Backstory: Elections Are Contributing to the Coarseness of Our Public Discourse

A fortnightly column from The Wire's public editor.

One of the major markers of Indian democracy has been the relatively uninterrupted conduct of elections. Much computer time has been spent describing, analysing and reporting on this exercise which has taken place with admirable regularity since 1952. S.Y. Quraishi, former chief election commissioner of India, begins his 2014 book, An Undocumented Wonder The Making of the Great Indian Election, with a quote from V. Mitchell’s news report on the 2009 general election for the New York Times:

“It is truly the greatest show on Earth, an ode to a diverse and democratic ethos, where 700 million plus of humanity vote, providing their small part in directing their ancient civilization into the future. It is no less impressive when done in a neighbourhood which includes destabilizing and violent Pakistan, China, and Burma.”

Such lustrous words would warm the average voter because they too believe in the greatness and neutrality of this process; otherwise why would they stand so patiently in never-ending queues, time after time, under the sun or rain, with babes in arms or on failing limbs, to exercise their franchise? This is why it is profoundly disturbing to note that every election without fail, especially over the last few years, seems to be leaving India more communally riven, more hate-filled, more money-driven, more patriarchal, more caste-driven and more cynical. Simultaneously, if we are to borrow words from the preamble to the Constitution, it has left us less equal, less fraternal, less united, less integrated and less democratic.

People are voting blind, based on a combination of a tribalised sense of affiliation, carefully nurtured fears/hatred and the hope of cashing in on a few benefits that may come their way. Meanwhile, institutions that could have made a substantial difference have allowed the natural laws of gravity – in this case the weight of power – to take its course.

This is an election season that saw the Supreme Court green-signal the flow of opaque funds into the system, after flattering to deceive through its April 2019 statement on the ADR petition challenging electoral bonds: “… the rival contentions give rise to weighty issues which have a tremendous bearing on the sanctity of the electoral process in the country” (‘Ahead of Polls in Four States, SC Needs to Prioritise the Challenge to Electoral Bonds‘, March 9, 2021).

As it turned out, it refused to temporarily stay their implementation this time on the specious ground that electoral bonds were “allowed to be released in 2018 and 2019 without interruption, and sufficient safeguards are there”. Coterminous with this is the painfully sluggish audit processes of the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, depriving voters of information vital for an informed exercise of franchise (‘As States Enter Election Season, Important CAG Reports Remain Unavailable to the Public‘, March 17).

A TMC activist writes on a wall for the speedy recovery of party supremo and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, in Kolkata, Thursday, March 11, 2021. Photo: PTI

Institutions of the more punitive kind, including the Enforcement Directorate and Central Bureau of Investigation, have played their role in quickening the heartbeat of both electoral hopefuls and voters alike (‘Weeks Before Bengal Election Announcement, ED, CBI, Police Probes Suddenly Gain Steam‘, February 23). Finally, the institution that is central to the process, the Election Commission of India, has been repeatedly tested already and been found severely wanting (‘EC Orders Repolling in Assam’s Ratabari Seat After EVMs Found in BJP MLA’s Car‘, April 2).

It is amidst the crumbling of the pillars of our democratic edifice that we should now turn to three interlinked media-driven narratives that have darkened the poll scenario significantly: social media messaging, “mainstream media” coverage and electioneering rhetoric of candidates. For some years now, the IT cells of various parties have attempted – and often succeeded – in gaming the system. It is the ruling party however that has shown the greatest stomach for such an exercise, and the appointment of Amit Malviya, the experienced head of BJP’s IT cell, as overseer of the Bengal election, is comment enough (‘Amit Malviya’s Appointment in Bengal Shows How Heavily BJP Relies on Social Media‘, November 18).

The pre-election period is typically the time when the dragon seed of fake news is planted. For instance, this time we saw the wide circulation of a tweaked video made to appear as if AIUDF Badruddin Ajmal was promising voters to make India an Islamic state should be Congress-AIUDF alliance win (‘Right-Wingers Tweet Morphed Video of AIUDF Chief Saying ‘India Will Become Islamic Nation‘, March 10).

Pratik Sinha, co-founder of Alt News, perceived the menace of fake news widespread enough to launch a campaign: #AnyoneCanFactCheck. He demonstrated how, for instance, voters could discover for themselves the fakeness of a video, presently circulating, of a woman being molested in public, with text claiming that this is what is happening in present-day Bengal. The original image is from a 2015 Bhojpuri film, Aurat Khilona Nahi.

The same video, incidentally, was made viral during the 2019 general election. Of course, the possibility of voters, many of whom are located outside the digital space, doing fact-checks of this kind is remote, but that doesn’t mean such efforts to educate should not be made.

It’s not just on social media – a great deal of election-related disinformation is springing up in the newspaper and television space. During the general election of 2009, P. Sainath had reported for The Hindu on a phenomenon that came to be known as “paid news”. The modus operandus was simple: the electoral candidate, in this case Congress leader Ashok Chavan, got three newspapers to cover him in glowing terms. The stories were near identical and even the mugshot of the protagonist was the same. Basically these were ads passed off as independent reporting.

