Gujarat 2017: How did the media fare?

BY SEVANTI NINAN| IN Media Practice | 14/12/2017
Though partisan channels batted for the incumbent, there was enough clear-eyed reporting on offer to unsettle the ruling party.
SEVANTI NINAN tracked the coverage

Lallantop's random conversations captured what people were thinking.


With elections have gone from being democratic exercises to gladiatorial contests, the media has gone from being observer to player. The poll process for Gujarat ended with the Election Commission barring TV channels from airing an interview Congress President Rahul Gandhi gave them after the deadline for electioneering had ended. Even as the EC issued a notice to him for having violated the model code of conduct. The Congress promptly cried foul and said the media was being censored. 

When reporters set out to gauge electoral outcomes, they end up reporting on the state of governance. Without  elections there would be little incentive for newspapers and TV channels to find budgets  for reporters to traipse to villages to check out what people are thinking.  But in the process of covering polls, they report on the state of the nation.

The sanguine narrative that has been spun all these years about Gujarat’s development was punctured this time by endless reports on farm distress, water scarcity, hopelessly unremunerative commodity  prices, angry jobless youth, traders hit by the goods and services tax, and so on.  And the reality of the Bharatiya Janata Party  facing the consequences of weak post-Modi state leadership in the past three and a half years.

The media narrative in the course of  the Gujarat elections has had two distinguishing features.  On the one hand, the usual suspects converted a professional responsibility into a partisan caricature. On the other, the message to the   ruling party at state and centre from the body of credible reporting on offer, was that this election was not going to be a walkover.  One consequence has been an increasingly shrill prime minister making over-the-top speeches. 


Agenda-driven channels

The post-BJP phenomenon in TV reporting has been the growing number of  agenda-driven TV channels that set the terms of the debate at the outset and treat  the BJP’s political opposition  as adversarial. That includes  Zee News, Times Now, Republic TV,  and IndiaTV.  All going to battle on the ruling party’s behalf. 

"The usual suspects converted a professional responsibility into a partisan caricature"


Zee News of course takes the cake, driving the Hindutva agenda as much as the Sangh Parivar does.  It capitalized on the Babri Masjid demolition anniversary to raise the temple issue in its Gujarat poll specials called ‘Game of Gujarat’. In a show I am unable to find online the anchor asked the local BJP representative on the show: “You are in power, what have you done to get the  Ram mandir built?” And sundry other leading questions about the urgent need to give the Lord  a proper home in Ayodhya.  Another edition of  Game of Gujarat on  December 6 sees more leading questions being asked  until a man says fervently, Bhagwan Srikrishna chaha to  nishchit BJP ki sarkar banegi. (If Lord Sri Krishna wants it a BJP government will definitely be formed [in Gujarat].)

 Zee also tried to drive the election agenda. In this Zee News report from Kutch the reporter claimed he had reached the last village in the state.  Opening questions:  Vikas hota hai? Congress pe bharosa hai ya modi pe?  (Is development happening? Do you have faith in the Congress or in Modi)?  If the answer was not to the reporter’s satisfaction, the question was asked again and again:  Do you have faith in Modi or Rahul? And then shortened to, do you have faith in Modi? 

Times Now and Republic TV also wore their bias proudly. On the eve of the final day of voting Arnab Goswami picked up and stoutly defended  the EC allegation that Congress President Rahul Gandhi had violated the code of conduct.  “He has no business to give an interview…The rules show a violation,” shrieked Goswami.

DD News was slightly different. It simply focuses on the PM and treats the rest as largely irrelevant.  It took to telecasting in its evening bulletins every campaign speech the prime minister made, in Gujarati, for an unhurried five minutes or more. Then the anchor would take  over  to summarise what he said in  Hindi.   On most days anchor, reporter and a carefully selected ‘varisht patrakar’ (senior journalist) combined to discuss emerging party prospects, where you were frequently told that the Congress is “on the backfoot.” It emerged from one such discussion that the PM was so popular that young girls in the crowd would shout ‘I love you Modi’ when he campaigned. And that the BJP was now making inroads in tribal areas because of the PM’s personal popularity.

Meanwhile DD  reporters have gone  about finding happy voters everywhere. Piece to anchor from Amreli: “It is  very safe. Girls  can go out at 2 am. Wasn’t like this during Congress raj, a student says. “Amreli me vikas bahut hua hai.” (Amerili has seen a lot of development.) “Women say we are very safe.” 

Around the time of the Kapil Sibal episode the DD News anchor asked his reporter in Gujarat, “Tell me, what does the aam janata of Gujarat think of this.”

He replied, “Looks like Sibal no faith in apex court this is what people think, and they don’t think he spoke in his personal capacity.” This was prefaced with, “Kafi log sonchte hai” (Quite a few people think) How the DD reporter knew what they were thinking wasn’t clear since no aam aadmi or vox populi bites were shown. 

