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Backstory: The Power of the 'Alternative' in Election Analysis

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

The recent Karnataka assembly election showcased the power of the Alternative.

Ultimately, it saw an alternative political party, the Congress – as opposed to the Bharatiya Janata Party, the ruling party at both the state and the Union government, come to power. The long electioneering that preceded the short, intense month-long electoral campaign, saw alternative and diverse voices trickle through with striking clarity in a state that was in the grip of hegemonic Hindutva politics.

Last year a group of  academics, journalists, civil servants had reminded the Basavaraj Bommai government that the Karnataka anthem, written a century earlier, described the state as “sarva janangada shantiya thota” – a garden of peace for diverse communities (Karnataka: Attacks on Minorities Threaten State’s Plurality, Citizens Tell Bommai’, June 24, 2022). It’s another matter that their appeal was ignored. 

The Karnataka election also saw an alternative opinion poll, conducted by a digital Kannada language platform, Eedina, which predicted three weeks ago that the Congress would cruise to a comfortable majority of 134-140 seats. If India Today’s Axis-My India poll got all the encomiums for getting the winning figure right, it only reflects the muscle of Big Media.

There was another important alternative that emerged during this phase.

On May 11, two days before counting day, The News Minute, a Bengaluru-based news portal, tweeted: “It’s the mother of all crossovers!” It was collaborating, it announced, with The Caravan, Newslaundry, Scroll.in and The Wire, for the continuous broadcast of the election results as they came in on May 13. Called ‘Elections ONLINE’, the catch line read: “Karnataka election results with five independent news organisations …Get insight, not noise”. Joining them was the founder-editor of the unusually named Pickle Jam, which describes itself as “an audio video and new-media content company that aims to tell stories of a vibrant changing India.”

Great expectations, all this, but what is the verdict on this verdict explainer?  For starters, the Big Media megaphones can breathe easy.

This brave exercise is not going to replace their adrenalin-pumping, lung-powered, poll score-keeping coverage in a hurry. Professional telecasting by mediapersons, whose strength predominantly lies in the written word and the short video, is a tall order.

The result was jumpy and bumpy.

Sound would suddenly cease, leaving audiences having to lip-read the commentators on the screen; reporters on the ground sometimes looked blank as the anchor fired questions at them – uh-oh connection breakdown. The “Stay tuned…We will be right back…” placards were far too much in evidence, as were the sound tests and the frantic backroom messaging:  “unmute, unmute”. As one anchor remarked wryly, “Anything that could go wrong, did go wrong!”

But wait, anything new, anything innovative, anything out-of-the box (anything out-of-the-idiot-box), will have its share of glitches. That is the cardinal rule. Think about the crashes that the Wright brothers experienced before they took finally off. One of the worst, it is said, was when the propeller snapped and disrupted the wiring that held the rudder in place. The aircraft crashed and the intrepid occupant had to be carried to the doctors on a stretcher. At ‘Elections ONLINE’ the system did nosedive but we are happy to report that things soon got back to an even keel and the spirited conversation carried on.

“Spirited”, that was the nub of it. ‘Elections ONLINE’ was spirited in every way, in its conception, planning and execution. 

So here are my five big takeaways from this experiment.

First, it came as a reminder that at a time of great flux, repression, and state capture of media, we need journalism that is born free, breathes free, and speaks free. Whatever else it did not have, ‘Elections ONLINE’ gave us the confidence that the information we were receiving by way of commentary did not come via the Prime Minister’s Office, or the establishments of corporate fat cats with ambitions to ensure their desired government gets into the Vidhana Soudha.

Secondly, it provided glimpses that one rarely receives while watching that interminable ocean of distraction and superficiality that goes by the name of news television. Here we got to understand why pride in Tipu Sultan could cuts across religious and caste lines in Karnataka even as BJP leaders shout out from podiums that Tipu Sultan’s followers should not be alive. How are we to understand the five-point lead for the Congress among men and the 11-point lead for the party among women, and how is it often the case that the more the number of women voting for a particular party, the more likely is that party’s victory.

The role of money in these elections and how the cost of entry is so enormous that it automatically gets to decide the candidates selected, was also discussed. How even the Hindu voter is not a cow that can be lead; how it is difficult for journalists to get to know the mind of Muslim voters in some parts of the state because fear is so widespread; how not all the people attending the Modi road show are lost in wonder at his charisma – there were many prepared to ask uncomfortable questions about civic issues – a narrative that was completely elided in Big Media reportage.

