The media played a positive role in the recent Indian elections, but not by design. It didn’t shape people’s sentiments; it merely expressed them. It also failed in bringing attention to the issues. Worst of all, it played into the hands of the politicians, particularly Narendra Modi, the big winner.
Despite these failings the Indian media’s role turned out to be a useful one because it did help produce a beneficial result for the country. Modi’s win is good for India. The truth is that selecting even a barrel of monkeys to replace the inept government of sycophants that India had would have been an improvement. But in selecting Modi the country has reawakened. He filled the youth, the urban and the educated voters with hope. He fired up their aspirations. And he did so on platforms of economic development and good governance.
The Indian media’s biggest failing was in not offering any scrutiny. People were so fed up that they were ready to latch on to any ray of hope, without examination. Before Modi they had done so with Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi’s state elections. In both elections, the Indian media depicted people’s frustrations accurately, even inflamed and exploited them, but never probed and analyzed them. Part of the problem was that the media has little credibility with the people. Planted stories, paid news or interviews, journalists on the take, fake exposés and the like are commonplace in today’s Indian media. Since people don’t trust anything that is shown on TV or printed in the newspapers, they are left to their own faculties. This made it easy for them to fall prey to Modi’s campaign machine.
Since it was quite clear at the very beginning that ‘Brand Modi’ was taking hold, his campaign began steering the media away from bringing up any real issues. The somewhat discredited, corrupt and uninspired media followed suit. It is ironic that there was more investigative and analytical reporting done by foreign media than by Indian. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, did exposés on corruption by political dynasties (one of them being Modi’s allies in Punjab). Similarly, The Economist openly opposed Modi due to his role in anti-Muslim riots. But the Indian media tripped all over each other covering people’s chants of ‘Modi-Modi’ and nothing else. (Even my English-language newspaper ran a cover story entitled ‘Modi Modi Everywhere’.)
Social media joined the chorus; without any gatekeepers it was even easier to fill it with campaign slogans on a paid basis.
There is no doubt that Modi was a solid candidate. His performance as chief minister of Gujarat might have been stellar. But there are troublesome questions about his background, and, more importantly, about his agenda, that should have been covered and debated. The disgraced opposition, condemned even before they started the campaign, could certainly have used the media’s help in bringing up these issues.
As a result, we do not know exactly what Prime Minister Modi is going to do, or how. The voter has taken a leap of faith: that as he did in Gujarat, he will do for the nation. As to what precisely Modi did in Gujarat; whether or not it is scalable to the entire nation, or even advisable; whether he will strengthen or weaken India’s democracy; all this remains a mystery. The election became a referendum on Modi without the usual dissection. The voter jumped with joy of hope. But now expectations are so high that they will be very hard to meet.
The Indian media played to the tune of Modi and his campaign in one other profound way. It helped transform a parliamentary election into a presidential one. Months before the campaign started, Arun Jaitley, one of Modi’s closest advisers and the Leader of the Opposition in India’s Council of States (Rajya Sabha), declared that “next year’s election will be somewhat like a presidential election.” Modi was to be portrayed as a leader of the entire nation, even though he would stand for election only in a small constituency. This allowed Modi’s message and vision to emanate across the country, bringing him and his party more attention than the local candidate people were actually voting for. It was due to the media that this became possible. No wonder it was the media that Modi thanked most profusely in his victory speech.
These failings of India’s media during this election are symptoms of deeper ailments. Most media companies are family owned. Their decisions are driven more by personal and historical animosities, or agendas, than by long-term business strategies. Those few that are professionally managed suffer from inexperience, for it is difficult to retain good managers when the environment is so unprofessional. However, media in India is a vibrant market with a tremendous upside.
Bhanu Dhamija is the Founder and CEO of the Divya Himachal Group of companies in northern India, which publishes the leading Hindi and English newspapers in the region. Earlier, he was the CEO of a trade publishing company based in New York City.