For the best experience, open
on your mobile browser or Download our App.

Backstory: Polls, Verdicts and Media Narratives on Counting Day

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.
Illustration: The Wire

Nothing perhaps shines the light on the nexus between media power, money power and political power better than the narrative generated by Big Media on counting day. The effort as always is to make these shows, fuelled by an endless river of ads, as entertaining as possible with its colourful cast of characters and its edge-of-the-seat, nail-biting suspense. Sophisticated data crunching and display keep stoking audience curiosity through a template that recalls the money-spinning show, Kaun Banega Crorepati (Who Wants To Be a Millionaire). Larger-than-life figures are made to loom even larger; even as those poor sods who don’t make the cut are stomped into the dust. The presumption is that the show that can suss out the winning candidates before they have actually won helped perhaps by other money spinners like exit polls; the show that provides the tallies at the fastest pace, is somehow the most credible. 

Writing on the recent elections in the Netherlands, Katjana Gattermann, who studies how the media influences elections, argued that mainstream media “through their coverage, play a crucial role in legitimising elections and fostering acceptance of the results, as well as framing winners and losers.” The picture is not too different when it comes to Indian elections as we saw on December 3 – Counting Day.  In many ways, these programmes with their formulaic devices and expert commentary crucially influence Indian electoral democracy. Their impacts live on long after the show itself comes to an end, influencing how politics plays out in metropolitan centres and mofussil nukkads; how ordinary citizens come to assess their leaders and make voting decisions in the future. 

Programmes like these may of course have played a positive role by helping raise political awareness at a more general level. But, equally, they foster a sense that one leader is prime and one party is unbeatable, and that perhaps there is no option but to vote them in. Such consequences could be severely debilitating to the election process.

Is it then possible to imagine another way to conduct Counting Day conversations on public media? Perhaps, if we are to go by the recent effort of five independent news organisations, The Caravan, Newslaundry, The News Minute, Scroll.in, and this news portal, The Wire, coming together on Counting Day to tell their audiences the story of these elections to the state assemblies of Mizoram, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Telangana, and to breakdown the verdicts. This is the second time this cohort has conducted such an experiment – the first being in May, when the Karnataka poll results came in. 

They saw counting day as a moment they needed to seize because it was also a moment when “citizens of a free country speak truth to those in power”. Many would question whether citizens, by their act of voting, do indeed speak truth to power, or whether they are more influenced by what the prime minister had once colourfully termed as “revdi” (a sweet form of a freebie), until of course his own party outdid the rest in such distribution. Many more will question whether the country is still free. But let us put such cavils aside and examine what was on offer.

A striking feature of this conversation was that it was truly a conversation – with speakers being allowed to formulate their thoughts in a fairly leisurely fashion. In the process, a dazzling insight may emerge that rarely makes its way into such settings. Has competitive welfarism emerged as the main driver of elections in India today? Could the cash benefit transfers, the new face of state welfarism in India, be considered as part of Liberalisation 0.2, with the state ceding space to make policy decisions for popular well-being to the market? Do these “cash transfer regimes” help or hinder aspects like education, when for instance money that had been earmarked for schooling and sent to beneficiaries end up being spent on consumables? Does such a model bypass local structures of delivery and create an emotional connect between the voter and the figure who is seen as responsible for the largesse, whether it is the prime minister or a powerful chief minister? Does excessive reliance on ruling parties distributing tangible freebies to voters result in state exchequers being emptied, resulting in spending on the old tangibles of bijli, sadak, pani being severely curtailed? Are these freebies emerging as compensation for labour markets failing to employ workers in the way they want to be employed? Extremely crucial unpacking that has never figured sufficiently in the Big Media’s counting day coverage, denying citizens of an understanding that even as they welcome free grain or money coming into their bank accounts, it is they who end up paying a huge cost in terms of infrastructure and meaningful employment.

These were conversations free of being straitjacketed by considerations of offending a particular advertiser or party patron and the critique often cuts deep. The anxiety to wear Hindutva on their sleeve by Congress figures like Bupesh Baghel through Ramayan festivals or Kamal Nath through Hanuman statues (but to such little effect), was called out time and again, as indeed the drive of an Ashok Gehlot to emerge as sole icon and provider for the people of his state in a Modi-like manner. The overwhelming consensus was that the Congress’s messaging has failed to keep Hindutva at bay, in fact to the contrary. The party leadership has also failed abysmally in keeping factional strife in check, and ended up paying a huge price. While the Pilot-Gehlot tussle led to a severe loss of votes for the Congress in the Gujjar region, the one between Baghel-T.S. Singhdeo (the latter was panchayat minister) ensured that the empowering impacts of Panchayat Extension of Schedule Area Act could not adequately reach Chhattisgarh’s tribal communities.

Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra campaigning in Telangana. Photo: X/@INC4India

The fear of the Modi machinery often ensures that no criticism of the prime minister is countenanced in the Big Media conversations, with self-censorship very much in play and even those invited as experts being briefed to avoid naming individuals. In this case, such restraint may have been there but it was not obvious. There was discussion on the cult-building exercises around the Modi figure. When asked how was it that many voters believed that India gave China a bloody nose, one of the speakers responded simply: “Well, propaganda works.” Clearly, the cult-building of Modi in the decade of his rule has not diminished in the least and the constant effort is to centralise elections in such a way that Modi could have a decisive impact. The double part of the engine becomes irrelevant since the single-engine works so spectacularly. Everywhere in the Hindi belt, the perception has grown, although these were state elections, that it was this one man who is the chief provider and creator.

Interesting discussions centred on the figure of Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who perhaps of all the BJP chief ministers in India today had proved that he could deliver results despite not having Modi’s unqualified approval. Not only did he jettison the ‘Bulldozer Mama’ image he tried to cultivate at one point, he projected himself as a “caring loving uncle” and mounted a bruising campaign. This and his direct conversations with the electorate, especially with women voters, ensuring a verdict that defied the anti-incumbency of three terms. Interestingly, he has also beaten Modi’s record in terms of chief ministership and can even perhaps achieve the unthinkable and lay claim to becoming a future prime minister.

Similarly, it would be unthinkable to have the Big Media recognise the damage that surveillance and unremitting policing had done to TRS/BRS prospects in Telangana. Ten lakh CCTV cameras and police sweeping the state free of protests may not have been a major talking point but they did raise resentment in the ranks of the public and civil society. Or take the fact that KCR’s much acclaimed Rythu Bandhu scheme had benefitted landed farmers ignoring the reality that most cultivators don’t own land.

While there were discussions on the OBC factor, the women voters, and BJP’s social engineering, these topics also figured in Big Media coverage. However, not many in the mainstream bothered to dwell too deeply on the Muslim voter, and if they did, the label of “appeasement politics” was never far away. It is in this context that the much-reviled figure of Asaduddin Salahuddin Owaisi, constantly framed as a “spoiler”, needed to be reconsidered. One set of discussions in the independent media coverage recognised that he had single-handedly raised the value of the Muslim voter. The tropes he dwelt on may not be appetising for Hindutva-saturated television audiences, but it was an articulation that must exist given the Congress’s reluctance to take Muslim repression head-on.

Towards the end of the eight-hour programme, when it had become clear that the Congress now had only a tenuous hold on the Hindi heartland, the question arose about what can be done. The counter-intuitive consensus was that a chastened Congress may be better for the survival of the INDIA block, with each individual party in the state where it is the strongest be allowed to set the terms of the electoral vision for that state. Finally, it is all about the kind of alternative vision that this conglomerate can project. 

While there was much to be said for this effort, there is a formidable list of misses too. They range from the simple – clearly labelling speakers while they are on the screen – to the more complicated job of deepening language connect with audiences. The scale of dubbing that the UN adopts is clearly unaffordable for a modest initiative like this, but at least Hindi-English translations of key points could be projected. 

I was impressed by the rizzy reportage from the ground (even Mizoram, where counting had been postponed to the following day received a little space) which inter-spliced the commentary, but there is scope for making these reports more succinct. On the whole, though, this is an effort that needs both financial and viewer support as we head for another general election.

The signing off line by one of the anchors was rife with possibilities: “See you next year.”


Agencies seizing journalists’ devices: Why is the govt dragging its feet?

For every journalist, scholar, civil activist who has come under the scrutiny of the security agencies of the government, here are some questions of grave urgency: Why are electronic devices crucial for professional functioning seized by security agencies without proper warrants? How can these agencies, once they have seized these devices, retain them for interminable lengths of time? Why cannot agencies make a copy of the content that they consider material to their case, rather than impound all the material, personal, and privileged, in a confiscated device? These are only some of the questions that have arisen over the impunity with which devices have been seized during raids conducted over several years – most recently when some 300 devices of over 50 journalists were confiscated by the Delhi Police during the NewsClick raids. Deeply troubling as these questions are, the government is in no hurry to answer them, and the agencies are in no hurry to return the devices. 

A two-member bench of the Supreme Court is now deciding three connected petitions – the first filed by academics Ram Ramaswamy et al, in 2021 and two others, the Foundation for Media Professionals and Amazon Seller Services Private Limited respectively – seeking unambiguous guidelines over the seizure of devices during such search-and-seizure raids. At a sitting last month, the apex court had observed that these guidelines are vital and that unchecked, “all-pervading” power with investigating agencies is “very very dangerous”. One of the judges roundly told the government through its additional solicitor general, “You must have some guidelines. You want us to do it, we will do it. But my view is that you ought to do it yourself.” A month has passed since those observations were made, but the additional solicitor general returned to the court last week, empty-handed, asking for a week more to submit the guidelines.

