One of the most compelling worries of the fourth estate in recent years has been the restricted window of communication it was offered with Narendra Modi during his first term as India’s prime minister. This, many journalists argue, has undermined their position and journalism’s place in matters of national interest. But for journalists across the world who may share Indian journalists’ worries, just one question to America’s capricious President Donald Trump should settle matters. Trump, similar to Modi in his relationship with the liberal media of his country, will invariably say, for the sheer number of times he has been investigated and critiqued for his policies and personal wealth, that journalists wield enormous power over the political process of a country.
This can be a good way to look at journalism and the role of journalists and how asking the right questions supersedes everything, and can be more important than succeeding at acquiring “scripted interviews” with political leaders at the peak of elections.
Regardless of whether the political class or the ruling dispensation gives the fourth estate the time and attention as they wish for and rightly so, the very manner of media doing its job freely establishes without doubt its importance to democracy. As elections and its results have unfolded before us, it is a moment of realisation on how important media and good journalism is to the participatory process, enabling not just dissemination of information regarding candidates and the voting process but also shaping how voters engage in public debates on matters of national importance.
On Thursday, when the results of the Lok Sabha elections were declared, media coverage of elections moved to the next step: interpretation of the electoral wins and analysis of next steps for the new government.
Here, for the coverage analysis, the focus will be on the two main parties in the fray and their candidates: the BJP and the Congress. The coverage will broadly include prime time shows on television channels such as NDTV, India Today, Republic, Bloomberg Quint, CNN-News18 and Tiranga TV on the day of counting of votes, and front pages of newspapers such as The Times of India, Economic Times, Hindustan Times, Mint, The Hindu and The Telegraph the morning after the results were declared.
Defining themes: messages on the big win converge on its dangers
The overwhelming message this morning, as one goes through the coverage of elections in newspapers and television channels, is that of victory and defeat, both at once. While the analysis and reporting has dissected minutely the gains of the BJP-led NDA and the humiliating loss of the Congress party, it has done so with the refrain that it doesn’t come without its dangers to democracy. In its prime time coverage, news channels focused on vote shares of parties and their go-to-poll strategies, and on the way forward for the next government including speculations on key players in the new cabinet.
The NDTV debate touched upon issues of BJP’s sweep in unlikely states, its winning strategy that led to the defeat of regional parties, and its consolidation and improvement of past performance. Fair weightage was also given to the Congress party with discussions on what its leadership could have done to stop the saffron surge. In Modi’s win, its anchors saw the dangers to inclusion and repeatedly raised it during the discussion.
Ravish Kumar, in primetime show India ka Faisla, conveyed a sense of helplessness in discussing the BJP’s win. At the start, he recalled the attacks on Pulwama and Balakot, and said none of these issues seem to have mattered in ensuring Modi’s win. In touching upon the BJP’s vote share and clean sweep in 17 states, he stayed clear of analysis, saying it was of “no use” discussing any of it. In Ravish’s show was plain elucidation of numbers and seats and avoidance of analysis of trends, accompanied by silent fatigue over results. All television shows played a major chunk of Modi’s post-win speech from the BJP headquarters in Delhi, followed up by analysis. Only Ravish Kumar moved on to other topic without a word on the speech.
Taking an unusual defense of the Congress, his analysis also seemed to gloss over the Congress’s debacle in these elections by arguing that the Opposition “managed to not make this a one-sided fight in spite of its limitations” whereas in 2014, the Opposition had “capitulated” to the NDA.
In newspapers, The Times of India front page called it the Modi magic, broadly touching upon Jagan Mohan Reddy’s win in Andhra Pradesh, AAP’s defeat in Delhi as a third ranker, a surge in the Sensex, a breach in the Gandhi bastion of Amethi, and a possible bigger role for Amit Shah in the new government, even as a brief report also analysed how the private wealth of Lok Sabha MPs has increased between 2014 and 2019.
