A distinctive feature of the recently concluded 16th general elections in India was the manner in which large sections of the mass media extended wholehearted support to the candidature of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who led the rightwing, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power, by winning more than a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament in the world’s largest democracy. The media, in turn, was greatly benefitted by an unprecedented advertising campaign launched to promote Mr Modi – the scale of the campaign was unparalleled in Indian history not only in the traditional media (print, radio, television and outdoor banners) but even more so in the new media (internet websites, blogs and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter).
An equally distinctive aspect of the elections was the support given to Mr Modi and his party by the corporate sector. Never before have big business houses and industrial groups so openly advocated the candidature of an individual in the way corporate captains extolled the virtues of Mr Modi in the run-up to the elections, the results of which were declared on 16 May. Since a substantial section of India’s mass media is owned and controlled by corporate conglomerates, the corporate media can be credited with ensuring that the BJP led by Mr Modi won a resounding victory in the polls. Few political observers were expecting the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition it leads to win the number of seats that were won by the party and the formation. Even the BJP was pleasantly surprised with the margin of victory. Out of the dozens of opinion and exit polls that were conducted, only one (Today’s Chanakya) was able to predict the scale of the outcome.
The first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all Westminster system of parliamentary democracy followed in India makes it extremely difficult to anticipate the outcome of elections by relating vote shares to changes in the number of seats. The performance of the BJP had steadily risen between 1984 (when the party had secured just two seats in the Lok Sabha) and 1998 when it won 182 seats with a vote share of 25.6 percent. In 1999, the party secured the same number of seats with a reduced vote share of 23.8 percent. Thereafter, its position declined in 2004 to 138 seats with a vote share of 22 percent, and further to 116 seats with a vote share of 18.8 percent in 2009. Between the general elections held in 2004 and 2009, the BJP’s vote share dipped by almost 3.5 percent. In 2014, the party’s vote share jumped to just over 31 percent, resulting in the party winning 282 seats, ten above the half-way majority mark of 272. The BJP’s improved performance was undoubtedly facilitated by favourable media coverage.
Media and the ‘Modi wave’
Many media organisations were unabashed in their support for Mr Modi, virtually giving up any pretence of balance and objectivity in their coverage of the election campaigns. Not only were Mr Modi and the BJP lauded, their political opponents were mercilessly pilloried. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, led by Manmohan Singh with the UPA chairperson and Congress president Mrs Sonia Gandhi as his de facto ‘boss’, had become extremely unpopular, and this was reflected in the media. The reasons for this public disenchantment with the Congress were also highlighted: high food prices, tardy creation of jobs, brazen acts of corruption, the economic slowdown and the so-called policy paralysis in government.
When the corporate sector, which had lauded Dr Singh’s market-oriented policies of economic liberalisation (and, in fact, been their biggest beneficiary), turned against the UPA over the past few years, so did the corporate media. And viciously so. This section of the media has always catered to India’s elite and espoused overtly right of centre viewpoints on economic policies. The government’s welfare schemes – including the programmes to secure the right to work, the right to food and the right to education – were mercilessly criticised as populist and wasteful by the media. Mr Modi was held up as a messiah who could not just rid the country of corruption and maladministration but also bring about a rapid industrial transformation as he supposedly did in Gujarat. It is, of course, a different issue that Gujarat’s track record in healthcare, education and women’s empowerment has been middling in comparison to many other states in the country.
The new Prime Minister’s promises of a brighter future for the youth, more jobs and a better life were wholeheartedly endorsed by the media, even if some of these claims were a bit over the top. ‘Minimum government, maximum governance’ was his mantra and the media loved every bit of it. And why not? It was not merely an instance of selling hopes and dreams by a man who had risen from his humble, underprivileged origins to the pinnacle of power. For the media, it was a mutually beneficial relationship. After all, the media also gained handsomely from the advertising splurge of the BJP in favour of Mr Modi. Estimates vary and the figures can be disputed, but there is no doubt that the expenditure incurred on promoting Mr Modi’s candidature was unprecedented in the history of India, and would not have been possible without the generous support of large corporate entities and their promoters.
It may have been presumed that the Congress, which was in power in New Delhi for a decade, would be spending more on publicity than the principal opposition party in the country. But that was not the case. The expenditure incurred by the BJP was not limited to the traditional media – print, radio, television, outdoor banners and hoardings. The use of holograms and virtual sets to broadcast Mr Modi’s speeches across the length and breadth of the country was unmatched in terms of sheer scale and spread. Live audio-visual feeds of each one of his public rallies were provided to television channels for free, thereby enabling media organisations to cut costs considerably. This was not the only ‘first’ of its kind in his campaign. Never before had the internet been used in India in the way it was in the run up to the elections. Not only was Mr Modi lionised, his critics were sought to be countered with ruthless efficiency.
