India’s post-election media circus

BY ninan| IN Media Practice | 24/05/2004
 

India’s post-election media circus

 

 

In the news business this is the sort of fortnight to die for. So how did our fourth estate acquit itself during this period?

 

Sevanti Ninan  

From the 13th to the 22nd of May 2004 it has been a truly tumultuous news period for India. A government was voted out, another took more than a week to take shape, the markets crashed and recovered, an Italian-born woman almost became  prime minister and then abdicated, and a former academic from a minority community became prime minister, nominated by the same party which had massacred members of his community twenty years ago. In the news business this is the sort of fortnight you would die for.  

 If media produces the first draft of history, and certainly history was made in more ways than one, how did our fourth estate acquit itself during this period?  Predictably, in most cases. The flagship publications of the Times Group let their imagination go beserk, leaving bewildered readers searching for the news in a welter of graphics, artwork and puns.   The Indian Express managed on most news days to raise questions which needed to be raised, the Hindu eschewed histrionics and looked and sounded like a regular newspaper, which was a rarity during this period. The Asian Age did not do anything which merited special comment. The Pioneer carped about the new dispensation, its bias frequently showing. And the Hindustan Times celebrated Sonia Gandhi. Period.

 Through this period five broad news themes emerged.  Almost every editorial (including those of the business papers)  said that the people had voted out a government which had lost touch with rural reality. The second point of analysis was that it was a vote against communalism. All these were assumptions, such sweeping generalisations are difficult to document. The exception was the Pioneer which did not agree with either of the above propositions. The third theme was that foreign origin was not an issue in this election. Again the Pioneer begged to differ. The fourth point made was the centrality of reforms to India’s economic progress. Apparently this is a philosophy that the media has whole-heartedly imbibed, it seemed to be a touchstone against which the sincerity of purpose of the new government would be measured. There were no exceptions here. Finally there was the renunciation issue. The word was freely used. To a man (or woman) the media rose to hail Sonia’s sacrifice. Voices of scepticism were few and faint. Of course, the Pioneer did not buy this theory of sacrifice.   

One incredulous aspect of the media free-for-all was the addiction to juvenile puns. Except for the Hindu which takes itself very seriously, nobody seemed to able to resist the temptation to pun. There was the Times of India’s banner headline on May 13, "King Cong, Queen Sonia."  And a label headline on page 1 told you what a huge joke it thought the whole thing was: "Dance of Democracy blockbuster." Sonia became a pun for ‘so near’ in more than one headline, as in "Sonia yet so far".(Economic Times, May 17, accompanied by a Sistine Chapel take off, with Sonia Gandhi and Surjeet substituted for Adam and God.)  The Hindustan Times punned on Shock and Awe, with "Shock and Awesome," on the 14th morning.  

The rise of the Left and resulting  stock market jitters brought their share of puns. "Congress takes Left turn to Power." (Business Standard, May 14). "Power takes Left Turn", Asian Age, same day. The Indian Express said, "Market Left bruised, Cong calls in the Doctor." (May 15th.) On May 17th you had Business Standard again, "Hammer and Fickle." The next day the same paper said "Left Hand drive scares market." And then came the Manmohan Singh announcement bringing with it a fresh burst of punning frenzy. "Singhing in the Reign," (Times of India, May 20), and "Northeast Ready to Singh and Dance", (Asian Age, same day.)  Why have our  sub-editors suddenly begun to collectively freak out?  

 When they were not punning they were doing take-offs on Hindi movie or song titles. As in, "Keh do na, you are my Sonia." (Economic Times, May 14.)  This top of the page headline was accompanied by one of those bizarre mastheads that this newspaper specialises in. Sonia being held aloft in some kind of a nautch girl outfit, surrounded by dancing figures, and Har Krishan Singh Surjeet and Karunanidhi decked out in fancy dress.   "Sonia Hai Ki Mante Nahi" was another ET witticism on another day.    

Not surprisingly, a media so hung up on being cute and clever was missing out on other things. The post election analysis did not dwell enough on the anti incumbency displayed against the Congress in Kerala, Karnataka and Punjab.  The analysis of sectors which would come in for drastic review under the new dispensation was so obsessed with on economics that did not include education, where surely there would be a brake put on Murli Manohar Joshi’s saffronising spree.   The Pioneer sensed as much and cavilled in anticipation: On the 17th May an editorial titled "Past Imperfect" predicted that text book writing by the Left would resume, and would undermine "attempts to correct history by the BJP."   

