.

A democracy can only thrive if the news media plays an important role in being interactive as well as motivates voters, especially India’s large number of young and first-time voters, to participate in the electoral process in large numbers.

In my next column, I will discuss how the Internet and mobile phones are influencing our political discourse.

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 fineprint@livemint.com

Graphics by Sandeep Bhatnagar / Mint