What was also unprecedented on this occasion was that Mr Modi was marketed as a ‘brand’, and that the elections were successfully converted into an American-style presidential contest, in which personalities mattered more than policies and programmes. In the tussle that was projected as Narendra Modi versus Rahul Gandhi versus Arvind Kejriwal, the first-named came out with flying colours. It did not matter that during these elections – like every one of the five elections held since 1996 – nearly half of those who exercised their franchise did not vote for either of the two largest political parties in India, the BJP and the Congress.
On 24 May, an editorial in the left-leaning Economic and Political Weekly titled ‘Fourth Estate That Vanished’ observed:
The Modi campaign invariably got competitive (as in vying with one another) live coverage from the major channels. Both his freewheeling claims of achievements and impromptu allegations against his political opposition went generally unverified. He was cast not just as a challenger of the Congress and its corrupt rule, but as the messiah of a new order. Much of this was, of course, as the Modi spin doctors would have wanted. The media seemed to swallow the spin, hook, line and sinker …That the TV media failed, with honourable exceptions, to prise themselves out of this magnetic pull that the Modi public relations team had managed to generate was bad enough. That they became force multipliers of that pull made them compromised and complicit. So we had the rather unseemly sight on our television screens of the Modi camp setting the agenda and a generally compliant media building on it.
The weekly pointed out that ‘replicate and pervade’ appeared to have been the “aggressively proactive strategy of the Modi campaign to dominate popular mind space and the formal and informal media space”. It added that “if Modi holograms and masks served as evocative substitutes to his physical presence in mass rallies, his virtual presence loomed large across the media… the Modi factor, like a subliminal awareness, informed the proceedings”. The social media, it added, drowned out any criticism of the man “in a deluge of taunts and rants” that was “all too recognisably organised and orchestrated like vigilante groups patrolling the online and social media ready to hit out at anyone who had less than a good word for Modi”.
Sagarika Ghose, television anchor on CNN-IBN English television news channel, stated in an article in the Hindustan Times on 14 May, two days before the election results were declared:
The media’s record in campaign 2014 has sadly not been a good one. We reflected the undeniable surge of opinion in favour of Modi but created euphoria where there was none. The camera was easily manipulated by event managers, leading to loss of autonomy. We reflected the undoubted saliency of Modi but failed to capture the many shades of opinion that exist about him. The inordinate time spent on a glossy campaign on TV stood in sharp contrast to the thoughtful questioning sobriety of the voter. In 2014 Citizen Media lost out to star-struck media.
A study by the Centre for Media Studies, New Delhi, found that Mr Modi’s campaign took up a third of the prime time on television news channels in March and April, and this proportion crossed the half-way mark in the first ten days of May. Mr Modi got seven times more coverage than Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi and three times more than Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party – and much of the coverage given to the last two mentioned were negative.
The media coverage went beyond advertising. Many media outlets published articles or broadcast programmes that were effusive in their praise for Mr Modi. Television anchors, who had a reputation for grilling those they interviewed, became more than a little soft when it came to questioning Mr Modi, especially on his role in the 2002 communal carnage in Gujarat in which over 1000 people were killed, most of them Muslims by Hindu mobs.
Journalist Palagummi Sainath wrote in his blog:
Seldom have so few, carried so much puffery, to so many, to benefit so few. Everyone will pay the price for the media’s embrace of a campaign that fought a US-presidential style election in a parliamentary democracy. Not least, the BJP which has subordinated itself to an individual… That building of a cult around Narendra Modi was a propaganda triumph. But it worked because we are India’s most media-saturated electorate ever. Vast audiences left untouched by (senior BJP Leader L.K.) Advani’s rath yatra over 20 years ago, were drowned in the media wave of 2014.
Rajat Sharma, who heads India TV, conducted an interview with Mr Modi on his popular programme Aap Ki Adalat which was considered by many to be excessively deferential. Following this, the channel’s editorial director Qamar Waheed Naqvi put in his papers. While Mr Naqvi did not say anything on the record, Congress spokespersons claimed that his resignation indicated how journalists not favourably inclined towards the BJP were facing pressure. Supporters of the Aam Aadmi Party got active on the social media, congratulating Mr Naqvi for his ‘act of courage’.
