Media influence in Kerala elections

IN Media Practice | 17/04/2006
The CPM openly admitted that in Kerala this time they had to accept changes owing to media pressure.



N P Chekkutty



 The importance of television in the elections in the western democracies is not news. The televised debates and the ratings that they garner for the contestants are hot news and often the election results could be almost accurately predicted from the way things shape up in the small screen. As a result, western politicians try to make themselves media savvy and like any other celebrities, they too seek the services of professional dress designers, speech-writers, image builders and P R consultants.


Of late elections in India too have proved the importance of the television in our political discourse. But during the ongoing state elections, where a number of states are going to the booths in a mini-general election, experience in Kerala has proved that the television  and the print media can virtually decide  not only the success or otherwise of the candidates but even the selection of candidates and political policy decisions of the major national political parties.


This also is not a big deal because the so-called bourgeois parties have always been sensitive about their media image. But what is news is that a strictly cadre-based political party like the Communist Party of India (Marxist) recently reversed its decisions on candidature and political alliance taken after a series of debates in its state committee, central committee and the politburo, after a public outcry expressed through the media. This is a striking  development because in no past elections had the party taken such a step and buckled under media glare. In Kerala this time, the party openly admitted that they had to accept changes owing to media pressure.


The sequence of events was as follows: The State committee of the party had decided upon a political alliance with the newly formed Congress faction led by K Karunakaran. But after prolonged discussion the decision was revoked by the politburo and one of the reasons cited was that the media in Kerala was extremely influential and could rake up quite a number of uncomfortable issues in the elections like the role of Karunakaran in the emergency period. Karuankaran was the home minister of Kerala  during Emergency and it was during this period a engineering student,  P Rajan, was murdered in police custody. The CPM national leadership was not willing to fight an election in the company of Karunakaran because it felt it would be a disaster in view of the media atmosphere in Kerala.


The party’s national congress in Delhi, held in May 2005, in its political and organizational report, had made specific references to the extremely volatile nature of the electorate in Kerala and the influence the media wields in shaping the public discourse. It had also referred to the efforts made by the party to counter this bourgeois media influence by launching its own media organizations including a twenty-four hour  television channel. The results were, however, not very encouraging, the report felt.


Now back to the present elections: In the case of the selection of the candidates too, the  media influence was very clear. The CPM state leadership is faction ridden and they had come to the decision that V S Achuthanandan, a senior leader and Opposition leader in the Assembly, should not be allowed to contest. The reason again was the influence of media: Achuthanandan was perceived to be the blue-eyed boy of the bourgeois media because he had taken up a number of public campaigns on issues that appealed to the middle classes. On many occasions the party state leadership had felt that the senior leader was going against the party’s interests and had even embarrassed the party. The CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan had openly accused many influential Kerala news media organizations like Mathrubhumi, Malayala Manorama, Madhyamam and Kerala Kaumudi, of forming an unethical and unprofessional syndicate to spread totally wrong and baseless news stories against his party.


After the state committee decided on the list of candidates the matter went to the national leadership where it was decided that V S Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan, both politburo members and potential chief minister candidates, should not contest. It was a great victory for the anti-VS group in the party because the party general secretary Prakash Karat officially announced that the PB had decided that both Acthuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan are not contesting. But the announcement had a tremendous impact on the party rank and file and for the first time in the party history the cadres came out into the streets in open defiance, raising slogans against the party leadership.


The media was one again termed as the villain of he piece. The CPM secretary Pinarayi  Vijayan called a press conference and accused the media of playing politics. He said they had no ethics, knew nothing about the Communist Party and even accused the media of engineering the demonstrations like the one at the AKG Center, the party headquarters, widely televised across the channels.


But the situation had become  quite grave. Even the party general secretary Prakash Karat  agreed that there was wide resentment in the rank and file about the decision not to field Achuthanandan. He also indirectly accepted that some of the party cadres were involved in the demonstrations. What prompted this acceptance was the fact that even from party bastions like Kayyur and Karivellur, which are known for the heroic peasant struggles where many people had become martyrs, there were reports of demonstrations  by party cadres. In Kozhikode, at least one party member committed suicide after an open altercation between the two factions.


Then came the anti-climax. The PB met once again in Delhi,  discussed the situation in Kerala and then general secretary Prakash Karat announced in the state committee that V S Achuthanandan will contest the poll. It was a shock even for the state leaders and according to media reports, many state committee members had accused the leadership of playing to the media’s tune.


But the leadership was firm and clarified that the earlier decision was wrong and  had caused a major resentment among the people. The decision was revised as we came to realize that it would affect the winning prospects of the Left Front, said Prakash Karat, accepting the importance of a media image in winning elections.






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