The day after the first phase of voting last month in Assam, the political pages of the Delhi edition of a pink paper carried a curious report. It reported that the workers of the Congress Party had burst firecrackers celebrating the ground reports from Upper Assam that reported a huge consolidation of Muslim voters in its support. To be fair, the report also suggested that the BJP and its allies appeared to be doing spectacularly well in the urban centres, but this important detail was lost amid the gloating that followed the Congress’ premature celebrations.
The inclination of the media to put out positive stories in support of a side it is inclined towards isn’t new and nor is it a recent phenomenon. Throughout the recently-concluded round of Assembly elections, readers and viewers of what passes off as news were subjected to fiercely partisan accounts of the mood in the constituencies. In Assam, we were told that the Muslims were gradually veering round to the view that only the Congress was in a position to save the community from the BJP. This meant that the AUDF led by perfume trader Badruddin Ajmal was gradually being squeezed out of the race. The results revealed that the AUDF still retains its relevance and that the Congress too has a substantial Muslim support. Indeed, both the Congress and AUDF appear to have reduced themselves to becoming Muslim parties in Assam.
Likewise in West Bengal, a section of the media, particularly the ABP Group, the biggest media player in eastern India, actually launched a no-holds-barred attack on Mamata Banerjee. It not only created an environment to bring the Congress and the the CPI(M) together in an electoral alliance, but put out highly tendentious reports that suggested the unlikely combination was certain to win. The important distinction between what it thought to be preferable and an accurate description of what is actually happening on the ground was obliterated. So insidious was this campaign that most of the media were convinced till the early morning of May 19 that the Trinamool Congress would either lose or that the results would be tantalisingly close.
Finally, even in Tamil Nadu, the age old aversion of the media to a Jayalalithaa that accorded it absolutely no importance manifested itself again. This election didn’t result in a total, one-sided verdict — the DMK emerged a very respectable second and would probably have done even better had it not needlessly accommodated a Congress which is nothing short of being merely a letterhead in Tamil Nadu. However, the media seems to have quite deliberately overplayed the quantum of resentment in Chennai at the State Government’s apparent mishandling of the floods last year. If there was fierce and lingering resentment, it certainly didn’t manifest itself in the electoral outcome.
It was only in Kerala that we saw the media conduct itself quite professionally. Maybe this was due to the fact that there is a gentlemanly understanding between the two fronts and endorsing on or the other is part of a general consensus. The media reports suggested a genuine uncertainty over which combine would be most affected by the surge in support for the BJP, and this uncertainty was understandable. In the event, the UDF lost far more from the BJP’s spectacular advance to 15 per cent of the popular vote, than did the LDF. The BJP turned out to be a very effective anti-Congress spoiler.
The coverage and treatment of the Assembly elections of 2016 raises very important questions regarding the media’s larger role in a democracy. That media freedom is inalienable and is part of the larger democratic freedoms enjoyed by citizens is undeniable. The larger question that emerges is whether it is justified to view the media as a separate Fourth Estate any longer?
If these elections and the general election two years ago are any indication, the media is gradually shedding its autonomy and is becoming indistinguishable from the larger political process.
Its functioning suggests that the media is rapidly turning into fronts of political organisations. The allegiances may be negotiable and could even have a transactional dimension but the larger political purpose is unmistakable. Barring some important exceptions, the difference between journalism and political activism and between journalists and politicians are increasingly becoming blurred.
Maybe this is an old development and maybe editors have always seen themselves as waging political war by other means. However, as the consensual categories break down and India moves away from Congress domination, a need to formally acknowledge the shift is becoming paramount. By formally acknowledging its own demise, journalism may even end up enriching partisan politics. It will certainly make its job description more honest.