Congress MP Ajay Maken highlighted how senior journalist at the Hindu, Vidya Subramaniam, had complained to the Delhi police after she received threatening phone calls for an article she wrote. The article was critical of Mr Modi for lauding Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and noted that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP, had gone back on an undertaking given to the country’s first Home Minister – that it would be an apolitical organization after it had been banned. Ms Subramaniam has stated that she did not ask the Congress to raise her case. Mr Naqvi too tweeted: “I request politicians to please keep away from my resignation episode.”
Whether the instances relating to Mr Naqvi and Ms Subramaniam can be treated as individual acts of resistance is debatable, but a substantial section of the media in India was indeed co-opted and/or appropriated by the BJP and its patrons and supporters, thereby blunting, to an extent, the views of those who were considered excessively critical of the party in general and Mr Modi in particular.
Even as political parties hired large teams of young computer-savvy volunteers and experts in information technology to campaign on social media, there were allegations that opinion polls were rigged to favour particular parties following a series of sting operations conducted by the television channel, News Express. The India Today group subsequently suspended their association with polling agency C-Voter and a show-cause notice was sent to the agency. Even though it is debatable as to what extent the airing or publication of the findings of opinion polls influence voting trends, media organisations did often display a distinct bias towards the BJP.
Social media and its reach
In April 2013, the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and the Mumbai-based Iris Knowledge Foundation argued that users of Facebook would exert ‘tremendous influence’ on the outcome of the elections in 160 out of the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies in the country. Whereas the number of internet users in India is currently estimated to be less than a quarter of the total population of 1.2 billion, the number of mobile phones in the country is said to be in the region of 700 million. Many young people have begun accessing the internet on their cellphones.
Facebook claims it has over 93 million users in India and Twitter claims it has an estimated 33 million accounts in the country. Mr Modi is supposed to have over 5 million followers on Twitter against Kejriwal’s 2 million. Congress MP and former minister Shashi Tharoor, who used to be the most followed Indian politician on Twitter before Mr Modi overtook him, acknowledges that no politician or political party in India can avoid the social media. Digital marketing agency Pinstorm and similar firms count politicians and political parties as important clients. From its office in Mumbai, Pinstorm has been collecting, storing and analysing tens of thousands of political statements, from over 100 online platforms daily for more than six months, to identify existing and potential supporters by tracking their conversations. A number of academic researchers in India and abroad have been closely tracking political messages in the social media.
A media release by Facebook stated:
From the day the elections were announced to the day the polling ended, 29 million people in India made 227 million interactions (posts, comments, shares and likes) regarding the Indian elections on Facebook. That’s two-thirds the daily active Facebook users in India and an average of 10 interactions a person. In addition, 13 million people made 75 million interactions regarding Narendra Modi.
With a fourth of Indians officially illiterate, and many lacking access to computers or the internet, Mr Modi did not leave anything to chance by conducting over 430 rallies across the country. Nevertheless, the BJP was able to initiate smart innovations to spread his message. Arvind Gupta, head of the party’s information technology and media cell, has pointed out how Mr Modi’s speeches could be heard live on mobile phones by users located anywhere in India.
Many analysts pointed out that Mr Modi’s campaign started in December 2012 when he became the chief minister of Gujarat for the third time. Bhautik Sheth, who teaches management in Surat remarked on the building of the Modi brand: “The 2014 election campaign would go down in history as the first one where digital crowdsourcing played a key role in shaping speeches.”
At a panel discussion organised by the Media Foundation in New Delhi on 20 March, Zoya Hasan, recently retired professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University, rued the tone and tenor of Mr Modi’s campaign in the media:
… the argument that the media is uncritically presenting is that Modi could steer the country out of the crisis by giving a strong leadership…. I think some media houses have gone along with the argument that the ten years of UPA rule is a wasted decade and further we have been told that nothing has happened in the last 60 years which is why the voters must give Narendra Modi at least 16 months to transform India. As a social scientist I find this very troubling because in one stroke the whole past has been demolished and what is surprising is that none of this has really been challenged and in fact, the media has lent credence by simply repeating this perversion of our contemporary history.
Sudha Pai, another professor from the same university who spoke on the occasion, observed that the media coverage was not done through totalitarian means or censorship. Highlighting the nexus between the government, the media and business houses, she wondered if the media had indeed become so powerful as to ‘manufacture consent’ in the manner Noam Chomsky talked about. She said:
… the media permits, indeed it encourages, spirited debates, criticism, dissent, but these are largely within the system of pre-supposition and principles that constitute an elite consensus. So the public is exposed to powerful persuasive messages from above… political leaders have also gained enormous power over the political system by using the media to generate support among the people during the elections.
