A poll boycott that is not news

BY sevanti ninan| IN Media Practice | 01/05/2009
Kashmir remains alienated despite the substantial turnout in the assembly elections last year, but the national press has no space for that story.
SEVANTI NINAN contrasts national and local reporting on the third phase of elections in Kashmir.

Uttar Pradesh has elections for 80 Lok Sabha seats, Jammu and  Kashmir for six. Both have five phase polls. It figures then, that each of those  6 seats is eminently newsworthy.  Low, medium or high, the turnout makes news both in the national and local press.


On April 30 the turnout in the Anantnag  constituency as in many other parts of the country was low,  but the contrast in how the story was reported (and framed) in the national press, and in the local English press in Srinagar is significant. 


Each of the national papers takes care to mention that the low turnout  (26 per cent) was in sharp contrast to the assembly polls last year. And given that there is nothing to celebrate, some  do not waste space on this non story. The Times of India gives it three paras on its ¿Dance of  Democracy¿ page, in Mail Today it gets a para in an overall round up story on the third phase of polls.


The Indian Express did not cover Kashmir at all in the main paper, it did  in its web edition, in the section called Kashmir Live.   The framing is, "Unfazed by the poll boycott call by separatists, nearly 26 per cent of the 11.65 lakh electorate cast their votes in Anantnag."


The Hindu headline is, ¿Vote amid threats, strike action, boycott calls¿, with a photograph of  women queued up to vote and the caption, "Despite the poll boycott called by separatists in Kashmir, people turned up at polling booths. A scene at Pahalgam, south of Srinagar." The story gets top of the page display on an inside page.


The Hindu report says "the overall mood is one of defiance," though whether the voter is defying the separatists¿call for a boycott or  the Central government¿s effort to get them to vote is not clear. Because at one place the report also says "At some places like Tral, people alleged that the security forces threatened them of dire consequences ¿if we don¿t vote.¿"  Yet the turnout there was just 3 per cent, says the report. One takes it that people chose to defy the threat of dire consequences if they did not vote.


The Hindustan Times in a report datelined Jammu  which gets a quarter of a page on its My India My Vote page strikes a different note. It says, "Anantnag goes with separatists, turnout poor." The rest of the reporting which is two different stories does not mince words either: it says the low turnout is clearly because of a boycott and  quotes individual voters, one of whom says why he voted in the assembly elections and why he will not do so now. "We need  a government in the state which we can approach with our problems. Lok Sabha elections are to form a government at the Centre. What do we care who forms the government at the centre?"


 HT is also the only paper to explain what the very varied  turnout at various segments of the constituency means. The high turnout is in the areas where  NC and Congress have sitting MLAs,  therefore the results will benefit the ruling combine.


As framing goes, the story to beat them all is the one in the Economic Times, obviously put together by a creative desk in Delhi. The paper chooses to compare Anantnag and Lalgarh in West Bengal in a report titled,  ¿Mr Bhattacharjee, do you know Anantnag better than Lalgarh¿.


It begins,


ANANTNAG/LALGARH: Jammu and Kashmir may still be known for poll boycotts and low turnouts, but on Thursday voters in Anantnag did what some of their  counterparts in West Bengal could not. They defied Kashmiri separatists’ call and turned up in large numbers to vote while most in Jhargram’s Lalgarh stayed indoors.


Large numbers? The story explained that:


Anantnag figures were low compared to many other constituencies. But considering that it is a separatist stronghold, the figures were impressive. "Of around 11 lakh electorate, over 3 lakh participated in the polling. The voting percentage stood at 25.5% by early estimates. "It will go further when the final tabulation is done," said chief electoral officer B R Sharma.


The newspapers in Kashmir saw considerably less virtue in Anantnag¿s turnout. The headlines of half a dozen stories each in Greater Kashmir and Rising Kashmir are self-explanatory.  


Greater Kashmir


Islamabad: Boycott, isolated violence mark LS polls (Islamabad is the name of a town here.)

Freedom camp buoyed

Dip in South vote

Polls in South, siege elsewhere

Not boycott call, ¿broken promises¿ keep voters away

Low turnout in Pulwama, Shopian

People prefer farms to polling booths

¿Omar trained in RSS lab to rule Kashmir¿

Seeking removal of CRPF, Khaigam boycotts

Muftis ¿abstain¿ from voting

Muftis¿ abstention shows PDP duplicity: Farooq



Rising Kashmir


South reverses 2008 turnout / 56 reduces to 26

Separatists greet people/ Geelani: Follow suit on Sgr, B¿la

Teenagers: We won¿t vote till Kashmir is resolved 

Red-Green war continues/PDP is BJP¿s extended arm: Rather

Omar grew up in lap of Advani, Modi: PDP 

Muftis ¿boycott¿ voting 

Brakpora votes to teach NC lesson for April 2000 killings 

When past voters repent, join poll boycotters

Farmer family prefers field to polling booth 

For 80-yr-old Sabir voting since 1951 has turned futile 

Women outnumber men in voting


There is also an editorial: Security restrictions 


"The state claims that the people turn out in larger numbers during the polling but refuses to admit the fact that in order to conduct polls in any particular constituency two-thirds of Valley is rendered out of bounds for common people. The public movement is strictly restricted and the whole place turned into a garrison; it¿s worse than in Palestine or Iraq or Afghanistan. This should concern the powers that be. The authorities especially our much celebrated chief minister should not comfort himself by the statistics of voter turnouts in elections; he should rather address this core problem of alienation. Similarly, the separatist forces should review the policy of getting military leadership into the affairs that are purely political. When the militant arm of a separatist alliance intervenes into the public affair of voting or boycotting in an election, the state gets a readymade pretext to mix up the military muscle with a purely political exercise."


The paper also has a photograph which is very different from the one in the Hindu: that of officials sitting in a completely deserted polling booth.


Six seats have to go to the polls in five phases in Jammu and Kashmir  so that the rest of the state  can be turned into a garrison. That is the truth about elections in Kashmir. It doesn¿t quite come through, does it, when you read about it in the papers described as the national press?


The fact that a successful boycott is not news for the Indian Express, Mail Today and  Times of India  is an editorial comment in itself. If readers and viewers in the  rest of India don¿t quite get the fact that Kashmir remains pretty alienated despite last December¿s turnout, they have the Delhi-based media to thank. 



(The Hoot will run articles and studies on the media in Kashmir through 2009.)

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