Money Power and Media Bias

(The 2014 elections witnessed a new high in the explosion of money power. And the media’s role in shaping/distorting political opinion was never more apparent. The paid news phenomenon acquired a new dimension altogether – with entire media houses, under pressure from their corporate masters, going all-out to act as the wind in the sails of the Modi wave.

The media, in its defence, would claim that it merely reflected Modi’s popularity, and that other parties (such as AAP) got media coverage disproportionate to their votes. But the question that needs to be asked, is not just how much coverage Modi was given, but what kind of coverage. In a series of interviews, which all appeared scripted to a greater or lesser degree, mediapersons outdid themselves in failing to ask questions that needed to be asked. For instance, most omitted to ask Modi about his role in Snoopgate, his definition of ‘faith in Durgapuja’ as the litmus test to separate ‘refugee’ from ‘infiltrator’, his remarks on ‘pink revolution’, his aide Amit Shah’s suggestion, in a public speech, that the Muslims are “a community that raises its hand against the honour of our mothers and daughters”, VHP leader Togadia’s threats, in Gujarat, to ‘evict Muslims from Hindu areas’, his stance on the massacre of Muslims in Kokrajhar whom he had branded as ‘Bangladeshis’, Gadkari’s remarks that ‘caste is in Bihar’s DNA’ and Ramdev’s anti-dalit slur, or senior BJP leader Giriraj Singh’s call for Modi’s opponents to be deported to Pakistan.

Those few who did maintain a fig leaf of professionalism and skimmed the surface of such questions, mostly failed to ask any follow up questions to pin Modi down, allowing him to get away with evasion or deflection. And interviews apart, the TV channels and most of the print media barring some honourable exceptions, all helped peddle the myth that Modi had adopted the campaign plank of ‘development’ as a refreshing change from divisive communal and casteist rhetoric. A symptom of the ‘normalisation’ of communal rhetoric can, as Mukul Kesavan noted, be seen in the fact that unashamed bigots like Subramaniam Swamy and Amit Shah have become regular TV faces of the BJP.

Below we carry an excerpt from ‘Many waves and a media Tsunami’, P Sainath, May 21, 2014, Newsclick)

The highest-ever spending on elections in India

A tidal wave of spending dwarfed even the money-awash 2009 polls. Since a lot of that was totted up as party expenditure - on which there is no legal limit, big spenders got away with it. No one has a serious estimate of what the TV ads, newspaper ads, rallies, helicopters, scripted for television events must have totalled. (And that’s apart from vote-buying). But we know the BJP topped the list.

As the Association for Democratic Reforms points out: In 2014, “82 per cent of all the winners are crorepatis.” Also, the ADR reckons : “The chances of winning for a crorepati candidate” were at least ten times greater those of candidates with less than a crore of rupees in assets. Fittingly, we’ve got a parliament with 442 crorepatis. That is, fully 82 per cent of members in the new Lok Sabha are people with assets of ten million rupees or more. Massively up from 58 per cent in 2009.

In 2014 the average asset worth of each winner, ADR says, was Rs.14.61 crores. That’s 173 per cent higher than the 2009 winner average of Rs. 5.35 crores. But average citizens have simply been priced out of the game. Can they ever afford to contest?

Two decades of neo-liberalism have produced independent India’s worst-ever levels of inequality. We have 56 dollar billionaires on the Forbes List. And close to 300 million human beings ‘officially’ living on 50 cents a day or less. In elections, such inequality simply shuts out all but the very rich. Predictably, the corporate world wielded power to a greater extent than ever before in an Indian election.

The biggest ever corporate-media drive in favour of a single party and individual

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 Advani’s rath yatra over 20 years ago, were drowned in the media wave of 2014.

And the most corporatized media ever, at that. That process was still young when Advani mounted his AC chariot. In 2014, some major corporate houses with big media holdings formed ‘cells’ to help advance the Modi campaign.

A study by the CMS Media Lab, part of the Centre for Media Studies, New Delhi, found that Modi hogged over a third of the prime time news telecast on five major channels. And that was between March 1 and April 30. From May 1 to 11, says Prabhakar of the Media Lab, “Modi’s time crossed the 50 per cent mark.” Over six times what Rahul Gandhi got. And ten times the share of Kejriwal.

Also, quite a bit of the coverage of Kejriwal was negative. Not so with Modi.