Srinivasan Jain, who works with New Delhi Television, pointed out that while Mr Modi used to claim that the mainstream media would shun him and was extremely hostile to him, he went about creating a “parallel” public relations blitz (led by international agencies like APCO Worldwide) deploying methods very few contemporary Indian politicians have used to create a perception of his popularity “which ultimately began to influence the mainstream media”.
During the elections that took place in April and May, the pernicious phenomenon of ‘paid news’ continued unabated. Paid news entails illegal payments in cash or kind for content in publications and television channels that appears as if it has been independently produced by unbiased and objective journalists. Simply put, paid news is a form of advertising that masquerades as news.
Corruption in the Indian mass media is a complex phenomenon. Much of the media is dominated by corporate conglomerates that have a single goal of maximising profits. The autonomy and the independence of the media get compromised because of the corruption within. Thus, the media fails to bring about transparency in society by not playing an antagonistic and adversarial role against those who are in positions of power and authority. In different forms, paid news has existed for many years; but when this phenomenon becomes prevalent during elections, the democratic process gets subverted.
As early as 16 April, Akshay Raut, director general of the Election Commission of India, stated that as many as 368 show-cause notices had been served to candidates standing for Lok Sabha elections, on the basis of complaints filed by media certification and monitoring committees appointed in various districts, alleging that the candidates had paid money to get their news published or broadcast on television channels. Out of these, in as many as 198 instances, the Commission’s allegations were not refuted or challenged. Raut added that while certain candidates had acknowledged that they paid for news, others were contesting the allegations.
There were two unusual cases relating to paid news that involved high profile candidates in Maharashtra in western India: Milind Deora, Union minister for shipping and information technology in the outgoing government, and former Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam. They were deemed guilty by a media monitoring committee set up by the Election Commission. Interestingly, while lawyers for both candidates challenged the committee’s contention, they did not pursue the cases and preferred to pay amounts that were calculated according to the per-column centimetre advertising rates set by the government’s Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity which works under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The amounts were added to the candidates’ election expenditure, and these were well within the limits specified by the Election Commission, which is INR 7 million per candidate per Lok Sabha constituency. Incidentally, while there are ceilings on the expenditure by individual candidates, there are no such limits when it comes to expenditure incurred by recognised national political parties.
Despite the Election Commission’s best efforts, the difficulty in curbing this phenomenon is that paid news is difficult to identify. Black money, which is also difficult to track, is usually involved in paid news. The deception involved in passing off advertisements as news entails a clandestine activity and can be established by only by those involved in it. This means that the individuals concerned would have to themselves concede that they are violating various laws of the land relating to fraud, deception and non-payment of taxes, beside the Representation of the People Act, 1951.
Better media regulation?
News is supposed to be neutral and differentiated from opinion, articles or commentaries on the one hand, and advertising on the other. But this does not happen, especially in cases of paid news, as the reader or viewer is unable to distinguish between content that has been paid for and that which has not. This distinction is statutorily required under the Advertisement Code of Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Rules, 1994, formulated under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995. However, sections of the media indulge in corrupt practices in an organised manner. There is a nexus involving certain politicians and representatives of the media to deploy money power to undermine the democratic right of ordinary citizens to receive credible information. At least three distinct kinds of illegality are involved. First, consumers of news are cheated. Secondly, candidates contesting elections do not account for payments made to representatives of media companies for favourable coverage which is a corrupt electoral practice. Finally, since these transactions are not accounted for, they violate provisions of the Companies Act and the Income Tax Act.
Unfortunately, the Press Council of India (PCI) – which could have curtailed corruption in the media – is an ineffective body. The Council is a quasi-judicial authority set up by an act of Parliament but it has no statutory powers to punish. Far from putting a person behind bars, the PCI cannot fine anyone. The writ of the Council does not extend beyond the print medium to television, radio or the internet. The majority of its 30 members represent the media industry. The PCI also has no real teeth to enforce its findings or to penalize any individual or organisation for violating its journalistic code of ethics, which is, at best, a set of recommendations for good practice. The Council has no mandate by which to enforce the observation of its own code of ethics, as there is no legally binding quality to them which could justify a court’s intervention. There is, consequently, little motivation for the PCI (or for that matter, the country’s courts) to promote good journalistic practices and to curb corruption in the media.
This has been the experience of this writer who served as a member of the Council nominated by the University Grants Commission between January 2008 and January 2011. In April 2010, as a member of a two-member sub-committee of the PCI, I co-authored a report entitled ‘Paid News: How corruption in the Indian media undermines democracy’. This sub-committee was set up in July 2009, to examine the ‘paid news’ phenomenon. After considering written and oral representations made by over a hundred people over a period of more than six months, a 71-page report running into roughly 36,000 words was presented to the Council. The report of the sub-committee mentioned scores of instances of paid news, named names and detailed the phenomenon, before making several diverse proposals that could curb, to some extent, malpractices in the media.
