What role did media play in poll result?

BY MELWYN PINTO| IN Media Practice | 09/05/2013
Asked about the reason for the JD (S) defeat in Karnataka, HD Kumaraswamy angrily blamed the media.
MELWYN PINTO says TV channels played a crucial part in dethroning the BJP in the state, even if they did not particularly promote the Congress. PIX: Janata Dal (S) President H D Kumaraswamy

Was media responsible for the comfortable victory of the Congress Party in the recently held Karnataka Assembly elections? At least the Janata Dal (S) President, H D Kumaraswamy thinks so. Reacting angrily to a question from the media fraternity as to what was the reason behind the success of the Congress Party in the state, Mr Kumaraswamy declared that “you (media) are responsible”. In an irony of sorts, one wonders if he forgot that he too is the proprietor of two Kannada TV channels, including a news channel.

The victory of the Congress Party was on expected lines, especially after its success in the recent urban local bodies’ elections. The exit of the former chief minister BS Yeddyurappa from the party harmed the BJP prospects a great deal. In fact, part of the cause for the BJP’s defeat is definitely Mr Yeddyurappa who formed his own Karnataka Janata Party (KJP) and won six seats, apart from denting BJP’s chances in at least another 20. But it will be unfair to entirely hold Mr Yeddyurappa responsible for the decimation of the BJP in Karnataka. People were tired of the infighting in the party. The state had three chief ministers in five years. Many MLAs were involved in corruption, sex scandals and a series of other crimes throughout BJP’s rule in the state. So there were several causes for the defeat of the BJP in Karnataka.

But, what about Mr Kumaraswamy’s claim? Was media responsible for the rise of Congress in the state? He may not entirely be wrong.

There has been an unprecedented emergence of broadcast media in the state in the last five years. Today there are nine 24-hour Kannada news channels in the state, apart from a regional English news channel. Among these, as many as six emerged just in the last five years. It is also interesting to note that most of these channels are owned by politicians of different parties. In the rat race of competition and TRP ratings, without their own knowledge these channels have steadily taken politics (most of which was dirty and malicious) to the drawing rooms of the Karnataka household.

Take, for example, the coastal region of the state. The two coastal districts - Dakshina Kannada (Mangalore) and Udupi-have rejected the ruling party like never before. The Congress won seven out of eight seats in Dakshina Kannada and three out of five in Udupi. Mangalore was in the national news for all the wrong reasons in the last five years. Within just a few months after the BJP came to power for the first time in Karnataka in 2008, a series of attacks were unleashed on several churches in Mangalore and other places. TV channels were quick to shoot every detail of these attacks. Further, in January 2009 girls in a pub were brutally attacked by the fundamental Sri Ram Sene in Mangalore and again the incident hit the national headlines thanks once again to the same TV channels. As recently as in July 2012, several students were assaulted by the Hindu Jagaran Vedike at a homestay in Mangalore. Once again TV channels were there to detail every movement. Ironically, Naveen Soorinje, a cameraman of a local TV channel who by videographing the assault made sure that the culprits were arrested, was made to languish in the jail for nearly five months.

So TV channels did play a critical role in the coastal region to record every inhuman act of the splinter fundamental groups which had a tacit sanction from the ruling party. And this seems to have paid off. People were just fed up with the kind of moral policing that was being carried out in the region by the saffron brigade. Boys and girls were scared to even go in pairs, lest they be unjustly targeted. Due to this, even the traditional voters of the BJP have turned against it this time and given a clear indication that they reject the vicious designs of the powers that be!

If that is the story of the coastal region, it was no different in other parts of the state. Kannada news channels, especially those owned by the opposition party leaders, such as Mr Kumaraswamy, were more than willing to sensationalise the BJP scandals. The now famous ‘porngate’ of three BJP MLAs in the legislature was played ad nauseam for days together by several channels. (Incidentally, two of these three leaders bit the dust in the election this time. One of them accepted that bad publicity had done him in.) Added to this was Mr Yeddyurappa’s arrest and the drama that unfolded for months thereafter which was a sumptuous fodder for the hungry channels.

Well, media in general and TV channels in particular may have given bad publicity to BJP’s poor administration and scandals; but did they by any chance give wider positive publicity to the Congress? Hardly! The Congress in Karnataka must understand that their victory is not an indication that they are more virtuous than other parties. There was a general anti-incumbency factor in the state. Of course, on the part of the Congress there seemed to be a better campaign strategy, even though their ticket distributionin some cases was questionable. Media may not have given them a great publicity. However, the widespread negative publicity that BJP garnered for itself resulted in creating a general positive feeling among people for the Congress. Well, it could even have been Kumaraswamy’s JD(S). However, JD(S) is primarily seen as a party of the Vokkaliga community, lacking a pan-Karnataka appeal.

It may be quite fair here to say that yes, Mr Kumaraswamy read it quite right. TV channels played a crucial part in dethroning the BJP in the state, even if they did not particularly promote the Congress. And why not? The press is supposed to be the watchdog of democracy. TV channels have played their part in Karnataka, even if it was mostly for profit and TRP ratings. However, let us not underestimate the people of the state. They are not gullible to be just carried away by the tantrums that these channels regularly throw. Anybody could see for oneself that the government in the state in the last five years was more concerned about saving itself than administration. The editorial in The Hindu on May 9 summed it up quite correctly: “Sometimes, the ruling party is the opposition’s biggest benefactor.”

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