Economic Times dedicated the front page to elections, highlighting not just the decisive win but also pre-poll preparedness of Modi’s bureaucracy vis-à-vis economic agenda. It also had a list of 10 ideas for the govt to “kickstart” the economy. Modi’s win sent the stocks soaring, and the front page coverage highlighted that, placing it next to the main story. The front page anchor was Rahul Gandhi’s loss in Amethi.
In this space, there were no murmurs of the dangers overwhelming media coverage highlighted. For example, in Hindustan Times’ coverage of the victory, the lead story called the election results a vindication of the BJP’s strategy of turning Lok Sabha elections into a “presidential style” of elections, enabled by a consolidation in BJP strongholds, flexibility in the BJP’s choice of alliance partners, and its exploitation of anti-incumbency in regions where the party wasn’t in power. Alongside the lead coverage, there was hint of Opposition leaders’ clamour over EVMs. Indian Express continued with this narrative by calling it “Modi 2.024”, an allusion to the one-man show and underlining the “deification and personification of one man”. A report dedicated to BJP president Amit Shah and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra also analysed their individual strategies and performances.
The Telegraph was almost poetic in its description of the saffron surge. Calling the election results BJP’s thunder of majority, reports in the newspaper also likened the BJP to the TMC of 2009, alluding to the hint of anger and violence in its vote. Another edit called it the story of ultra-nationalism, of unabashed majoritarian assertion, and of the one-man charisma of Modi.
Big words, alarming messages
A close look at the use of descriptive words gives us a rough sense of how candidates and parties are being talked about in the media. In television discussions, phrases and words such as “spectacular performance”, “largest victory”, “a wave and a landslide both”, “how is the josh”, “defeat of dynasty”, “wave election”, and “nobody could see this” were liberally used to express the scale of the victory and the shock of those who found the results unexpected.
The Congress’s loss was largely described by phrases such as “caught out at the wrong place, wrong time”, “break of traditional loyalties”, “rejection in semi-feudal seats”, among others, indicating a soft corner for the party and its young leader Rahul Gandhi. At one point, Gandhi’s win in Wayanad was also described as the “biggest win” in 2019 elections (Ravish Kumar on NDTV India).
Words used for Narendra Modi ranged from the incoming prime minister being a “dabang leader”, “guardian of the Hindu” “protector of the majority” to a magical “chowkidar”. This went on to reinforce the dominant personality sketch of Modi that media has drawn all throughout: a macho strongman who is great with weaving election-winning narratives. Yet, the BJP leaders on the shows tried to move away from these descriptions by constantly using words such as “poverty alleviation”, “inclusiveness” and “big-bang economic reforms” to set the tone for the new government’s agenda. The underlying caveat of most journalists for the new government hinged on the Muslim sentiment over a largely majoritarian verdict and the personality cult of Modi imposing dangers to India’s democratic polity. In all this noise, Ravish Kumar’s silence on Modi’s speech was the most vocal of his message.
A look at the front page headlines in print newspapers that perpetuated the magic of Narendra Modi: While Times of India invoked the Chowkidar slogan to headline its lead story as “Chowkidar’s Chamatkar”, Hindustan Times preferred to call it a “NaMoMoment” stopping short of calling it “magic”. Economic Times, true to its style, proclaimed “Yes! Prime Minister” in a loud and dramatic declaration of the results.
Indian Express said: “In five years, Brand Modi had transcended religion, class, caste”. Its editorial called it a “remarkable victory, a great responsibility” underlining the dangers of “majoritarian triumphalism” and the challenges the new government faces on secularism and economic performance. Telegraph called NDA’s win a “thunder of majority” with the refrain that “to view Thursday’s mandate as a triumph of Hindutva and communal polarisation would be a misreading of its complexity”. In another report, it also sought to sensationalise Modi’s reference to secularism in his victory speech with the headline: “Secularism ‘dramebaazi’ over, said the soon to return Prime Minister”.