That moment came to mind when I came across the PTI/The Wire story, ‘EC Issues Notices To Assam Newspapers Over BJP Advertisement In the Form of Headline‘ (April 1), concerning an ad for the BJP that was dressed up to appear like a lead front page story. But there were significant differences. In the earlier case, only three newspapers were tempted to carry the fake content; now eight had succumbed. Also, in the earlier instance, it was about the fortunes of an individual. Here it was a national party playing fast and loose with election norms. The story claimed that the BJP would emerge victorious in all the 47 seats where polls were conducted in phase I of the Assam elections.

Such premature projections of victory, we know, have become part of the BJP’s election toolkit, but it is a worrying sign of journalistic decay. Sainath’s observation made 11 years ago, “Either we finish paid news, or it will finish us”, has come back to haunt us.

The more astute voter understands the implications of saturation media coverage. As a Bengal resident of Nandigram put it, “Politicians will contest and go, but we will have to live here. All these cameras and mics don’t suit us, we want peace” (‘Propelled to Poll Epicentre, Nandigram Battles Polarisation in Fight for ‘Bengal’s Soul‘, April 9). Saturation coverage invariably also silences important concerns. In Bengal, for instance, voters rarely came to know about the issues raised by the Left-Congress coalition (‘West Bengal: The Dilemma That Left-Leaning Voters Are Facing in This Election‘, April 3).

The third narrative is of course the discourse of communalism and patriarchy now permeating election speeches across the country. DMK leader A. Raja probably thought he had hit upon a winning script when he attacked Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami by saying he was “born out of an illicit relationship and through a premature delivery”.

Dilip Ghosh’s infamous inference that Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is going against Bengali culture by not covering her injured leg with her sari is not just crass; it amounts to body shaming. His party and prime minister rushed to call out Raja’s misogyny but were silent about the man heading their Bengal campaign.

Double-speak, of course, is par for the electoral course. Notice how the BJP waits for the Assam elections to end to unleash the promise to bring the Citizenship (Amendment) Act into force while campaigning is still on in Bengal, or how the CPI(M) ties itself into knots over the Sabarimala issue with the Kerala chief minister and his minister for temple affairs signalling sympathy to believers – even though the party has come out strongly for women’s equal right to worship at the shrine (‘Ahead of Assembly Polls, Kerala CM Vijayan Says No Debate Needed on Sabarimala Issue‘, March 19).

There is no such prevarication however when it came to communal rhetoric layered with caste innuendoes (‘Movement, a Battle to See Who the ‘Real’ Brahmin Is‘, March 13). Two states that were going to the polls – Bengal and Assam – were profoundly shaped by Partition and the anti-Muslim narrative became dangerously overt. A telling ground report based on detailed conversations with an RSS functionary (‘Ground Report: The RSS Took Root in Bengal One Haripad at a Time‘, April 4) reveals how vital everyday communalism is for the BJP’s electoral invincibility.

Cashing in on it are people like the BJP’s new recruit Suvendu Adhikari, anxious to prove his fan-boy credentials by adopting a strategy borrowed from his boss. If Narendra Modi had taken to terming Rahul Gandhi as “shehzada” from the 2014 electoral campaign onwards, Adhikari termed Mamata as “begum”: “If begum comes back to power, the state will turn into a mini Pakistan” (‘‘Mini-Pakistan’: Closer to Poll Date, BJP’s Nandigram Campaign Turns Openly Anti-Muslim‘, March 29).

The Election Commission may not have acted if it had not been prodded to do so (‘EC Issues Notice to BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari for Communal Overtones in His Speech in Nandigram‘, April 9) by Kavita Krishnan of Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (CPI-ML) Central Committee.

Yet these five elections have proved again that there is really nobody who can conduct electoral psyops and ensure communal cash-ins as dextrously as the two men who have come to define the BJP: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. Their appetite to win at all costs is combined with an amazing ability to switch avatars – one moment they are pouring scorn on the Muslim-appeasement of opponents, the next moment they assume roles of being the committed guardians of a united country, its security, vaccination drive and what have you. What’s more, every bit of this double-act is faithfully recorded by the “mainstream media”.

Also read: How Equations Have Changed in 3 Places That Had Brought Mamata Banerjee to Power

Eyes wide shut

Who would have thought, going by the coverage in our media, that there is a bloody massacre playing out on the streets next door? That over 500 people have died while confronting a brutal junta? That over 60 journalists have had to face the wrath of the generals?

Reporting on Myanmar has been insignificant and editorial comment occasional. None of the editorials so far have called out the Indian government’s cynical pussyfooting on the issue strongly enough – although Hindustan Times did summon the courage to point out that the Indian Army chief has not yet condemned the atrocities by a neighbouring military.

