ELECTION REPORTING | Is the media falling into sectarian trap?

Why is it that the media at large has taken to do electoral surveys based on narrow divisions like religion and caste? So far, playing the sectarian card and making inflammatory speeches have been the preserve of politicians, but the bug seems to have infected media as well. The larger question #IMPECTStudy #WeAreWatchingYou is taking up deals with why the media is subscribing to the divisive outlook which political parties adopt to rally their vote-banks.

In the name of doing demographic studies of constituencies so as to analyse past voting patterns and make forecasts for the coming elections, media reports are replete with population percentages of communities, which community has been voting for which party, whether and how other parties are trying to break into a community vote-bank or at least split it, and so on and so forth. But in trying to stay one step ahead of political parties in reading the electoral game, ironically the media seems to be playing into the hands of such parties and falling two steps behind. And so we have media analyses about Rahul Gandhi contesting from ‘minority dominated’ Wayanad in Kerala, which seem to echo the saffron narrative. When the media goes agog which electorate a political leader is trying to reach out to by the places of worship he or she visits, it gives observers much food for thought.

Media politics with UP Dalits

Then there is the casteist-communal colour to voting that the media is hyping up. A report carried in The Times of India on April 10 was headlined ‘Is Jat-Gujjar vote BJP’s answer to UP gathbandhan?’; it assessed poll outcomes of 2014 and found that the Jat and Gujjar communities ‘had played a significant role’ in at least 25 seats won by BJP then, and that the BJP in 2019 can again rely on these two communities to act as a counter to Muslim and Dalit vote-banks of the SP-BSP-RLD combine. The analysis does not stop there — it then calculates the number of candidates belonging to these communities fielded by the BJP and the opposing alliance. The vote power of communities have been analysed on the basis of constituencies, with the TOI report finding that ‘Jats happen to be a deciding factor in constituencies such as Bijnor, Muzaffarnagar, Kairana, Baghpat and Meerut, while Gujjars are a dominating force in Gautam Buddh Nagar, Ghaziabad, Saharanpur and Bulandshahr’ The report sums up by contending that the Jat-Gujjar combine is crucial for BJP playing its Hindutva card, especially after BSP supremo Mayawati’s appeal to Muslims not to get divided and vote en masse for alliance candidates. In an interview with Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath (published on April 1), the TOI reporter posed this question: “The SP-BSP alliance is not only unprecedented but comes with a huge voter base of Yadavs, Muslims and Dalits. Do you agree they are posing a big challenge?”

To be fair, The Times of India in an editorial ‘Old India’s Return’ (on April 3) has bemoaned the return of identity politics, with its sub-headline reading: ‘In election rallies, identity politics displaces modern citizenship, ‘sabka saath sabka vikas’. The editorial took the view that the issue of inclusive development which dominated election discourse in 2014 is not playing any role in 2019, so that ‘sabka sath sabka vikas’ slogan has been replaced with identity politics. “There is justification to the Congress charge that Modi is thereby looking at Indians as communities rather than as citizens. Arguably Congress too has often been guilty of doing the same thing. But that is no reason to continue with what is, at bottom, a British colonial practice,” the editorial commented, referring to the British policy of ‘Divide and Rule’ which is still deep-rooted in Indian politics. Illustrating how various issues are re-inclined towards caste and communal politics in no time, the editorial stated, “When Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised the ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’ slogan, it connected with Indians’ deepest aspirations. But hope is replaced by fear whenever he plays the identity card or dwells upon the ‘Hindu terror’ vs (implicitly) ‘Muslim terror’ type of semantics, as he did while addressing an election rally in Wardha”.

There are several such reports and articles in TOI in the period April 1 to 10 with analyses of division of communities in constituencies like ‘Dharavi is touted as the largest slum in Asia and is home to Maharashtrian Dalit communities like Dhors and Charmakars, besides migrants from South India who came looking for new opportunities’ under the headline ‘From buzzing Dharavi to calm Hindu Colony, Shewale has a diversity of issues before him’ (April 4), ‘In TN, politics makes a slow shift from Dravidian identity’ (April 4), ‘UP Muslim girl harassed for refusing to wear BJP cap’ (April 5), ‘For 30 years, no Muslim MP from Gujarat in LS — Congress only national party to give tickets to community’ (April 5),BJP’s Unsustainable Muslim Bashing’ (April 6), ‘BJP to field hardline Hindutva figure against Digvijaya in Bhopal LS seat?’ (April 7), and ‘Jatavs firmly behind Maya, but will other Dalits follow?’ (April 7).

The divisive politics playing out before the electorate seems to be reflected in such reporting from state after state, even as the media professes to be against narrow agendas that pit various groups against each other. It is unfortunate if the media is falling into the same trap where political parties have been wallowing for long.

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