Never before have the media participated in an Indian election to the extent and in the manner they did this time. For weeks, any speech by Modi in any distant district - ran live on several channels.

This is by no means the first corporate media coronation. Only its scale is unprecedented. The Manmohan Singh that media have taunted for two years was once dearly beloved. And that despite his being India’s first-ever (and hopefully last) unelected Prime Minister. This was the ‘Economist Prime Minister.’ Not a politician, they said. Oh, what a virtue. In 2009, they credited him with the UPA’s return to power. Unshackled from the Left, he would enrich the corporate kitty much faster. As late as August 2011, a large group of electronic media chiefs and editors held a lengthy meeting with him – without asking him a single hard question.

Long before his corporate champions decided he was past his use-by date, the public were looking for a leader who would speak to them. Not just to CII, FICCI, ASSOCHEM or Morgan Stanley. In 2014 Modi, who stood out as a political person and public speaker, gained greatly from that.

Box matter

CPI(ML)/AILC Performance in the 16th LS elections

In the 16th Lok Sabha elections, the CPI(ML) had fielded 83 candidates across 15 states and 3 Union Territories. With one nomination cancelled in Uttar Pradesh, 82 had remained in the fray. The party has polled a little above 1 million votes, around the same level it had polled in 2009. But given the increase in the size of the electorate and in voting percentage, our vote share dropped marginally, giving us 0.2% of the all-India vote.

Even though we knew we had no chance of polling ‘respectable’ votes in most of the seats we contested, we nevertheless decided to field candidates in almost all our areas of work, because elections provide a major opportunity to assess our work and measure our political influence apart from campaigning on the burning issues confronting the people and propagating the political viewpoint of revolutionary democracy.

Our goal was to try and secure at least 10,000 votes in all our major areas of work and a minimum of 5,000 votes in other areas/states. As results stand, we have managed to poll more than 10,000 votes in 15 seats and more than 5,000 votes in another 29 seats. In as many as 21 seats we failed to reach even the 3,000 mark.

The statewise break-up of candidates and votes are as follows: Bihar – 23 candidates, 463,045 votes; Jharkhand – 8 candidates, 319,222 votes; Assam – 5 candidates, 42,015 votes; Uttar Pradesh – 10 candidates, 37,712 votes; West Bengal – 5 candidates, 34,843 votes; Odisha – 3 candidates, 25197 votes; Tamil Nadu – 5 candidates, 13,081 votes; Punjab – 3 candidates, 11,605 votes; Uttarakhand – 3 candidates, 11,392 votes; Gujarat - 1 candidate, 9,702 votes; Rajasthan – 3 candidates, 9,512 votes; Tripura – 2 candidates, 8,670 votes; Karnataka – 4 candidates, 7885 votes; Andhra – 2 candidates, 6,626 votes; Chhattisgarh – 2 candidates, 3,925 votes; Union Territories – 3 candidates, 2842 votes.

Among our best performances, we once again finished second in Kodarma in Jharkhand despite a significant increase in our votes from about 150,000 in 2009 to more than 265,000. In Bihar, we once again finished third in Arrah and Siwan polling 98,805 and 81,006 votes respectively. Among other major seats in Bihar we polled 51,623 votes in Pataliputra, 34,365 votes in Jahanabad, 32,686 votes in Karakat and 19,477 votes in Nalanda, with Pataliputra, Nalanda and Siwan witnessing a modest increase in our votes over 2009 while in Arrah we failed to reach the 1 lakh mark for the first time since 1989.

As far as other seats are concerned, we experienced major decline in these elections in Koraput (Odisha), Autonomous District (Assam) and Katihar (Bihar). Seats where we have made a positive beginning or improved on our previous levels include Lohardaga in Jharkhand, Garhwal in Uttarakhand, Supaul and Bhagalpur in Bihar, Koliabor in Assam, Sriperumbudur and Viluppuram in Tamil Nadu, and Chandigarh among Union Territories.

Our allies in All India Left Coordination have also played an active role in these elections. CPM Punjab put up 3 candidates in Punjab and polled nearly 24,000 votes, LNP(L) contested from Kolhapur in Maharashtra and polled 7,067 votes while RMP fielded 7 candidates in Kerala, polling 50,705 votes. CPRM and CPI(ML) jointly supported independent candidate Mahendra Lama from Darjeeling and he polled 55,767 votes.

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