A range of issues relating to the kind of regulatory mechanisms that are required for the media in India has been discussed and debated for quite some time without any resolution. Various views have been expressed with no apparent consensus in sight. One issue is whether there is a need to set up separate regulatory bodies for the print and electronic media or to just have a single authority. Then there are the questions about who would head such an authority and how such a person, as well as other important functionaries, should be appointed. One view is that a Constitutional authority akin to the Election Commission, the Supreme Court and the Comptroller and Auditor General of India is necessary. The challenge is to create a regulating body that is truly independent of both the government and the media (even if it is funded by one or both).
At present, media regulatory functions are performed by multiple agencies, such as the Central Board of Film Certification, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team, not to mention the Press Council of India and the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. In addition, there are self-regulatory bodies such as the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, and the Advertising Standards Council of India.
A debate is on as to whether an omnibus body, like the US Federal Communications Commission, is required in this day and age of media convergence, when technology has blurred the distinction between telecommunications and broadcasting. Sections within the media industry in India argue that self-regulation is the best form of regulation. They often resurrect the ghosts of the 1975-77 Emergency period in the country when free expression was censored. BJP leader Advani had then quipped that when newspaper editors were asked to bend, they crawled. It can be argued that certain media bosses remain as slavishly subservient to authority as they were in the past. At the same time, the most ardent supporters of freedom of expression do concede that something needs to be done to rein-in rogue elements within the media, the proverbial black sheep in the journalistic fraternity.
Regulation of the mass media is of seminal importance today because of its enduring impact not just on our lifestyles but on our attitudes, ideas, ideologies, views and values. It is the media which shapes our definitions and understanding of the world around us and those who control the media, in effect, control us. Big media organisations are owned by big corporate houses, directly and through their financial power to advertise and sponsor content.
The last few years have been particularly difficult for the media in India and around the world. The Great Recession in the West and the economic slowdown in India have resulted in many advertisers curtailing their spending, thereby squeezing the revenues of media companies. The deceleration or curtailment of advertising expenditure coupled with higher borrowings has contributed to the ongoing phase of consolidation in the media. In India and in the world, large media corporations are today clearly playing a bigger role in the political economy that they report on.
With a relatively small number of corporate groups dominating the industry, there is a concomitant tendency to narrow the agenda of journalism and, at deep cultural levels, simultaneously make it self-serving. For democracy to strengthen and mature, the presence of people with informed opinions and plurality of dialogue become imperative. The boundaries between the boardroom and the newsroom have become increasingly blurred. Though a free media is fundamental to the existence of a liberal democracy, questions about the accountability and transparency of media companies need to be addressed. The challenge is to ensure that growing concentration of ownership in an oligopolistic industry does not lead to loss of plurality. In the absence of cross-media restrictions and with government policies contributing to corporatisation, diversity of news flows could be adversely affected, contributing to the continuing commoditisation of information, making it less and less of a ‘public good’.
To return to Mr Modi and the media coverage of the 16th general elections in India, there is no doubt that the post-liberalisation phase of the country’s political economy saw the interests of the Congress party being actively promoted by the corporate media from 1992 onwards. When the BJP-led NDA coalition came to power in 1998, the media was quick to jump on to the bandwagon of the Hindu nationalist party. The disillusionment of India’s corporate captains with the second UPA government led by Manmohan Singh, and the repeated attacks on it for its acts of corruption, for its ‘policy paralysis’, and for its allegedly profligate ways in supporting social welfare schemes, again saw much of the mainstream media placing its weight solidly behind Mr Modi and the BJP.
How long the media’s honeymoon with the government lasts will greatly depend on Mr Modi’s success in keeping the corporate sector reasonably happy. Will he be vindictive towards those in the media who did not support him? Here is what Vinod Mehta, editorial chairman of the Outlook group, wrote on 12 May before the elections results were announced: “Media offices currently are abuzz with fantastic stories of how the likely new NDA government led by Narendra Modi will settle scores with those hacks Mr Modi and his party think interrogated the potential PM too aggressively and too consistently about his alleged crimes and misdemeanours in Gujarat. One or two casualties are already visible and, I understand, more will follow. The atmosphere is rife with fear and fright.”
Those belonging to the small section of the media in India which was not, and still is not, enamoured of Mr Modi are bracing themselves for the years ahead.