Post-poll trauma and the end of analysis
WEEKS after the election results, many in the media are yet to come out of trauma. Of course we’ve had the mandatory salutations to the wisdom of the people. You’d have to be a gorilla (or the Wall Street Journal) to believe otherwise. But the media have been shaken. The belated wrist-slapping of the NDA regime we saw between May 14-20 is over. Even at the time, it served mainly to evade one big issue – the distance of the Indian media from the Indian people, something verdict 2004 drew attention to so sharply.
The analyses that began appearing from May 16 have much in common. Mostly, they’re marked by desperation to believe that the vote was in fact, a vote for ‘the reforms’. More of them, faster please. From Tom Friedman of the New York Times to Shekhar Gupta of the Indian Express, most run this theme by their readers.
Friedman knows exactly what Indian voters were saying. What they were saying was not: ‘Stop the globalization train, we want to get off.’ It was, ‘Slow down the globalization train, and build me a better step-stool, because I want to get on.’ Never mind that Friedman is now covering his tracks. This was the man who peddled India Shining blab by the truckload till the poll results. He now feels the need to explain how, in fact, his writing on India wasn’t all that silly. And, of course, my friend Swaminathan S. Aiyar could hardly be far behind with his revolution-of-rising-expectations angle.
Blasted to bits in scores of pieces in the post-poll trauma are unquoted enemies. ‘Those who read an anti-reform message into the verdict…’ are fools, knaves, a mafia and worse.
This is fun. In more ways than one. First, the idea that those who hadn’t a clue to what voters were thinking should now know so exactly the meaning (and nuances) of what they have said. Second, the ‘anti-reform’ mafiosi are never quoted, mainly because it is hard to find anyone who has said such things. Not in the media, anyway. Third, because ‘the reforms’ themselves are rarely ever defined in these pieces, except in narrow terms. Fourth, the complete lack of introspection both about ‘the reforms’ as understood by media analysts and about their own role and that of their profession. Fifth, the mantra-like adherence to market dogma. Sixth is an aversion to facts, especially on how the economy is working, or not working, for millions. The list is fascinating. All in all, it has not been a happy month for the Market Jihadis.
One little exercise I did was to take two pieces that focused on ‘The Market’. Wherever those words appeared, I replaced them with ‘God’. It’s amazing how little difference that made to the content of both leader articles. You can choose to be punished by either God or the Market. Either way, you’re doomed if you differ. It’s wondrous how threatened those championing ‘the reforms’ feel. In terms of editorial space, they have a massive monopoly. In terms of editorials themselves, dissent from their dogma ran extinct a long time ago. They have all insisted for years that there was ‘a consensus’ on these reforms.
If so, why the need for a shrill and tiresome defence of what we’re told is ‘a consensus’ that runs across society? If the bad guys do not have even a minimal space in the media, how effective can they be?
Indian Express Editor Shekhar Gupta declared in a piece on May 8 that, ‘The era of the massive election rally has long been over. People now have work to do. This election was fought more in the media than in the streets. Television is now the new electoral battleground and, as with more developed democracies, will increasingly replace public meetings and door-to-door campaigns as the mode of campaigning. A recent India Today opinion poll had clearly shown that a large majority of voters now make up their minds on the basis of what they learn from the media.’
Let’s forget that the same journal’s opinion polls/reports projected a majority for the NDA. Never mind, too, that this pronouncement swiftly joined the archives of famous last words. Allow even for the fact that there is some truth in the idea. Sure, the media can play a huge role in elections. Yet, the assertions are truly breathtaking. It’s a view that allowed of no second look or nuance – even if reduced to a shambles just days later.
The classic media campaign was that of Chandrababu Naidu. He co-opted, corrupted and suborned journalists. He spent crores of public money each year on his own publicity. Starting well before the polls he blocked hours of airtime each day on more than one channel. This was apart from the free PR the media did for him. He was backed by the big newspapers of his state. No one was better treated by television. No Indian politician in living memory had the kind of media adulation that he did (and, to an extent, still does).