Dabang vs Inexperienced: words associated with candidates
Another interesting trend of the media coverage of the 2019 elections has been the words and phrases used to describe the main leaders contesting elections while undermining opportunities for more nuanced and substantial discussion. The most noticeable obsession has been with finding phases to describe Modi’s personality, or Brand Modi so to say, and there are plenty of examples to choose from.
In describing voters’ perception of Modi, media analysed him as a “strong and decisive leader”, a “disruptor” changing the election arithmetic in India, a “risk taker”, a “protector” of the masses—all of these feeding into his popular persona of an corruption-free, macho personality. His confidante and ally, BJP president Amit Shah, has been described as a super organiser and planner, insightful election planner, and mobiliser of BJP workers with clear strategy and a passionate agenda.
In contrast, the post-poll coverage has described Rahul Gandhi as “inexperienced” and “unprepared”, having “failed to raise leaders at the state level” and in planning an electoral strategy. His sister Priyanka has simply been called a “non-starter”.
This might reflect a fairly fundamental flaw in India’s news media—perhaps the focus is too much on horse race and numbers, and not solid reporting on the bigger debates around public policy schemes and vision of candidates, their life stories, leadership ability and temperament to be able to address the issues that matter in addressing the overarching issues of democracy and inclusion.
Picking favourites: sentiment of coverage
Objectivity being the cornerstone of journalism, the main goal of newspapers and television channels is to cover each candidate and party on equal terms. Yet, while that is usually the stuff of the mastheads, journalists may end up choosing words, candidates or parties that betray the goal. Words and weightage of coverage to specific candidates and parties may also reflect pre-existing favour or biases towards certain leaders and their political affiliations.
While the overwhelming coverage of television channels restricted itself to discussing the numbers and vote shares of political parties, it’s impossible to ignore Tiranga TV and Republic’s coverage for the much evident messaging they seemed to convey on the core political parties. On Republic TV’s prime time coverage, Renuka Chowdhury of the Congress was severely quizzed on Rahul Gandhi’s loss in Amethi and at one point, it was difficult to distinguish if the journalist questioning the politician was angry about the way she seemed to undermine the influence of his channel or hunting her down for her defence of her party’s leader. At the end of the show, through repeated references to Republic TV’s growing audience and reach, the messaging on Narendra Modi’s clean sweep of India and Republic TV’s network expansion had merged, as if the latter was linked to the former.
Tiranga TV’s coverage majorly focussed on the Congress party, with its headlines constantly underplaying the magnitude of defeat. This prime time video on election analysis was headlined as “Don’t Be Afraid, Our Ideology Will Win: Rahul Gandhi After Conceding Defeat”. The choice of discussion topics also tended to draw the focus back on Pulwama and Balakot attacks and on Congress’ limited gains in Kerala. This is not to say that the poll verdict wasn’t the mainstay, but in the choice of panelists and presentation of news, the implied message veered towards the Congress.
Television and print visuals
For most people, visuals carry an even more powerful impact than words on a page. There has been a surge in data journalism in the media and a lot of visual coverage reflects this trend. Charts on vote tallies, individual wealth of politicians and Sensex graphs dominated the coverage. Images of political candidates such as Modi and Shah were used but in limited space, unlike past years when we have seen a splash of visual brilliance in political coverage with the exception of Hindustan Times.
While listing the broad trends in media coverage, it’s important to underline that often, media publications are accused of partisan coverage, which reflects political biases in their coverage. This has especially happened in the Internet age as breaking plain news is passé and context setting and perspectives have become the next important thing to do. Aside from ideological bias, journalists across outlets are also accused of perpetuating biased views by oversimplifying complex issues and drawing character scripts, while looking at elections merely as a big political competition. I am not sure if I can say that the media coverage of Lok Sabha poll results this year have been free from these.
Yet, one thing hasn’t changed: working as a passionate watchdog of democracy to deliver stories to the people still remains the most important part of media’s job description.
This was first published in Newslaundry.