Mr Vajpayee bowed out as prime minister to resounding cheers from editors Shekhar Gupta, Chandan Mitra and Vir Sanghvi telling us what a statesman he had been. But throughout  a period of loud and crude histrionics from the likes of Uma Bharati and Sushma Swaraj  he did the usual Vajpayee thing: looked unhappy but said nothing. Did not open his mouth to rein them in. Nobody in the press pointed that out except the Economic Times in an editorial on May 19. 

And of course the drama ensuing from the election results made the media collectively forget that it should spend some time getting a painstaking post mortem done of why different parts of the country voted the way they did. Only the Hindu, hats off to it, came up with a full supplement on how India voted about a week later.  

The present government is setting an extraordinary precedent. You have a prime minister who is answerable to someone else in his party in Parliament. You have a government and ruling party with two power centres. It is truly extraordinary how little writing and comment there has been on this precedent. The press has been so caught up in playing up the renunciation story that is has been seduced into believing that it is the full story. And have we all lost our sense of  perspective that we buy the Sonia Gandhi-Mahatma Gandhi comparison without realising how bizarre it is?  It was presumptious on Sonia Gandhi’s  part to choose  a Gandhian phrase to make her move and statement. And equally so for Rahul Gandhi to say, as he has been quoted saying, "My mother isn’t a Gandhi by blood but yesterday she became one."  But nobody in the mainstream media seems to thinks so. An usually cynical press made a Gandhi comparison when the more accurate parallel would have been Bal Thackeray.   

When  Mahatma Gandhi renounced power, he did not endorse an arrangement to institutionalise himself as the  power behind the throne, the person who would appoint all future prime minister as long as the Congress was in power.  When Sonia Gandhi stepped aside and let the Congress constitution be amended, it attracted remarkably little reporting and comment. Only the Indian Express dealt with the issue in a front page story.  The Hindu and the Hindustan Times reported the changes  without comment. The Asian Age did not dwell on its implications either.  The Times of India gently hinted at the end of a page ten story   on May 19 titled "Sonia Soars in Renunciation" that  "she must set aside the remote as well." On May 20 it decides by the end of an editorial  titled "Right Choice, Baby" (a line coined for Pepsi, and used here for Manmohan Singh)  that "Sonia is turning out to be an admirable leader, and will not be a remote control."  

Sonia Gandhi has given up power, our newspapers and TV channels have been gushing. She has not, she has opted for power and glory without the headaches of prime ministership.  A luxury which her husband and mother-in-law did not have. Can nobody see that? Or are they being delicate about it?  

As for your-bias-is-showing awards, the first prize is a toss up between the Pioneer and the Hindustan Times. The Pioneer can be forgiven. It will now have to do without government patronage and is entitled to be a little peeved. On day one after the results there were two front page editorials, one in the India Express commenting on how the voter across the country and across income groups voted the same way, and one in the Pioneer rueing the fact that "when anti-incumbency takes hold of the voter, rationality is often the victim". The edit also talked of Mr Vajpayee’s "dream prime ministership". In its main story the paper reported Sonia Gandhi’s "Normally ye hi hota hai" statement with the comment that it was an indication that though she had withdrawn from the leadership race before the poll, she was no longer coy about the issue. On page five however there was a story that was fair to her: "Sonia Scripted Cong Victory".   

On May 17 it devoted the upper half of its front page to protests against her foreign origin. On May 19 while every other newspaper was bowled over by Sonia Gandhi turning down the job, the Pioneer carried an unabashedly insidious story titled "Whose Inner Voice," about the President asking for certain clarifications, doubtless knowing by the time it went to press, that  Rashtrapati Bhavan had issued a categorical denial of  what was suggested in the story. The previous day it had front-paged the news of a Karnataka businessman’s suicide allegedly upon learning that Gandhi was going to become prime minister.  

The Hindustan Times floated on a Sonia cloud through much of the period of high drama, carrying huge close up photographs of her face, and with true Vir Sanghvi sangfroid  carrying front page econiums to Vajpayee one day and Sonia the next. On the day of her "renunciation" it had an enormous picture of her with the headline, "Amazing Grace. "  Over the top, to put it mildly. It also wrote an editorial  titled "Turning it Down,"  roughly in the same vein as the Hindu’s editorial "Stunning Political Sacrifice." (May 19, both.) 

Like one said, both HT and the Pioneer outdid themselves, take your pick.

 

 

 

 

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