His rival went on a silly old-fashioned padayatra. Held dull public meetings and mass rallies. And stooped to that worn-out practice: door-to-door visits in the villages. Rajashekhar Reddy also faced a very hostile media. And he pulped Naidu at the polls.
So did the voters, as Gupta and India Today insist, ‘make up their minds on the basis of what they learn from the media?’ Could anyone claim that now? Gupta also claimed, just around 100 hours from D-Day, that ‘this election was fought more in the media than in the streets.’ How odd that seems now.
Gupta’s point about the power of the media is a real and serious one. And his own newspaper has a reporting record way ahead of most rivals. But that power, in the sense he understands it, was greatly diminished by the media’s disconnect from the masses. It’s worth thinking about. And there’s little to be learnt if you just sweep it away. It’s no accident that most of the post-poll analyses do not mention the Naidu debacle any more. Or just wish it away in a couple of clichés.
And then there’s the ‘anti-incumbency’ blah. Arvind Panagariya in Outlook is just one of the many flying this kite. ‘It’s nonsense to pin the anti-NDA vote on to reforms and not anti-incumbency.’ So there you have it. Anti-incumbency has nothing to do with policy. Oh no, indeed. We loved those guys’ policies. Just got tired of seeing the same old faces. This kind of pfaff plumbs the depths of the debate.
Gurcharan Das, though, tries hard to take it a notch lower. For him (TOI, May 16), the sari tragedy in Lucknow ‘was the defining image of the election.’ Not because of the wretched despair it showed up. But because ‘it brought home the colossal managerial ineptness in our public life. Since the supply of saris fell short of demand from the thousands of hopefuls gathered, a good manager would have found a way to distribute them fairly and calmly.’
Not a word about why those thousands of hopefuls were so desperate for the cheap sarees on offer. Why they paid a small bribe (big money for them) to get into the race. Nope. It was just a managerial thing. The BJP-NDA failed because of ‘poor day-to-day management.’ Not divisiveness and hatred. Not because of the misery of millions.
The defeat shows, some insist, that ‘the rural-urban divide is not true.’ Said mostly about Naidu’s rout, this is funny too. It’s as if the urban areas despising him somehow means he was not anti-farmer. Naidu’s anti-small farmer bias never meant that he endeared himself to all in the cities. In Cyberabad itself, the TDP was all but wiped out. Nor did it mean that Naidu had zero rural support. The small but mighty contractor class emerging there remains his firmest supporter. Quite a few amongst them became millionaires during his rule. It’s not just about being ‘city-centric’ or ‘anti-rural’. It’s about being anti-people and anti-poor. It’s not only the better off who live in metros, anyway. A lot of city dwellers also bore the costs of the policies of the past decade.
Indian society is marked by not one but several divides. But some of them we just don’t want to see. Especially if you bring in terms like class, inequality and exploitation. (Caste exists. But, apparently, is something that happens only in Bihar. Not in Manmohan Singh’s South Delhi.)
It is true, as many have stressed, that alliances played a big role in this election. They did. But they were far from being the whole story. The TDP too, had an alliance in Andhra. One that had saved it from defeat in 1999. It didn’t work this time. Nor did the favoured UDF succeed in Kerala. The Trinamool-BJP one bombed in West Bengal. The huge Congress-NCP tie up in Maharashtra did not bring them the gains it should have.
In Gupta’s view (May 29), ‘the one common factor, wherever the BJP and its allies have lost ground, is the presence of the minority (Muslim and Christian) vote.’ Thus, it is ‘utterly cynical on their part (the Left etc.) to paint this verdict as one against reform rather than against communalism and bigotry.’
