One step forward, two steps backwards

BY SEVANTI NINAN| IN Media Practice | 07/11/2015
Caste dominated the Bihar election and its coverage. The state's progress was seen through its prism
SEVANTI NINAN analyses how the media handled the issue


Are you a forward or a backward? An FC  (forward caste)   or an EBC (extremely backward caste)? And how extreme is that? From seat distribution to media reporting and analysis, it has been caste all the way in these elections. So in the current context, a voter on camera will proudly declare himself to be an “atipichra” (extremely backward) as a badge of eligibility for benefits.

If the voluminous coverage in all media which has accompanied these elections centred substantially on caste, it is something you can hardly blame journalists for when all the players, from the Prime Minister down, focused unrelentingly on it. It very quickly came to the point where you would be reading about a candidate and wondering why the report did not tell you the man’s caste.

When was the last time so many journalists from English newspapers and TV channels went forth in search of an explicit caste story? The Economic Times went into the minutiae of how caste was being used as vote splitter, with candidates being fielded just to ensure the split of a particular community's votes.

NDTV’s Sreenivasan Jain pointed his mike at one person after another actually asking what caste they belonged to. “Paswan, Kushwaha,Yadav, Yadav , Rajput, Yadav, Muslim…aur aap?” 

Sankarshan Thakur reminded his readers in the Telegraph in story after story that the BJP’s seat distribution was more than one third upper caste in a state where they constituted 16 per cent of the population. “It tries to seduce backward communities but rewards the upper castes.” 

And Jain would feature in the same edition of Truth vs Hype a BJP politician saying solemnly, “The EBC and Vaish if you call them, 44 tickets we have given and they have only given 28.”

Who can blame the reporters when the Prime Minister switched on his trademark oratory to address specifically dalits, mahadalits, backwards and extreme backwards and tell them that he would put his life on the line to protect “your reservation?”

Together with his accusing the Nitish Kumar-Lalu Yadav-Congress alliance of conspiring to take away five per cent of the reservation quota from dalits, mahadalits, backwards and extremely backwards to give it away to another community, it gave the media ceaseless ammunition thereafter.

So through two months or more how much did we really learn about how caste figures in the Bihar narrative?

First lesson, caste and development as issues are not separate narratives but intertwined. To explain that, you need print. There was loads of TV coverage which did us the service of presenting the political rationalisations offered by various leaders but it fell hopelessly short on nuance and illumination.

To explain, you can adopt a mathematical approach or a flesh and blood one. Nalin Verma in the Telegraph wrote about a musahar who explained that he put his children in school because Lalu Yadav would harp on that point when he listened to Yadav’s speeches as a youth. The piece looked at access to education (partly through coaching centres) in the Kosi region and what it had meant for the backward castes.

Muzamil Jaleel’s wanderings in Bihar for the Indian Express led to a student discussion where they said matter of factly that caste mattered at two points in their lives: at the time of marriage and during elections.

The vice-president of the RJD student body, Vishwas Singh, talked about the “reverse discrimination” he feels as a Rajput. “It is becoming impossible for us to compete because of reservations. You chain a horse and make him race with a donkey, the donkey will win. But can it run like a horse?’’ he asked, adding that “less meritorious students manage to get through while students from forward castes are left out. This is destroying the state. The reservation policy is just aimed at getting votes in the name of caste, ”said Singh.

Jaleel reported that about 11 of the 18 students in the group identified themselves as Yadav, Ravidas and Paswan. They were furious at Singh’s analogy. One student, Santosh, said: “The donkey wouldn’t have been a donkey if he didn’t have to carry the load of the so-called forward castes for centuries.’’

Shankar Kumar, an MCom student who wants to join the civil services, intervened: “Two of my cousins are IAS officers. They could qualify only because there was a quota for SC candidates. Without reservation, people from my caste (Ravidas, a mahadalit caste in Bihar) would end up doing the same job our forefathers did”…

And finally there was a student of journalism who said he was with the RSS but drifted because “I realised that, as a Yadav, my caste was coming in the way of my growth as a worker there. At the lower level, the RSS is all-embracing, but once you start going up, you aren’t encouraged”.

Reporting that exchange gets the nuances of how caste affects people and politics across rather well.

Aditi Phadnis’s account in Business Standard of the digital campaign  parties mounted tells you where android apps figure in a caste-dominated election.

She also focused in another piece on dalit entrepreneurs running hotels and travel agencies and calls this a “living testimony to the pattern of dalit empowerment in Bihar through government-sponsored affirmative action.” 

'Backward'  Bihar has many faces then, not all dire or depressing, but it takes an election to get the reporters out there.

Where TV falls short is in its superficiality. When an NDTV anchor also assembles a group of young people in a café to have a discussion meant to involve them along with Chirag Paswan, only one of them gets to ask a question. Even if you watch the full video. And what Paswan himself is asked by Sunetra Choudhury, is predictable.

Barkha Dutt conducts litti choka charchas in Patna but is happy to let the one on caste be hijacked by one participant straying into discussing the beef issue. Thereafter it is mostly about beef.

TV reporters wandering around Bihar talk a lot, whether it is Abhigyan Prasad or Ravish Kumar (both of NDTV India). Kumar did many episodes preceded by mini-sermons to the viewer, towel in hand at some places, and laughing at his own jokes. But he consciously set out to just look at the state of people, places, education, industry etc. Not every episode was about following a leader. TV was best for putting leaders on the mat, and letting them speak and tie themselves up in knots. Its discovery of Bihar, however, was mostly superficial.

Finally, in an election where caste was the linchpin of all reporting, it was perhaps only fitting that the other vital media spectacle, the exit polls, would also deliver their wisdom couched in caste terms. So Today’s Chanakya, which gave the BJP the election in no uncertain terms, also provided the caste numbers for its findings:


They too, then, were asking each person surveyed about their caste. How else can you explain the state’s elections primarily in caste terms?


The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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