Sweet victory, despite the media coverage

BY SEVANTI NINAN| IN Media Practice | 19/05/2016
Does goondagiri and corruption loom much larger for journalists than it does for voters? Is that why they missed the Mamata sweep,


In West Bengal perhaps more than in the other states going to the polls, the media was proactively oppositional, but Mamata Banerjee swept.   How much does media coverage, or media  entrapment, for that matter count for in an election outcome?  Do its exposes affect the results? 

And separately, does the prolific coverage that polls unleash  these days contribute to the understanding of an outcome?

Elections  are one of very few occasions when media houses spend on travel for their reporters. So there were plenty of men and women out there trying to explain what West Bengal’s villages and towns were looking like after five years of TMC rule.  As also trying to explain how people would vote.

Yet they missed the story.  And created their own negative narrative.  Mamata Banerjee not only had no captive media going into this election, she had  adversaries to reckon with.  A new portal called Narada made its debut with a series of pre-election entrapment stings, targeting the Trinamool party.  And the  states’s most influential media house, the Ananda Bazar Patrika  group, was reported to have made unsettling the ruling party (to put it politely) its mission. This was written about in more than one place, with motives being attributed for proprietor Aveek Sarkar’s alleged animosity. The Telegraph’s feisty coverage went hammer and tongs for  the ruling party’s performance, as well as its corruption and electoral malpractices.  Even if the humble voter was not reading the Telegraph, would not he/she have been reading the Ananda Bazar Patrika?

The Narada sting and the flyover collapse gave a hostile prime minister campaigning in West Bengal the handle to say that the TMC stood for  “terror maut (death)and corruption.” And of course  it also influenced coverage in the final weeks  of the polls, making corruption  a huge negative for the incumbent government.

Yet it seems to have made no difference to the voter.

But since after all that the electoral outcome was a sweep, did the media despite its reservations sense a strong comeback?    And even if it did not, did the coverage offer clues to explain the scale of the victory?  Isn’t that what good reporting might be expected to do?

The answer is to the first question is no,  and   to the second, yes.

 But first the state coverage. If you went by what reporters and political editors filed the government had failed the electorate in substantial ways. There was graphic coverage of the Trinamool Congress’s goondagiri, lots of it in the Telegraph, some in the Indian Express and the Hindu. The Wire dwelt on it. There was,  naturally,  huge coverage of the Narada sting.  And in terms of work not done by the party, several heart rending features were written on the plight of the  tea garden workers in the Express,  Telegraph and the Hindu, among other reports on rural realities under this government.

Closer to polling day,  quite a few stories in the Telegraph described the ghost voting being attempted: Beep, beep, weep! How ghosts vote , Undeterred by goons, ghosts, gods (a ghastly story about hot tea torture by TMC cadres for refusing to hand over voters’ lists) Ghost rears head in final turnout figure, Devil lies in ghost-surge detail, and so on.

As for punditry, one article suggested that  Mamata Banerjee was the worst thing to happen to West Bengal since the famine of 1943.  Ruchir Joshi waxed eloquent in the Telegraph with sets of questions for her after the flyover collapse. (Rogue white elephant )  As recently as in the first week of May a report in the Hindu talked of anger and loathing in West Bengal.

Does goondagiri and corruption count for much more with journalists than it does with voters?

The other part of this story is that the reporting taken as a whole hinted at what might have counted with the voters.  But the journalists were  not sufficiently alive to that.   A report in Mint on the headache the Narada sting created for the chief minister  also offers the explanation that “Banerjee’s own popularity remains high, especially among rural voters, which she has earned by stepping up public spending.” 

It was a significant point. The paper said  that the Rs.2 trillion in new loans that the west Bengal government took even as it repaid half of the old ones left by the previous regime, was spent on building infrastructure in backward areas-- close to 4,000km of roads; 41 new super-speciality hospitals, and the state was set  to achieve near 100% rural electrification within 2016. The paper quotes an official saying that the “economic and social multipliers” of such initiatives normally pay a rich political dividend.

Newspapers in the run up to the elections were also discovering how much the 2.5 million free bicycles to school-going children counted  for, as also the cut-price food grains to 70 million economically backward families that the TMC manifesto talked about. The Hindu and others also reported rural voters talking about what the cycle bonanza had meant to them.  One hint comes from the claims Mamata herself would make in talking to voters (Mamata Banerjee tells Jangalmahal what she did that Left Front and BJP didn’t ), whether or not the press bought her claims, her audience might have. 

 And then, she walked to woo reporters, some 400 km was the claim. Her electioneering was not confined to helicopters. 

As for the Muslim vote, the Hindu had a long list of sops or benefits (depending on your point of view) that this government had showered on the community. The Indian Express had two reports describing the pluses and minuses of Muslim lives in the state.

But as much as all of this, another major indication for the handsome re-election is mentioned several times by voters to reporters in stories  (including in the Hindu’s cycle story above) –they are not about to re-elect the Left Front yet after their 30 years of experience with that party. Five years for them is not long enough basis for rejecting a  party.

But evidently what looms large for the voter is not what the reporter thinks is the big takeaway from his or her  election time visits. 

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