WHITHER MEANINGFUL ISSUES? Media in search of its strategy

The world’s largest democratic exercise unfolding in India seems to be more about poll strategies than issues. In seeking to enter the minds of politicians to divine their winning strategies in the ‘first past the post’ electoral system, the media seems to have lost sight of its own strategy to justify its role.

In the March 11 issue of The Times of India, there was a comprehensive list of challenges facing various states, like the agrarian crisis in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, drug abuse in Punjab, job creation in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, drought in Karnataka and Maharashtra, demand for higher crop support prices in Chattisgarh, minority appeasement in West Bengal, displacement of villagers in Jharkhand, air connectivity in Himachal Pradesh, citizenship bill in Assam, special package for Bihar, mining industry shutdown in Goa, women’s entry into Sabarimala in Kerala, Jat reservation in Haryana, militancy in Jammu & Kashmir and water shortage in Tamil Nadu. But even as general elections 2019 took off with the first phase of polling on April 11, such issues hardly figured in political rallies and speeches during the final hours of campaigning. In its anxiety to report on whatever the parties and leaders were saying and doing — while tracking the larger electoral chessboard — the media seems to have lost focus on issues that really matter.

The #IMPECTStudy #WeAreWatchingYou has found the political discourse limited to issues like national security in the context of Pulwama terror attack, with the media scrambling to give space to the hyper-nationalistic rhetoric in the race for TRPs and readership. There has been little effort by the media to corner politicians on issues of concern for the silent majority of voters. Has the media highlighted the agendas of candidates, including the independent ones, and compared these with the real issues the constituencies are grappling with? The answer is mostly negative if we look at the prominent narratives taken up by the media. When Narendra Modi unleashed #MainBhiChowkidar on social media on March 16, mainline media was slow off the blocks in putting it under the scanner; it was only some days later that some media entities thought about taking up the grievances of real chowkidars. However, mainline media has done better with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s Ganga sojourn to connect with the communities settled along North India’s lifeline, like the in-depth study by news magazine The Week in its April 7 issue headlined ‘Choppy waters’. Maybe this difference has something to do with Modi’s chowkidar campaign playing out on social media while Priyanka’s Ganga campaign was more of a traditional face-to-face communication with voters.

The Times of India in its April 5 issue carried a report headlined ‘With Rs 1.2cr, BJP beats other parties on Google ad spend’, where it was shown that online political ads are now a part of the new strategy of parties. ‘The BJP has outspent other major national parties, paying Rs 1.21 crore for political ads on Google... As per Google, political parties have spent Rs 3.76 crore on 831 election ads on its platform since February 19’ — the TOI report said. There have also been other reports exploring the strategies being followed by some candidates like crowdfunding. A TOI report on April 2 headlined ‘Crowdfunding startup helps raise funds for poll forays’ focused on the rise of crowdfunding as a new avenue for financially hard-up candidates to contest elections. Another TOI report on April 2 headlined — Facebook takes down 687 bogus accounts ‘linked to Cong’ — attempted to establish the spread of fake social media accounts by political parties as another strategy to counterattack the narratives of opponents. The report dealt with FB action against ‘coordinated inauthentic behaviour’ shown by the accounts and pages of individuals ‘associated with an INC IT cell’, the Congress denial and the BJP allegation that the Congress was spreading ‘fake news’.

In an article ‘BJP strategy for Lok Sabha polls: Turning intensity into numbers’ by Santosh Desai published in The Times of India on April 8, the writer while assessing the strategies of political parties, pointed out: “The primary strength of BJP, one that distinguishes it from most other political parties, is the strength of its supporters, not just in numbers, but far more critically, in the intensity of their support”. Comparing Modi’s chowkidar campaign which was triggered by Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ jibe, the writer contended: “If Congress were to attempt something like this (#MainBhiChowkidar campaign), it would quickly become a joke, but BJP is able to pull it off because there are so many who feel a great sense of pride in flaunting whatever label”.

The media has thus been actively identifying and analysing electoral strategies political parties are employing in their no-holds-barred tussle for the vote. But so far there has been little to go by what strategies media itself is using to ensure that meaningful issues are placed before the people. Failure to do this will make it that much harder for people to carefully form opinions and make up their minds, which in turn will put in doubt the very relevance of media.

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