Published in Newslaundry on May 18, 2023
Even as many parts of India face excessive heat this year, the political heat before, during and after elections is likely to continue right up to next May, when we face a general election.
You would think that a media that has reported on elections for decades would now be wiser about how to provide viewers with coverage that informs rather than excites. Yet, year after year, we have seen a steady deterioration in the quality of election debates on our mainstream television channels, particularly once voting ends, exit polls are announced, and the results are available.
Until last year, there were exceptions, principally NDTV and the team led by Prannoy Roy, who pioneered the use of psephology and polls. With the channel’s takeover by the Gautam Adani group last year, Roy has vanished from our screens.
We are now left with mostly pumped up, highly excitable anchors who prance around the studio, punching video screens and providing high-decibel nuggets of information that are often just speculation. Studio guests are sometimes shouted down if they happen to question the anchor’s position. And sometimes, as in the case of BJP’s Amit Malviya’s tirade against Rajdeep Sardesai on , the roles are reversed – a spectacle Mukul Kesavan mentions in in the Telegraph.
And, at the end of an exhausting few hours trying to make sense of what is going on, those wanting some sanity switch off the television, or at least mute it, and turn to refreshing the webpage of the Election Commission of India for accurate data.
But this year, – the News Minute, the Wire, Caravan, Scrolland Newslaundry – came together to provide an alternative. Despite virtually non-existent budgets compared to mainstream channels, they managed to give viewers a more balanced understanding of what was going on in Karnataka before and after the elections.
Take just one aspect. In the run-up to the elections, the women’s vote was mentioned frequently. The number of women voters now almost equals men and the percentage of women who come out to vote in the state is also almost the same. Do these women vote for whoever their menfolk do, or do they have the agency to make up their own minds? And why, despite this visible presence of women in the electorate, are political parties so reticent about putting up more women candidates?
We saw little discussion on this aspect in mainstream channels. On the other hand, the independent platforms mentioned above began counting day with an instructive discussion with Tara Krishnaswamy who heads Political Shakti on this aspect of the elections. She was also interviewed for in Quint.
Then take another feature that appears to have been overlooked. Karnataka has a range of civil society groups that have been active on campaigns such as opposition to the citizenship laws, calling out hate campaigns against Muslims, and issues such as the wages and working conditions of conservancy workers in a city like Bengaluru. Did their work over the years, especially with poor and marginalised groups, make any difference in the way people voted?
Some reports suggest it did, such as by Vinay Kooragayal Sreenivasa in the News Minute. Yet you would have to work hard to get that perspective from mainstream television.
After an election, print media comes into its own providing context, analysis, and data. Most newspapers now use graphics to explain data, given most readers don’t have the patience to read tables. A showing how the saffron (BJP) that dominated in 2018 has given way to blue (Congress) in 2023 is enough to explain the gains and losses.
Yet, while those interested were taking in these data points, and reading the analysis by political scientists and sociologists, what were TV channels doing? Endlessly speculating about “kaun banega mukhya mantri” – who will become the chief minister. Even before the Congress could savour its decisive victory over the BJP, some of these anchors were virtually dismissing the party as a loser.
There’s little doubt that the analyses of the Karnataka election in print and on digital platforms bring out a more nuanced understanding of the factors that led to the Congress victory than the heated debates on television. But they also point to several lessons that the media needs to learn when covering elections.
Several commentators emphasised after the election, and some even before, that the media should not use the familiar yardstick of caste and religion to predict how people would vote. They pointed out that each state, including Karnataka, has its specific history. So, the formula used in a north Indian state like Uttar Pradesh, for instance, cannot be automatically superimposed on a southern state like Karnataka. Sociologist Dipankar Gupta, for instance, wrote in : “When elections are dissected and discussed on the basis of caste, the assumption is that the voters are like dumb, driven cattle.”
Yet, if you watched the coverage of the elections on TV, you would find that none of this granularity was evident in the so-called “national” channels headquartered in Noida. Barring a few honourable exceptions, the same old clichéd way of analysing elections has been evident for some time . Even this election in Karnataka does not appear to have made our “national” mainstream anchors any wiser.
Apart from debating non-issues, one must also question mainstream media’s use of language in political reporting. Take for instance, the use of the term “high command”. It is used exclusively when referring to the Congress party. Yet every journalist covering politics knows that over the last nine years, no state where the BJP has won can choose its chief minister without the approval of that party’s “high command”– Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. By continuing to use this term only for one party, the media continues to perpetuate the myth that only the Congress party has a top-down structure when in fact most parties, including the BJP, have precisely the same.
The Karnataka election will be talked about for a while, at least until the next round of state assembly elections, for what they reveal about voters and their choices, and the factors that impact those choices. But for the media, and for readers and viewers interested in politics, they also remind us that at such times, it is best to turn to media houses based in the state and follow their analysis and reports.
For example, a poll taken well before the election by a small, independent, virtually unknown Kannada digital platform, , got the results absolutely right. Also, some of the best reportage on the elections accessible to non-Kannada speakers was on the Bengaluru-based News Minute website.
So, if mainstream television channels are willing to reflect, the Karnataka election results remind us that India is a “union of states” as stated in our constitution. One size does not fit all. To make sense of politics in such a state, you need people on the ground who speak the language and can accurately gauge the mood. You cannot decide what people are thinking sitting in Delhi.