This is fascinating. To prove that the vote wasn’t at all against ‘the reforms’, he cites the results in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. But that destroys his own suggestion that it was all about communalism and bigotry. How come they voted BJP? That too, in the assembly polls soon after Gujarat. And again in the Lok Sabha polls. How come the BJP did so well in Karnataka?
There is a simpler answer. In many states, people were reacting to the same policies whether they came from the BJP or the Congress. Where the Congress had been long in power (precisely the states he names), people were still thrashing that party. Where the NDA had been around for a while, people voted against them.
There are surely exceptions, but that was the broad trend. It was, as Gupta at one point accepts, a multi-layered verdict. And one of the most crucial layers was the backlash brought on by growing distress amongst the poor. And against rising inequality – and the elite’s obscene celebration of it. It was also a verdict against intolerance and divisiveness. A verdict for pluralism, diversity and a federal state.
And yes, it was certainly a vote for reforms. But of a very different kind from ‘the reforms’. Confusing? The word reform is much like the terms patriotism, motherhood, apple pie or idealism. Who could be against any of those? Such terms gain meaning only when you get more specific. People want to improve their lives. Not the earnings of corporate CEOs. So yes, the voters are all for reforms. Those that aim at a more just and equitable society.
Getting that right means, amongst other things, addressing people’s rights to resources such as land, water and forests. It means making more jobs, not depriving millions of the wretched ones they have. But for some, ‘the reforms’ simply mean mindless privatisation. The transfer of public wealth and resources to private hands.
That’s why this piece puts ‘the reforms’ in quotes. To demarcate those the powerful want from those that poor people hunger for. Not those that simply cripple or destroy their livelihoods. The elite, though, clearly believe the only reforms worth talking about are their own.
It is no sin to call poll results wrongly. Everyone bombs on those often. But it is wrong not to rethink prejudice. And to end the media’s isolation from the people. You cannot do this when you have decided that 70 per cent of the populace do not make news. Where is the labour correspondent? Or agriculture as a beat? Surely in a country with the world’s largest number of absolute poor, poverty, housing, and many others, have to be full-time beats? It’s sad that Indian dailies often carry reports by Reuters or AP on joblessness in India. They can’t cover it themselves?
The attacks on the ‘anti-reforms mafia’ would be valid if there was one. They would be relevant when you find voices saying: ‘We don’t want any kind of growth. That’s bad.’ Or that the only one message in the 2004 verdict was against the reforms. Since nobody has actually said this, it seems quixotic to persist in that twaddle. It’s constructing arguments you can fight because you cannot face the ones that do exist.
My old friend Ashutosh Varshney says in India Today that in ‘many quarters, the elections have been interpreted as a vote against economic reforms.’ The interpreters remain unnamed and unquoted. But of course he finds their views ‘implausible’. What Varshney does quote is the fine CSDS post-poll study that he thinks supports his views. If only he’d look at the rest of the same report he points to. It says: ‘There is very little approval among the ordinary citizens for [the] economic reforms. Significantly, there is a very high degree of popular consensus on this matter that cuts across class and party lines.’ Four-fifths of those surveyed, for instance, do not support privatisation of PSUs.
What’s more, the survey says, ‘There is still some consensus among Indians, across parties and classes, about the need for the state to actively strive to limit the extent of inequalities in the society.’
That’s why it gets hard to quote the ‘anti-reform mafia’, as one editor dubs dissenters. Do that and you’d have to get serious. You can’t say, ‘These are my toys. Either I bat first and always or I take my toys and go away.’ You’d have to acknowledge that there are many different views on what constitutes growth, on the nature of growth. You’d have to tag on a question that any rookie journalist ought to have learned to ask: What kind of growth? Growth for whom?
Crucially, you’d have to get into the nature and direction of the reforms that you’re talking about. Into the meaning of the word ‘reforms’. Not so long ago, ‘labour reforms’ meant improvement of the conditions of working people. Not taking away the jobs they had. It implied better treatment at a safer workplace. Today, to the powerful in most nations, it means bringing labour to heel. All on an ideological premise that has failed dismally the world over. (Even the departure of a small number of jobs in the name of outsourcing sets the United States squawking. It’s an issue the presidential hopefuls fear greatly. So we can see how well these attitudes have worked.)
