Commerce, politics and caste in UP election coverage

BY Vij| IN Media Practice | 19/05/2004
Tongue fully in cheek, Awasthi says that upto 10% of ‘biased’ stories don’t hurt a paper’s credentials…
  

Shivam Vij in Lucknow

  

What has been the greatest change in election coverage in the Uttar Pradesh press this time? "Technology has been used to the utmost by all big papers in Lucknow," says the Dilip Awasthi, a senior editor with Dainik Jagran. More technology, says Awasthi, means faster communication and greater competition between papers. The usage of technologies such as VSAT and intranet has resulted in information overload: Awasthi has so much on his desk he doesn’t know what to put in. The papers now have more graphics, the look more magazine-like. 

A few metres away is the small, nondescript office of Aaj, which has not a single computer. The same question is put to Kamal Jayant, who has been assigned the BJP beat for Aaj. What has been the greatest change in election coverage in the Uttar Pradesh press this time? The papers showed some lack of interest this time, he says, with not too many correspondents going out into the field, or going with ‘heavyweight’ leaders for covering their rallies. Such lack of interest has been fuelled partly, he says, because of the interference of newspaper managements: "When X party has to be given Y amount of coverage, journalists wonder why they should work hard."  

This interview was taken before two days before the Lok Sabha results were declared, and there was nothing in the media that indicated the mood amongst the voters. This was true as much of UP as it was for the country as a whole. The reasons lie largely in commercialization leading to journalistic complacency. 

"The papers have been trying to catch up with TV," says Ratan Mani Lal, an editor-turned-mass communications teacher. The TV channels built up their exit polls as the most important part of their election coverage, and the papers responded by shifting their thrust to jumping to conclusions. "Who will form the government at the centre has been the all-important question, rather than what is happening to electoral equations on the ground," says Lal. Note again that the interview was taken a week before the results.  

Market-driven journalism is the buzzword with every journalist here. Awasthi of Jagran insists he wants to explain the raison d’etre of such journalism: "I spend twelve rupees in producing my paper and sell it for rupees three." You could well be talking to one of the Jains at the Bennet, Coleman & Company Ltd. Awasthi confirms that the age of something like the TOI’s infamous Medianet is not far way from Lucknow. 

"Why are you asking what biases journalists have betrayed in their coverage?" asks Jayant of Aaj. In interview after interview, every journalist echoes this: blame the management. "Journalists have become liason officers of their groups," says Kashi Prasad of Eenadu TV Uttar Pradesh.  

Although this is true of both big and small papers at different levels, large papers like Jagran and Amar Ujala are aggressively increasing their circulation by opening new editions. Jagran, which is now the largest selling paper in the country, has been launching new editions in UP and Uttaranchal one after the other. Ditto with Ujala, which has also begun an edition in Punjab. As literacy rates rise, new markets are to be captured, the financial bottom line has to be looked after. Papers that began in small UP towns are important players in the national media with ambitions of entering television. "Such commercialisation," says Lal of the Mass Communications Department at the Jaipuria Institute of Management, "has meant that papers are not as worried about their political inclinations as about making money." A paper like Jagran, for instance, can’t afford to continue its BJP activism in a state ruled by the Congress, says Lal. But as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh RSS) ideologues continue to dominate Jagran’s edit page, one is not so sure about the extent of professionalism brought about commercialism.  

Biases, says Awasthi, often appear due to pressure. Pressure from? "From politicians," he says. So if the Samajwadi Party’s spin doctor Amar Singh tells a newspaper to print story X, the paper compromises if it wants some benefits from the ruling SP government. Tongue fully in cheek, Awasthi says that upto 10% of ‘biased’ stories don’t hurt a paper’s credentials: "How often would one get a call from Amar Singh? At the most once a month." 

But it may not just be political pressure. Individual or management biases may creep in. So you have the Hindustan Times on 3 May reporting from Mulayam Singh’s home district, Etawah, about the massive reception received by Rajnath Singh there as a Kshatriya leader. The tone of the story, written by resident editor Sunita Aron, tells you this isn’t the epitome of objectivity. Such stories may be called PR pieces even if they do not involve PR companies.  

Another example of this was in Dainik Jagran on 4 May, a day before polling in Lucknow. The lead story was an interview with then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The headline played upon one of Vajpayee’s poems, but not in quotes: Kaal ki kaapaal pur abhi kai geet likhnay hain... The profile photo of a laughing Vajpayee had a halo-like saffron background to it. The interview starts with words of sycophancy: "Unki aankhon mein gajab aatma-vishwas bhari ek chamak thi..." Trans: His eyes had a spectacular spark of self-confidence in them. The greatest exponents of Hindi prose might be embarrassed, but Awasthi, who took the interview along with another reporter, defends the piece saying that when you interview the prime minister there has to be some decorum and prestige in it. Argue a bit more and he says: "Tell me, how did CNN cover the Iraq war?"

