Media vs Mass Reality
By P. Sainath
14 May, 2004
first thing the election results drive home is the sheer disconnect
between the Indian elite and the Indian people. Here was a leadership
that thought the `India Shining' campaign would bring it success. A
part of the elite even those with the Congress party went
further than that. They believed the claims of `India Shining' itself
were valid and true. The dispute was over the patent rights on the shine.
Did those belong to the Bharatiya Janata Party or to the Congress?
The Indian voters
had very different issues on their mind. They were rejecting the National
Democratic Alliance Government, which, as one poll slogan had it, stood
for the "National Disinvestment Agency." The intensity of
this electoral quake rates an 8 on the political Richter scale.
At this point, the
`feel good' factor seems so pathetic as to require no ridicule. The
ruling party even tried to co-opt the thrill of a great cricket tour
of Pakistan. It didn't work. Yet while the spin doctors have been sacked,
the age of spin doctoring has arrived.
Also rubbed in yet
again was, of course, that second huge disconnect. That between mass
media and mass reality. Little in the media output of these past five
years had prepared audiences for anything like this outcome. The polls
succeeded where journalism failed. They brought back to the agenda the
issues of ordinary Indians. Deeper analysis must await more data. However,
some broad contours seem clear.
There is almost
no government in the country that has ill-treated its farmers and not
paid the price. That has hurt agriculture and not been punished. India
has never seen so many farmers' suicides as in the past six to eight
years. For some, the urge to blame it all on nature is overwhelming.
And yes, droughts have badly hurt people in parts of the country. But
that would be missing the wood for the trees. Countless millions of
Indians have seen their livelihoods crippled by policies hostile to
them. Many of these applied to agriculture, on which two-thirds of the
people depend. Any incoming government that fails to see this writes
its own exit policy.
The politics of
divisiveness and intolerance also stand rejected. In no other period
post-Independence have the minorities felt so insecure. And with good
reason. From Graham Staines to Gujarat, the record is a grisly one.
The basic fabric of a secular society came under assault. Co-opting
a few figureheads from the minorities failed to work for the BJP-NDA.
People went by their lived experience, not by the lure of poll-eve lucre.
And amongst all communities, people have shown they want a secular polity.
Even in Gujarat, the Congress party seems to have made its gains in
the areas worst hit by the bloodshed of 2002. It suggests that many
Hindus, too, have counted the costs of the past few years.
Under no other national
government has there been the kind of intolerance towards dissent as
in the past six years. The Tehelka episode and the hyper-activism of
the Censor Board are just two of many examples. The rewriting of history
often with a bizarre content was also part of this. So
too the vilification of some of this nation's great historians. Years
from now, the country will still be assessing the damage done to some
of our best-known educational institutions. It's worth remembering that
much of this happened with elite consent. Until, of course, Murli Manohar
Joshi got carried away. It was when he trampled on the Indian Institutes
of Management, the elite's pet institutions, that the squeals of protest
Dr. Joshi has been
defeated. So too have been the Ram Naiks, the Yashwant Sinhas, the V.C.
Shuklas and the Sharad Yadavs. The electorate has shown little respect
for those we call `heavyweights.'
The polls also seem
to show India 2004 to be a far more federal nation than before. There
will be many different forces vying for political space. And that reflects
the nation's diversity. Those yearning for a simple `two-party' system
have a long wait ahead. One vital feature of this election was the partial
recognition of this by the Congress party. Wherever it struck alliances
and accommodated other forces, it gained. Now this can be termed electoral
arithmetic. Even opportunistic. And indeed it is. Like it or not, it
is also a negotiating of political space in a vast and diverse nation.
The poll campaign
of the ruling formation was also marked by sharp hypocrisy. Appeals
at press conferences and on television for decorum were followed on
the ground by crude personal attacks. Indeed, this seems to have backfired
in Tamil Nadu. Even apart from the crushing strength of the DMK-led
alliance, the foreigner diatribe against Sonia Gandhi did not go down
well. Not in a State that knows her husband also an Indian and
a Prime Minister lost his life on its soil. A victim of mindless
At one level, elections
in the past year have followed a simple pattern. With a few exceptions,
the Congress has gained greatly where the BJP or its allies have been
in power for some time. And vice versa. People in Rajasthan, Madhya
Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are still voting against the policies of their
former Congress Governments. Even the massive numerical strength of
the Congress-NCP tie-up in Maharashtra did not bring them the gains
it should have.
The electorate has
put the new Government on notice. "Business as usual. More of the
same," won't do. Already one Congress leader at the Centre has
promised exactly that. Far from rejecting the Chandrababu Naidu model,
he suggests the Congress will give the people of Andhra Pradesh "Naidu
Plus." In which case the people of Andhra Pradesh will surely give
his party the treatment they gave Mr. Naidu Plus.
Simply put, the
term "reforms" is much like the words patriotism, motherhood
and apple pie. Who could possibly be against any of those? It's when
you get down to defining these terms that the gaps show up. (Mahatma
Gandhi was a patriot. The BJP thinks Narendra Modi is one, too.)
At the height of
India Shining, our rank on the Human Development Index of the UNDP made
sad reading. It is better to be a poor person in Botswana or the Occupied
Territories of the Palestine than one in India. If the "reforms"
mean policies that better the lives of hundreds of millions, then surely
people want them. That 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 ones they have. For some, the
"reforms" simply mean mindless privatisation. The transfer
of public wealth and resources to private hands. The new government
needs to know that this was also a mandate against such an assault on
people's lives and rights. A glance at the fate of the so-called `reform-minded'
State Governments shows us this.
As long as the most
basic needs of the Indian people are not met, the elite will never find
the `stability' they so long for. Often, this is confused with continuity.
The Modi Government continuing in Gujarat does not make that State stable
in any positive way. And it's worth remembering that before Mr. Modi
gave Gujarat his brand of stability, the BJP ran through four Chief
Ministers in almost as many years. It even managed to bring down its
own Government despite having a two-thirds majority in the Assembly.
Meanwhile the markets
have been shaky for some days. It's a mystery how the expensive analysts
of Dalal Street function. If they could not factor in these outcomes
into their `possible scenarios,' they must be poorly informed and connected.
I was assured by some in the fraternity a few days ago that Chandrababu
might face `a little anti-incumbency' but "let's not forget there's
real achievement here and people reward governments for that."
Maybe we can talk to them again when they're rescued from under the
The street analysts
of Andhra Pradesh were a little better with their dark humour. "Bill
Gates, Bill Clinton and Dollar Bill. Naidu has saddled us with a lot
of Bills to pay," was one wisecrack making the rounds. The reference
was to the incredible borrowings of the State under Mr. Naidu. Something
that never seemed to worry the well-paid analysts. Maybe the world of
such analysts is driven by the fact that (as the CII once reported)
only 1.15 per cent of Indian households invest in stocks.
As for the media,
there is a great and urgent need for introspection. The failure of journalism
was far more predictable than the poll results. For years now, the media
have stopped talking to ordinary people. How on earth can they tell
their readers and viewers what is going on? There are 400-plus journalists
to cover Lakme India Fashion Week. Almost none to cover the agricultural
crisis in any informed way. The labour and agriculture beats in newspapers
are almost extinct. The media have decided that 70 per cent of the population
does not make news. The electorate has decided otherwise.