Gujarat: A media overkill that missed the story

BY ninan| IN Media Practice | 16/12/2002
The changing patterns of community thought and behaviour went unnoticed, misread or blanked out.
A Hoot editorial


There has been more than one major surprise from the state of Gujarat this year which suggests that those reporting on the state do not have their ears to the ground.  The pogrom which followed the deaths on a burning train at Godhra, and the continuing violence over the next few months suggested an extent of communalisation of the polity that had somehow been under-reported. And now comes a sweep by the BJP which the media was simply not able to predict.  Just days before the election journalists kept saying that the voter was keeping his counsel.  The election result came as a surprise to the rest of the country as the media had given no indication of what was a widespread mood among the voters. Without the energising effort of BJP workers and supporters, Mr Modi would not have been able to sideline the moderate leaders in his party. Nor would BJP leaders opposed to Narendra Modi, like Keshubhai Patel and Haren Pandya, have fallen in line when campaigning commenced if they had not gauged the prevailing mood.  How come journalists missed it?

The majority of newspaper reports focussed on personalities like Chief Minister Narendra Modi and VHP leader, Pravin Togadia. They concentrated on the speeches that the two leaders were making and the kind of campaign they were running instead of undertaking the normal grind of election reporting of going out to the districts and talking to people. The Gujarat election became a high voltage crusade with Narendra Modi as the kingpin, elevating him to iconic status. Television requires personalities with arresting sound-bites, but the print media has also fallen into a pattern of making a few personalities the focal point of their coverage. It results in imparting a larger than life aura to the chosen few. The Asian Age reported that Modi’s staff actually "thanked" the newspaper for "helping Modi become a national hero and Hindutva icon."

It was also the result of an inherent bias among reporters that led them to conclude that no one, except the lumpen elements, could actually take Togadia’s outrageous statements seriously. Newspapers have lost the distinction between reporting and editorialising, and the reporter’s own views and response formed a sizeable part of the reports. By repeatedly reporting on the more offensive statements, and reacting to them, the issues that led to the voters decisions got lost as well as the message the voters were deriving from the speeches. At the same time, it actually built up Modi and Togadia into larger than life persona and made it into a battle of Hindutva versus Secularism. The changing patterns of community thought and behaviour went unnoticed, misread or blanked out.

The results showed that the BJP was able to make terrorism the central theme of its campaign. Post Akshardham and Jammu, it struck a chord. As Modi told reporters after the results were announced: "Hindutva was never an issue with me, your ears had a wrong filter which simply heard Hindutva every time I talked anything."  After the election was declared the Asian Age carried the rationale a Muslim voter gave for having voted for the BJP: if it was a choice between keeping terrorism at bay and getting a government friendly to Musharraf  he would vote for the BJP because he did not want Muslim youth in Gujarat to be lost to terrorism.  Perhaps the soft Hindutva the media harped on was less the undoing of the Congress than the fact that they were not perceived as being sufficiently hard on terrorism.

Gujarat is changing in many ways. If  the media is to do its job and understand the changes and what they portend for the country as a whole,  reporters and analysts  need to hit the road on their own, not in the wake of a politician,  and preferably with an open mind.









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