Backstory: Poll Vaulting Till D-Day

A fortnightly column from The Wire‘s Public Editor.

Poll vaulting.

Poll vaulting.

Elections in India have been compared to carnivals, replete with their own versions of knife throwers, flame swallowers, tight rope walkers and the like. The games and rides on offer make for engrossing media content, which is why elections also tend to figure hugely on media platforms, often crowding out even more significant news developments.

The forthcoming elections to the five state assemblies of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Manipur and Goa will see one-fifth of the country’s population exercise its franchise. They throw up an alluring gallery of personalities (as do most elections in the country) and present a study in contrast, featuring both India’s largest state assembly – Uttar Pradesh with 403 members – and one of its smallest – Goa with 40 seats. Their verdicts will impact Indian politics in both the near and longer terms and shape political institutions like the office of the president and the upper house of parliament.

Yet, two questions arise: is the excessive obsession with elections that the Indian mainstream media invariably display helpful? Do they contribute to bringing the specific social concerns of diverse people in these variegated regions to pan-national consciousness? Going by the record, media coverage seems to have a scoreboard fixation, constantly feeding the interest that the public generally has in electoral outcomes – rather like a giant cricket match – but only rarely building a genuine engagement with the issues that impact actual lives, especially of those placed in regions far away from the comfort zones of the urban elite. Often media coverage end up helping to shore up the existing status quo and contribute to replicating the very hierarchies and inequalities of power that have robbed Indian democracy of its meaning. The 2014 verdict was an instance of precisely such a trajectory, with disproportionate and friendly media attention being paid to the fortunes of one particular individual who, in turn, was able to enhance and harness it for his own purposes of power consolidation on a national scale. If media coverage of elections went beyond the mere betting on outcomes; if it got under the skin of local politics, making sense of conversations with local people and understanding the distinct politico-cultural underpinnings of each state; if it posed tough questions to those choosing to represent the people, the verdicts too would reflect educated choices.
Which brings us to the next question, when is the best time for a news portal like The Wire to begin covering the present series of elections that stretches over 36 days, from the day the first states go to polls, which is February 4, to counting day, which falls on March 11? The time span is important to consider while posing this question since there is the fatigue factor to think of – monotonous election coverage is a great put-off. I have been watching how The Wire answers this question and have noticed that it wasn’t until January 17/18 that the first election specific commentaries began to appear. The best election reports also entail footwork and the report from western Uttar Pradesh (‘In Western UP, a Clash of Identities Could Decide Election Outcome‘, January 18) did have plenty of it and convey an early, and depressing (as one reader put it), warning that the Muzaffarnagar communal polarisation is alive and well in this neck of UP.

As if to prove the report right, there was the story about BJP MLA Sangeet Som (‘BJP MLA Sangeet Som Booked For Violating Poll Code, Showing ‘Riot Video’, January 19), which offered conclusive proof of the commingling of majoritarian politics and electoral fortunes. Uttar Pradesh, the BJP’s laboratory of Hindutva since the late 1980s, needs careful journalistic observation. The videos found in the possession of Som was entirely of a piece with the Muzaffarnagar riot schema with which he was implicated, and also indicates that here is a politician who is a product of the riot system and will never fail to use it when the opportunity presents itself. The Wire commentary on him did mention the manner in which he drew political mileage out of the Akhlaq murder in Dadri’s Bisara village as well as the cases filed against him, but it left out one important detail: that Som was publicly felicitated by his party in November 2013 in the run up to the 2014 general election for his role in the Muzaffarnagar riots from the same public platform in Agra from where its prime minister designate, Narendra Modi, had addressed the gathering a short while later. In other words, the BJP clearly invests great hopes in this man and openly endorses his political strategies of open communal polarisation.

Then there were two personality driven pieces on the relatively smaller state assemblies of Uttarakhand (70 seats), ‘With N.D. Tiwari Joining BJP, Uttarakhand Politics Is Likely to Remain Unstable and Unpredictable’ (January 18), and Punjab (60 seats), ‘From Awaaz-e-Punjab to Congress, Will Sidhu’s Many Stops Work in His Favour?’, January 17. On the Punjab economy, there was some useful background commentary that tangentially touched on the elections. ‘In Amritsar, Decline in Earnings Doesn’t Translate to Anti-Demonetisation Sentiments’ (January 16) we had an interesting assessment on how demonetisation may not be an issue for the local residents of Amritsar city, while a video report filed by The Wire correspondent reflected a sharply divergent reality by pointing to declines in tractor sales in the wake of the currency crunch. Clearly, the rural economy is still hurting from demonetisation, even as urban India seems to have “adjusted” in time honoured fashion.

While there has been some reporting in The Wire on the pre-election jostling in Manipur (‘Manipur BJP Legislative Assembly Leader Joykishan Defects to Congress’, December 21), Goa has as yet not figured on the election radar although despite being a small state it is not without national significance. The Goa verdict this time could impact on sectors such as mining and tourism, and could even rob the country of the services of a Union defence minister known to shoot from the hip/lip.

So while a promising beginning has been made in terms of election coverage, is it the case that The Wire has come rather late into the arena, seeing that newspapers and television channels are brimming over with campaign content? This was how the editorial team responded to the question: “Editorial planning began the day after the election dates were announced on January 4 and a plan was drawn up for reporters to travel from Delhi to Punjab, UP, Uttarakhand and Manipur for election stories – both text and multimedia. For Goa, we decided to task a freelancer. Because of limited manpower, we felt we would time our trips and reports for once the campaign begins. In terms of volume, there is no way we can match the output of larger media organisations but we hope to push the envelope in terms of the granularity of coverage.”

So here’s looking forward to The Wire in election mode.

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The words “deepening crisis” appeared in the headlines of two reports within a short span of each other, ‘How Demonetisation Has Accelerated Tamil Nadu’s Deepening Agrarian Crisis’ (January 15), followed by ‘One year after Rohith Vemula’s suicide, a deepening crisis in Hyderabad University’ (January 16). As a journalist, I have often noticed how certain words and expressions seem to keep playing somewhere in the sub-conscious and re-surface in one’s copy like a broken record. Often, alas, it’s only when you read the passage or headline in print that one realises this and by then it’s too late to do anything about it. Catching these slippery customers before that stage arrives, therefore, becomes important and the time honoured way of achieving this is to get a second person to do a onceover of the copy edited, time permitting.

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