 

 

Covering caste

 

Caste politics is the central to any kind of political activity in Uttar Pradesh. Not just are parties identified with castes, particular leaders in particular parties are able to woo particular castes. Notable in this has been the rise of ‘backward’ caste parties. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is the party of Dalit leaders who get elected on a Dalit ‘votebank’, and the Samajwadi Party (SP) is similarly the party of OBC’s or ‘other backward castes’, as per Constitutional classification. OBC’s are the intermediate caste between SC’s and upper castes, where as Dalits are the lowest of the low in caste hierarchy. 

Even as politics has come to be dominated by these two parties, backward castes are vastly under-represented in the UP press, particularly amongst political reporters. So we have a situation where backward caste parties are covered invariably by upper caste journalists, and overseen by upper caste editors. Does the caste (and/or class milieu) of these journalists affect the coverage of these parties? 

Not when they’re in power, because no newspaper can survive if it is antagonistic to the ruling dispensation. But once out of power, things can change. Ask Mayawati, the leader of the BSP. 

Mayawati was rather hostile to the press during her last regime as chief minister. As soon as she was out of power, journalists were relieved, as documented in an earlier story in The Hoot. Then came elections and it was time for backlash. As Jayant of Aaj points out, Mayawati was not projected as a major political player in the state, she wasn’t given due coverage. The results on 13 May 2004 showed the BSP to be the second largest party in the state.  

The media’s mutual hostility with Mayawati was only one reason, says Awasthi of Jagran. Mayawati says her voter doesn’t read the papers, and is not influenced by them, and so she does not speak to the ‘manuwaadi’ or upper caste-dominated media. Nobody from her party is allowed to speak to the press. 

"But what about the 96 rallies she addressed? The media should have covered them well," says Vivek Kumar, a Dalit who left his job with The Pioneer in 2000 to become an academic. Kumar, who now teaches at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems at JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) in Delhi, says that bias operates in separate ways: "Backward caste leaders are termed casteist, but parties like the BJP and the Congress are never called casteist even when their ticket distribution for elections is on the lines of caste demography." He cites VP Singh and Chaudhri Charan Singh, two former prime ministers, as people who won their respective seats because of their castes, but they would never be called caste leaders. "The root of the problem," he explains, "lies in how the media perceives caste politics. When oppressed castes make their very caste a democratic weapon, you call it casteism. But what is happening is the challenging of caste hegemony." 

On Mayawati’s relationship with the media, Kumar says that from ’98 to 2000 Mayawati had in fact become very media savvy, following press conferences with press lunches. But she was alienated by the media which did things like printing fake stories of her alleged ‘affair’ with BSP supremo Kanshi Ram. And secondly, he says, Maywati does not suffer from chappas [the urge to see one’s name in print]." Maywati can also cultivate and bribe the press, says Kumar, but she doesn’t need to because her votes are intact. 

With Mulayam Singh and the SP such caste bias is a lot more muted because of Mulayam Singh’s cultivation of the press. While in power between ’89 and ’93 Mulayam Singh had set new heights in pampering journalists, heights that he hasn’t scaled this time.  

But this bias, whose presence most upper caste journalists vehemently deny, can go only a certain distance. In a graphical analysis of the electoral situation, Awasthi of Jagran points out, how can anyone leave out the BSP? 

But this points to a larger problem. Graphics, percentages, statistics, census figures have all replaced understanding politics at a human level. The Indian Express for instance sent a reporter from Delhi to a village in a constituency where the BSP won its first ever seat. The paper said that this is where the BSP revolution really began, and Dalit voters now say they want something more than just self-esteem from the BSP. These are the sort of stories that are missing from the papers. There is little attempt to understand caste politics. Why does a Dalit vote for Mayawati when she screams that she is a Dalit’s daughter? 

Backward caste journalists may point out how so many upper caste journalists have RSS backgrounds and are eventually rewarded by the BJP, but backward caste journalists are themselves equally aligned with parties representing their interests. In all this objectivity goes out of the window. But when you use the word objectivity and journalists in Lucknow think you’re naive. 

Besides, reporting and analysis of caste equations also declined in quantity this time because of the space taken up by exit polls and star politicians.

 

Contact: Shivam Vij,  zest_india@yahoo.co.in

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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