The brave people of Myanmar however are not about to give in: they are using every resource they have, even their garbage, to take on the tanks. As for the journalists of that country – they have been tested in ways that few of their counterparts elsewhere have, and have emerged as flag-bearers of people’s liberties. Three hundred of them have got together to form the Independent Journalists’ Force (IJF) and some days ago an IJF member had this to say to Johanna Son of reportingasean:

“The professional and independent media will still exist in Myanmar. This is unquestionable. Now, most of the journalists are young people and (from) Generation Z, who stand with the truth. Also, there are many freelance reporters. They are (letting) the media offices use information (they provide) without consideration of any risks (to themselves). This is obvious (just) by looking at them (journalists) who rely only on the meals donated at the protests.”

The courage of this speaker is enough to bring tears to the eye – and fire to the belly.

Two views on reservations

Photo: Barry Pousman/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Chandan Kumar Pandey:

“I just read the piece, ‘When It Comes To Reservations, the Supreme Court Needs To Change Its Approach‘ (April 1). According to the writer, reservations should continue and be increased to represent the community at any cost, whether they want or not. So according to this view representation cannot be gained through hard work. This means that only the people in the general category should work hard for it, others should get it for free just because they are minorities. Who decides that they are minorities, you?

Media institutions like yours are just doing propaganda. If reservations are so necessary, then why is it that other developed countries haven’t adopted such policies? Can the minorities be uplifted only by reservations? Why don’t you write about helping the minorities financially rather than asking for increasing reservations. Before questioning the Supreme Court, you should first change your views.”

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We received the following email from someone who did not want their identity disclosed:

“I have been an admirer of The Wire because of the voice they have provided to Dalits and Adivasis. I am a typical urban, forward caste boy from the middle class and am convinced that Dalits and Adivasis still face harassment at various levels. Take a major injustice being done to them and to rural students, when it comes to placements in the private sector, especially in IT. This process is conducted mainly through two instruments: Campus placements in urban institutions and through high cut off marks at the 10th and 12th standard levels in schools. Many students from these communities just don’t have the money or the access to private tuitions; many among them opt for urban colleges rather than prestigious institutions, even if they qualified, because they cannot afford hostel fees. Some 60 to 70 per cent of entry level jobs are filled through campus placements.

“Even if they manage to get a satisfactory job, the work environment is so toxic that it is often difficult to carry on. They are mocked for coming in through the reservation system and there is no one within the company to handle their problems.

“I would therefore like The Wire to bring all this to the public. It should 1) request all IT companies on how many entry level jobs are facilitated through campus placements over the last 10 years. 2) What were the cut off marks for the Standard 10 and 12 school leaving examinations in the last decade? 3) How many Dalits and Adivasis make it to entry level jobs? 4) Dalits and Adivasis should be requested to reveal the instances of racism they faced. 5) Finally, how were such complaints handled by the respective establishments?

“I don’t want to be trolled so please withhold my name. I look forward to good reporting on issues of this kind from you.”

Tale of a missing licence plate

A personal experience from Siddhanth Rathore:

“I got my high security registration plate number plate affixed on February 18, 2021 (a streamlined process, no complaints there). On coming back home later that week, I noticed that the rear number plate was missing. Thus begins the story of mental agony, helplessness and hopelessness. As per a government notification, it is mandatory to file a police complaint to get a new number plate issued. On the website of the agency responsible (Rosmerta Safety Systems Pvt Ltd), there is no process mentioned to get a new HSRP number plate issued. I contacted the customer care, who asked me to send a mail for the same… I mailed them, but got no response. I called them, and was told that the issue will be addressed in 48 hours (March 8). I repeatedly tried to contact them after that to no avail.

“In the meanwhile, I tweeted to the Minister of Road Transport & Highways, but got no response. I then resorted to mailing the editors of leading newspapers. As expected, no response. Eventually, I went to the local bike-repair shop to get my old number plate fixed. My only purpose of writing this mail to you is to bring to the notice of the government the issues that a common man is facing.”

 Random thoughts via email

Vikas Kumar: “How does ‘The Wire‘ manage to be so biased?”

Aditi Yadav: “Please keep doing what you’re doing. The Wire gives me hope.”

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Also read: Why The Wire Wants the New IT Rules Struck Down

Busybody, embodied?

Finally, as many commentaries on the recent Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 had anticipated, there is already evidence of lateral surveillance being conducted by people who, for their own ideological or other reasons, are willing to perform vigilante roles in this regard.

One individual, Shashank Shekhar of Mumbai, is rather anxious to ensure that an independent news portal like The Wire is controlled forthwith through the use of these new IT rules. He took the unilateral step of demanding to know from The Wire what steps it has taken on appointing a grievance officer as mandated by the IT rules. He also made sure to mark this mail to the Cyber Law & eSecurity Division of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.

In his communication to the ministry, he also wanted instructions on what “necessary action” he should to take in case “there is no response by the Intermediary”.

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in.