There was also the attempt made to recall statements of national BJP leaders while campaigning that if Karnataka fails to vote in the BJP it will suffer both in terms of development projects and in terms of communal peace. How many national television channels bothered to remind their viewers of this ugly arrogance? Or expand on a small but significant point that autorickshaw drivers were angry at the closing of the Indira canteens?

Diversity of opinion, that is the third point that needs highlighting here.

There were differences in opinion, but always expressed in a spirit of mutual respect. Modi’s role was generally seen as having helped the BJP in Karnataka, but long-term scholar of Karnataka politics, James Manor, gently demurred: “Not too sure that Modi’s campaigning worked well for the BJP.” Frontline editor N. Ram, coming in later, was more emphatic – he pointed out that during the Tamil Nadu elections last year, the prime minister’s campaign was a distinct liability. Experts like Rahul Verma of CPR or A. Narayana of Azim Premji University weighed in on the Bajrang Dal issue. The general sense, arrived at through lively but polite exchanges of ideas, was that while it may not have had traction in Karnataka, the weaponisation of this theme could help the BJP in northern states that now await elections like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Fourthly, there was the light-hearted touch to this programme which was endearing, with even the glitches giving way to laughter. Here were anchors who did not take themselves so seriously that they failed to see the humour in difficult situations, whether it was a cat bringing down a poster, or the way the microphone would refuse to cooperate just when the speaker was making his or her clinching argument.

Finally, we were introduced through ‘Elections ONLINE’ to some of the country’s most talented mediapersons. We may have known them as writers/reporters or as radio broadcasters; as political satirists or as media executives, but here they were, often outdoing their better paid and better coiffured counterparts in national television.  They were, as one of them remarked, as bit like the Lagaan team. And, yes, they did not have to scream and shout to win the match. 

So, well done independent media, for showing your intelligence and class – the country needs you more than you know.

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Bilawal Bhutto interview test

Should an Indian journalist interview the foreign minister of an “enemy” country, especially one who called India’s prime minister the “butcher of Gujarat” at the UN last year?

Perhaps that question needs to be rephrased: does an Indian journalist, who loves his or her country, interview the foreign minister of an “enemy” country especially one who called India’s prime minister the “butcher of Gujarat” at the UN?

No no, let’s give it another shot: do Indian journalists interviewing the foreign minister of an “enemy” country, especially one who called India’s prime minister the “butcher of Gujarat” at the UN, remain Indians or “traitors”?

The interviews Bilawal Bhutto granted two senior Indian journalists – Rajdeep Sardesai and Suhasini Haider – led to a small war on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) conclave in Goa, which carried on long after the conclave had been declared closed.

Sardesai was the easier target. Despite his efforts to be as belligerent as possible in his questioning and refusal to show any visible signs of cordiality to Bhutto, his interview came in for hostile scrutiny since it was laid out over prime time.

Flocks of Twitterati descended to term him and his organisation “anti-Indian”.

A certain Arun Pudur tweeted: “Pakistan Foreign Minister only spoke with Pakistani Media personnel during his visit for SCO. No Indian Journalist was allowed to meet him, interview or question him. I repeat only Pakistani Journalists could meet him.”

Another sneered, Bhutto “gave his Interview with his lost brother.” 

Then there was a tweet from that ubiquitous master of ruling party ceremonies and head of BJP’s IT Cell, Amit Malviya. He had this to say: “Bilawal Bhutto Zardari wanted to use the opportunity (SCO) to speak directly to the Indian people through our press and seemed to have asked to specifically meet two or three journalists considered by Pakistan to be “serviceable”. Guess who did they pick?”

The loaded term, “serviceable”, did not go unchallenged. Suhasini Haider tweeted back: “Not sure what you mean by ‘serviceable’, Mr. Malviya, but your personal attack on Indian journalists is unwarranted, and doesn’t behove the IT cell chief of the ruling party of a proud democracy like India.”

She then put down her thoughts on paper in a piece for The Hindu: “Facing the heat for an interview is a part of every journalist’s life, and comes in many forms – from governments who find it inconvenient for a counter-view to be ‘platformed’ to commentators who believe that it is an ‘anti-national’ act to interview officials of an unfriendly country.”

Verbal criticism is just one of the ways punishment is awarded in these cases, sometimes it can be, as she put it, a brick smashing through a car window.

So how must journalists manage these extremely sticky situations? The profession does not provide much escape. Uncomfortable, unpopular, even hackle-raising interviews, if they are conducted with the intention of gaining deeper insights into a particular subject, have to be welcomed, even if it is with a fairly obnoxious young toff who happens to be the foreign minister of Pakistan, as was the case this time. The path that a media professional may trace in the line of duty cannot be aligned to what a particular government at a particular moment of time lays down as “national interest”. 

