Monday, March 3, 2008

Wednesday, January 09, 2008
Media tends to mislead

by Shailaja Chandran

Just look at how 24x7 television channels and newspapers got it all horribly wrong about the Gujarat Assembly election. Rather than feel the pulse of the people, media chose to listen to those willing to say what it wished to hear

Governments emp-loy intelligence agencies and corporates engage market sleuths to spy on rivals. While private sleuthing may yield results (at a price), highly placed people often remain cocooned from reality, hearing only what a chosen few tell them; or worse, depend on TV channels and newspapers that, as we know, are propelled by their own internal dynamics.

Take the example of the Gujarat Assembly election. I was in the rural areas of Vadodara district last November. It was clear as daylight that Mr Narendra Modi was coming back. The usual "kaun jitenge bataiye" questions which my companions were naive enough to ask only elicited the stock reply -- "maloom nahi, 50-50 hai". With election round the corner, few will divulge what they know -- not even to another local, not even to a family member -- because no one wants to feel a fool if the result is otherwise. Fifty-fifty is neither here nor there, but safe.

A page or two from history might act as an advisory for those who are naive enough to seek straight answers. Take the example of the 1994 Assembly election in Rajasthan. I was on election duty as an observer and had to tour the district of Chittorgargh for four days each on three separate occasions. Accompanying me were a tehsildar, a gunman and a driver -- different ones each time. As we drove around the constituency traversing miles and miles of barren countryside and visiting polling stations, no one talked politics. Even so my companions and others found ways of indicating whom they were backing.

Mr Bhairon Singh Shekhawat was seeking re-election as Chief Minister. If I made an observation about improved roads, pat would come the reply, "Yeh inke waqt me hua hai." No names and no comments. Inke and unke said it all. And predictably, Mr Shekhawat returned to power. Fourteen years later, my observation about a comparatively well functioning panchayati raj system elicited a similar catchphrase, but this time it was, "Gehlot sahib ke time me bahut kaam hua tha."

The statement innocuous as it sounds carries an implicit judgement on the perceived dearth of kaam at other times. Recall Queen Elizabeth's legendary comment to the Indian Prime Minister, "Islamabad is a very clean city," making a comparison with New Delhi inevitable.

Take Delhi in November 2003. The RWAs had found their feet and were strutting around enjoying their newfound importance. The CNG crisis was over. Delhi's forest cover had improved. Shining new buses had arrived. Spanking new flyovers had replaced grid locked intersections. The backlash on electricity meters, bills, privatisation of water had not yet been sparked. The commotion about unauthorised construction and encroachment on public land had not even started. The 'feel good' factor could be felt literally like the onset of good weather. Anyone could have predicted that Ms Sheila Dikshit would come back with a bang. The coalition at the Centre was BJP-dominated. The police, the bureaucracy, drivers, private secretaries -- all those who worked in proximity to important people chanted the 50-50 forecast to Centrally-appointed BJP functionaries, despite knowing what the electorate's intentions were. Just as traditional midwives do not want to be the first to break the 'bad news' about the birth of a girl child, hangers on cannot remain hangers on if they deliver bad news.

Take the India-US nuclear deal. Not for a moment did the Americans expect that anyone would have the temerity to question what the Government had undertaken to do. To be fair, no one could have predicted that the Cabinet decision on the 123 Agreement would be questioned, much less slowed down and halted. But once that reality became obvious, it is astonishing that the gravity of the "bluff", "bluster" and "posturing" was not apparent to the army of diplomats whose whole-time job it is to gauge perceptions. "It's all political," said the Americans as though that by itself was a revelation.

That India is a federal country and that a coalition is in power at the Centre is known to any school child. That decision-making involves huge interplay of ideological positions and regional interests is also well recognised. That different constituents of the coalition have reasons to back off or pull out, scuttle or revive, tolerate or castigate things to impress their party cadre is evident. This is the daily food of regional newspapers understood by Indians, educated as well as the hoi polloi. Yet, the nuclear deal dealers accorded an understanding reached with civil servants inviolability, without fully understanding the enormous pressure individual political parties can apply.

The moral of the story is this: Television, print media, office and drawing room conversations are fascinating. Talking to people we feel comfortable with is stimulating. But these inputs cannot capture underlying emotions, likes, dislikes, constituency compulsions and the need to play to the home gallery, all of which determine public perception and outcome. For that, one has to listen to the predictions of ordinary people. The most difficult part is to penetrate that ordinariness and interpret seemingly off-track remarks which collectively become harbingers for tomorrow.

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