"It emerged from one such discussion that the PM was so popular that young girls in the crowd would shout 'I love you Modi’ when he campaigned"


DD News was an obliging amplifier for what the PM said at FICCI on December 13 about the UPA government, for the  expose` minister Piyush Goyal was doing on the UPA, and for Amit Shah’s extended remarks on the Congress the same day. Throughout the campaign the lead players from the opposition in Gujarat did not get anywhere near the same kind of airtime.

Weeks of  ground reporting  from journalists  have conveyed  that Gujarat is no longer largely a “development model” story and the ruling party knows it.   But when you watch videos of conversations and read between the lines, you realize that it is a post development story, whose problems are different from the rest of the country. As Sanjay Kumar Singh of Firstpost put it on a Doordarshan show on Tuesday (Dec 12), in a state that already has roads and electricity and buildings the issue is now one of the grievances of  groups and communities.  

Which is why the big story has been the anger of the Patidars. But out of dozens of reports using this phrase, one is yet to see a long thoughtful piece which goes into explaining exactly which factors built up this cumulative angst.  Both superficial and longer explanations are possible for where the anger of Hardik Patel and his followers springs from, and most stories have been in the former category.


Good reporting is about explaining

 If good reporting is about explaining, some did  better than others in helping you to understand the Patidar discontent  and why the considerable progress that has taken place in the state is  no longer good enough. The YouTube channel is turning out to be a valuable new addition to conventional reporting methods for precisely this reason. At election time (in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year and now) it turns itself into a listening post. Its chief editor Saurabh Dwivedi and his colleagues  go into towns  and villages with mikes and cameras, stop wherever they see groups of people, and simply chat.  Unlike TV channel reporting (particularly some TV channels!) they don’t thrust a mike and ask leading questions.

The questions about the election emerge late in these conversations, and sometimes not at all. If you have the patience to listen to these random, open-ended half-hour videos, issues  emerge from the crowd, and insights as well. Academic  (and Hoot contributor) Anup Kumar says it is the conversations on this channel which have helped him understand how the anger is linked to the fact that a new generation of educated Patidars  has move away from farming and is seeking employment that is just not available, because not enough industries have come up in their rural hinterland. I watched  a Lallantop conversation in Patan where this point came up again.

"The YouTube channel is turning out to be a valuable new addition to conventional reporting methods"


There has also been much tossing around in TV studios of the word anger and speculation about its likely impact. Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies suggested on The Big Fight on NDTV that if the Patidars and farmers are that angry it is not reflected in the first phase turnout which is 3 per cent less than in  2012.   It is disenchantment, he said, and the votes will still come.  

So typically, the summing up Dwivedi did earlier this week on The Lallantop was a nuanced one, based on these conversations. An unembellished piece-to-camera in which the following observations were rolled out:


  • It is not necessary that everyone who criticizes will vote against the party.
  • In towns, (Sheheri elaka) the BJP is strong. In rural Gujarat it is neck to neck.
  • That voting turnout  was low in the first round indicates  that strong anti-incumbency is not there.  
  • People are more likely to vote on caste and community lines than on the issue of development.
  • But Narmada water is a big issue. Whether  water has reached or not reached will makes a difference. Where it has reached, it is advantage BJP.
  • Older Patidars do not want  to try the Congress, younger ones don’t mind giving them a try.
  • The former are afraid Muslims will rise if the Congress comes to power.
  • The BJP as a party is being tested this time, but neither GST nor demonetization have created a strong anti-incumbency “mohol”, a wave.
  • Gujarati asmita could prevail to the BJP’s advantage.
  • It is about anger versus the BJP’s poll management.  The Congress’s organisation is not so great  at the village level.  The BJP’s  booth management better.


The simple summing up on Narmada waters  and the other points made  are a distillation which echoes what scores of stories across newspapers have been saying. 

It is amazing how much reportage during this election was  still about doing the caste math, whether it was Sheela Bhatt and  others in  The Print  both for the BJP and the Congress, or as part of an overall assessment in the Hindu Business Line: “Unemployability in the liberalised private sector has increasingly pushed these youth from the Hindutva fold back into their own caste groups, as they sought or opposed quota. In other words, caste insurrections, papered over by Hindutva since the 1990s, have returned to haunt the ruling party.”

Reporting an election in post-development Gujarat, then, was as firmly rooted in harping upon caste realities as reporting an  election in Bihar was in 2015.

Finally, like a good cafeteria, the reporting universe had enough on offer to enable you to read or watch what you wished, and believe what you wanted to. If you wanted a positive report on demonetization Zee News had a good news story about Akroda village, in Sabarkantha, in PM Modi’s constituency   which had become India’s first cash-free village.

And Republic TV gushed about the seaplane splash that the campaign ended with: ““The seaplane coming to Gujarat for the first time is development…the PM is trying to promote tourism...  this PM really cares about development…a very excited crowd, a lot of people…”


Sevanti Ninan edits the Hoot


The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

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