Remember UK’s conservative MP, Norman Tebbit, coming up with that specious test of British patriotism that quickly came to be known as the ‘Tebbit test’. He argued that if immigrants in Britain did not root for the English side rather than those of their countries of origin while cricket matches were being played, it indicated that they were not sufficient integrated into Britain and British ways. The ‘Tebbit test’ has now been tossed into the dustbin of history. Surely we should do the same for the malevolent Malviya test for the media?

Heroic editor Sheetla Singh

A special salaam to the legendary editor of the Jan Morcha, Sheetla Singh, who passed away at the grand old age of 94 on May 16, 2023 (Sheetla Singh: The Grand Old Editor From Faizabad Who Fought for the News and for Journalists’, May 17). 

Until the last he was closely engaged with his newspaper that had been founded by a freedom fighter, Hargobind, in 1956. The writer of this obituary recalled the grand old man telling him about his early days with the Jan Morcha, when he and his guru Hargobind would not only handle everything about the paper but even use the same news sheets when the time came to sleep on the editorial tables they had purchased at an auction for just Rs 3: “I can recall how he once told me, ‘Kitni baar Hargobind ji , hum aur humare teen aur saathi, jo shuru mein ye akhbaar nikalte the, wahin daftar mein khichri paka kar aur kha kar table pe akhbar bicha kar so jaate the’ (There were so many times when Hargobind ji, our three other colleagues who were involved with the paper then and I used to cook khichri in the office itself and go off to sleep on the editorial table).”

The piece informs us that as activists of the Community Party of India, both men set upon the ambitious mission of instituting their own daily newspaper. Hargobind’s entire savings of Rs 75 went into fulfilling that mission. That, together with the generosity of the Acharya Narendra Deo’s family, who offered them a space to accommodate their brainchild, helped to “translate their dream into reality on December 5, 1958.”

Scroll.in re-upped a 2020 piece on him, after news came in of his death, which also held valuable vignettes (‘Corporate competition and Covid-19: Faizabad’s Hindi newspaper ‘Jan Morcha’ is fighting both’). It noted, for instance, how Hargobind was charged under the National Security Act and sent to jail over one of his editorials. He also groomed individuals like himself, professionals like Suman Gupta and K.P. Singh, who today keep the newspaper (which has shifted its operations to Lucknow) alive, even while adhering to the values that Sheetla Singh had inculcated in them. 

Senior journalist Mahtab tweeted the front page of the newspaper featuring the death of its founding editor and noted that Jan Morcha was also published in Urdu between 1980-82.

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Readers write in…

Meiti vignette

Pradip Biswas of Kolkata has an interesting vignette to relate, tied to the recent violence witnessed in Manipur:

“The Meiti community is probably in the majority in Manipur. I remember Aribam Syam Sharma, a major director of  Manipuri cinema, who made a number of films on the Meiti community. Once, in the 1990s, when I met him – he had aged like I had – he commented that the Meiti community is always peaceful. Many in the community sacrifice their personal lives and join the Krishna cult, women in particular decide as per religious convention to leave their families, husbands, children, in order to join an ashram and be guided by their mentors there as a mark of sacrifice. This is known as nirvana, salvation.”

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Does anybody care about sinking boats?

Captain Arvind Keith send in this note on the recent boat capsize in Malappuram, Kerala, in which over 20 people lost their lives.

He wants The Wire to take “necessary action”, by which one presumes he wants it to do a serious follow up of this story, instead of allowing it to sink without a trace. I second that suggestion.

As Keith puts it, media focus will mean fewer deaths on the roads and waters due to sheer neglect: “On a recent visit on the Jalajyothi  in the Periyar National Park, I found the boat to be unsafe due to the poor condition of its life jackets.

Clearly the lessons of the boat disaster which took place on September 30, 2009, when a double-decker passenger boat, Jalakanyaka, sank in the Thekkady lake, killing 45 people, have been forgotten. A culture of safety is non-existent. The fastening clips on these life jackets were missing, with the seams and reflective strips torn. The staff were not wearing these, and a child who was there did not have such protection.

It was obvious to me that these items have not been inspected for quite some time. All this seems to indicate a very apathetic attitude on the part of the authorities. No instructions on how to wear them were sighted or relayed by staff, and there was more than one type of jacket if you observed them closely. Also they were unsuitable, because of their bulk. Such a boat would not have been allowed to operate in any region where they take the safety of passengers seriously.” 

Write to [email protected].