At the least, the moral police of ideology, market and economy could acknowledge this: there are people who differ on what ‘reforms’ mean. Who hold the interests of poor people above those of private corporations. That there others firmly committed to reforms – of a very different sort. See this, and there is then a real debate, otherwise, you’re shooting at a phantom.
Creating a fake opponent helps with your personal ‘feel-good factor’. It destroys paper targets but also your own understanding. It’s hard to find a single piece or person who has said that Verdict 2004 was only about a rejection of ‘the reforms’. When the Left, for instance, linked up with the Congress, one central issue was clearly the communal politics of the BJP. The poll campaigns of all parties showed this. Many kinds of divisiveness were issues.
Since then, Amartya Sen has put one part of the past few years so neatly: ‘The economic divisiveness that was brought to the fore added to the political divisiveness that was already flourishing under the Hindutva banner.’
Sen worries about equity, about inequality. Incidentally, these words are remarkably absent from the passionate post-poll defence of ‘the reforms’. As also words like ‘disparity’, ‘livelihoods’, ‘purchasing power’ and ‘exploitation’. Try finding them.
Sure, you can differ with Sen on some vital issues. I know I do. Yet, once again, he puts it clearly when he says that ‘reform is needed for equity-based reasons, as well as for economic efficiency.’
Market fundamentalism lives in a pure world undisturbed by facts. The adherents of the neo-liberal reforms are true devotees. There is no link mentioned, or even seen, between the kind of economics being touted worldwide as ‘reforms’ and the misery, strife, wars and bloodshed that have followed them. In this worldview there is no connection between looting Iraq and the kind of aggressive globalism being promoted by the authors of that war. Find a single analysis that explores this link.
Three things, amongst others, have combined to produce a rather dismal result. The growing corporate links of the media (as in most parts of the world) means a scary loss of diversity in their outlook. They allow fewer and fewer voices to reach their audiences. Two is the incredible rise of market fundamentalism and the self-identification of leading editors and journalists with it. What’s good for big business is good for India. What’s good for the Sensex is perfect. Three, the loss of genuine debate that goes with chasing phantom targets and burying real arguments. An intolerance that trashes or simply silences dissenting voices.
Diversity is not just an Indian virtue. It’s a desperate Indian necessity. You cannot understand or run this country through the prism of any fundamentalism. It’s the contempt for true diversity, the bile towards dissenting views that today so isolate the media from the masses. That disconnect surely calls for some introspection.
Maybe some of it has begun, if in a modest way. Even as the mantra chanting goes on, a few questions are popping up. Outlook editor Vinod Mehta wonders whether the passion over some of the present reforms is at all relevant. ‘Does it matter for the family in Kalahandi whether the cap on FDI in airports privatisation is 49 per cent or 74 per cent? The shame of India is that we have created an obscenely unequal society in which you and I can happily spend Rs 3,000 for a single meal, while for millions Rs 3,000 means three month’s earnings.’ NDTV’s Rajdeep Sardesai has been candid about the media’s distance from what people were thinking.
Shankar Aiyar in India Today wants us to ‘heed the poor’. Sound advice for his own journal. And simple words, maybe even a cliché, but something amounting to heresy in India Today. (Aiyar though, seems to think anyone ‘tanking’ the Sensex is somehow against a growing GDP.) Even Bibek Debroy had something in the Express that faintly resembled a distant relative of introspection.
Meanwhile at least one television channel has started an agriculture beat. And Gupta’s Indian Express has run a string of very good social sector stories, some on the front-page. The largest publications in Andhra are re-introducing poverty as a beat. And finally, the farmers’ suicides are getting a little more space than they did earlier. Maybe we still might learn something after all.