Going by the arguments the government has made before the court thus far, and its repressive instincts, there is no guarantee that it will indeed come up with such guidelines in the stipulated time. “Legitimate state interests,” according to its thinking, trumps privacy rights. Bureaucratese worthy of Sir Humphrey Appleby marked its affidavit: It argued that a blanket order regarding the return of digital devices to persons under investigation would be inappropriate “considering the exigencies of the investigation and the varying degrees of sensitivity of the data and the stage of investigation which may arise in each case.”

In October, a Delhi court had ruled in the case concerning the Delhi Police’s seizure of devices belonging to the editors and a manager of this news portal, that there was no reasonable ground to retain them since they had been in the possession of the police for a very long time and mirror images of the material deemed important already exist. It is to be hoped that the Supreme Court follows the lead of the junior court and firmly lays down the need for such guidelines. This is a matter of media freedom, academic freedom, and personal freedom.


Readers write in…

Does Israel have a choice?

Pramod Thanedar writes in: “Greetings. I understand your defense of Palestinians but not Hamas. You ought to read Hamas’ charter which calls for the total destruction of the state of Israel. Obviously, I presume that Hamas’ charter is not acceptable to you but why don’t you mention it in your article? At least, Israel is accountable for its excesses but Hamas is an unelected body that is not accountable to anyone. What choice does Israel have but to destroy it since Hamas started this round of violence?

My response: Thank you for your mail. I have never defended Hamas in my columns. In fact, in my column of October 28, I specifically recognised its October 7 attacks as a “crime against humanity.” We can agree that Hamas is a religious fundamentalist group that supports violent resistance to Israeli occupation. 

The question, Mr Thanedar, is how did Hamas itself come into being? A brief answer should surely take into consideration the forced expulsion of Palestinians and the capture of their land by Israeli Zionists supported by Western powers? Wouldn’t it also take into consideration the manner in which Israel evolved into a settler colonial apartheid state? Shouldn’t we also understand the decline and lack of credibility of Fatah, the political wing of the Palestinian Authority that was secular but which was perceived to have become “soft” in its resistance to Israel? It is this that saw Hamas win the election to the Palestinian legislature in 2006.

Please don’t frame Hamas and the mighty armed Israel state as binaries. The difference between them in terms of military power and political clout is immeasurable. It is also contestable that Hamas started this round of violence. Violence by Israel has been continuous over years because, ultimately, it has been illegally occupying Palestinian land. Also, finally, you cannot collapse the need to fight Hamas’ armed wing with the killing of hundreds and thousands of ordinary Gazans.  Israel always had a choice: it could have ended its illegal takeover of the Occupied Territories. 


Go back to the paper ballot

Raja Sekhar made the following comments on the recently concluded assembly polls in a mail: “If you have EVMs and VVPATs, anything is possible. I went through published information on the possibility of frauds in our election system. From now onwards, at least, we should work towards ‘real democracy’ by ensuring that each vote is ‘recorded as cast’ and ‘counted as recorded’ to protect our India’s Republic, its independent judiciary and its existing Constitution. Here I would like to refer to what we should do to avoid the predictions of ‘future worst consequences, that may probably come if the RSS of BJP continues in power to rule India’ as Dr. Parakala Prabhakar put it in his speeches. He argues that there is an urgent need that we get back to the “only full 100% transparent and genuine mode of elections” – through the ballot paper voting system. 

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty.


Modern-day slavery

Law Students of Mumbai wrote us this interesting collective letter. We are publishing excerpts from it because the general view is that young Indians rarely find the time or inclination to involve themselves in issues of social concern. This letter is evidence that this may not always be the case:

“We the concerned students of MNLU Mumbai are writing this letter to you with great pain…It has come to our notice that the Vice Chancellor of MNLU Mumbai…recently terminated the employment of a driver…solely on the grounds of his refusal to undertake duties that were not part of his job description, ie, clean his home, kitchen utensils and toilet. When he objected to being asked to the clean the personal toilet of the VC at his personal residence in Pune, his services were terminated. What is particularly alarming in this case is that the driver belongs to a Scheduled Caste… 

This practice violates the principles of equality and justice enshrined in our Constitution. The concerned VC claims to be a teacher of constitutional law teacher and yet his actions go against the very ethos of what he preaches. Such a practice is also indicative of a form of modern slavery where individuals are coerced into performing tasks outside the scope of their employment, violating their dignity and perpetuating a system of discrimination based on caste…

We humbly request your institution to investigate this matter thoroughly…the students will ensure that all the victims will come and give evidence, if required…There are an estimated 18.3 million people in India forced into forms of modern slavery (about 39% of the world average). No NLU should be a forum where such practices carry on unchecked…We end with the words of Martin Luther King: Injustice Anywhere Is a Threat To Justice Everywhere.

Write to ombudsperson@thewire.in.

Make a contribution to Independent Journalism
facebook twitter