Juicy stories buried in election season

BY Jyoti Punwani| IN Opinion | 04/05/2014
The Prime Minister's brother joining the BJP rightly made page one news. What about the brother of Sohrabuddin, killed in a fake encounter investigated by the CBI, deciding to campaign for the BJP?
JYOTI PUNWANI scans hits and misses in the Times and Express. Pix: Kumar Vishwas and Kejriwal in Amethi

Jyoti  Punwani

The Prime Minister’s brother joining the BJP made page one news – deservedly. What about the brother of Sohrabuddin, who was killed in a fake encounter investigated by the CBI? When Shahnawazuddin campaigns for the party accused of killing his brother, it should be Page One news too. The 2005 Sohrabuddin fake encounter case has been a major blot on Narendra Modi. Not only have his trusted police officers been sent to jail for it, enough has come out to show that the approval for the killing came from the very top. In 2010, Amit Shah, then Gujarat’s minister of state for home and Modi’s closest aide, was arrested for his role in this case. In his 2007 election rallies in Gujarat, Modi would shout: 'What do you want me to do with a man like Sohrabuddin?' And the audience would yell back: 'Kill him.’ Yet, Sohrabuddin’s brother decided to campaign for Modi’s party! The news was buried at the bottom of Page 8 in the Indian Express ('Sohrabuddin’s brother is a BJP campaigner in MPApril 21). 

Another Page One-deserving Sohrabuddin story was lost inside the Times of India (TOI), on page 12. 'Guj encounter sleuth shifted, probe hitby Sarfaraz Shaikh, (April 20) reported on the chief supervisory officer in the Sohrabuddin Shaikh, Tulsiram Prajapati and Ishrat  Jahan cases, being relieved of his charge. The CBI ascribed this to his being "over-burdened".

With so much happening this election, it’s difficult to give everything the space it deserves. But going through the Mumbai editions of the Indian Express and The Times of India, one finds some very juicy stories being lost in the inside pages. 'Cash in tiffin boxes for Chennai voters despite EC’s watch', was top of the page, but deep inside the TOI (April 21). A long report on Sanand, site of the Tata Nano factory in Gujarat, in the TOI ('Modi’s Motown sees a mix of opportunity and angstApril 25), by Paul John and Hitesh Chavda, showed how the takeover of farmers’ land has changed lives there. The agitation of Singur’s farmers against Ratan Tata’s Nano factory in 2008, culminating in his shifting it to Gujarat, dominated our papers for weeks. Modi was seen to have pulled off a coup; it marked the beginning of corporate support for him. How did this shift work out on the ground? The report deserved Page One status specially now, with Arvind Kejriwal accusing Modi of handing over farmers’ land to corporates.

Then, didn’t Kejriwal heading Time magazine’s list of '100 most influential persons' deserve Page One status? Had Modi done so, you could imagine the headlines. If Arun Jaitley’s well-heeled friends coming down to Amritsar to campaign for him could make it to Page One (IE, April 24), why wasn’t the same spread given to all those intellectuals who have flocked to Varanasi to work for Kejriwal? As a senior Supreme Court lawyer, Jaitley is bound to have friends across professions. Kejriwal was a nobody till two years back; but such has been his appeal that all kinds of intellectuals have supported him. That’s news.

While a perusal of reportage in the Mumbai editions of the TOI and the IE didn’t show any bias in favour of Modi, it definitely showed a definite downplaying of AAP, specially of Kejriwal’s campaign in Varanasi and Amethi. His photograph was top of the front page in the Mumbai edition of the IE the day after he filed his nomination, but there was no report inside! TV coverage showed that his rally was well-attended to put it mildly, even if not as much as Modi’s. Surely it deserved a report? The TOI has been carrying occasional reports from Varanasi, not enough to give a comprehensive picture, but the IE has had hardly any. 

The battle for Amethi in both papers focused only on Priyanka Gandhi. You have to concede that she is currently the most charming campaigner in the country; it’s difficult to take one’s eyes off her. So it’s understandable that she dominates TV news. But what of the press? For the first time, Rahul Gandhi is facing a real electoral challenge. Yet, Mumbai readers of the TOI and the IE have little idea of what Amethi’s voters feel, or of the impact made by Kumar Vishwas, AAP’s controversial leader, who parked himself in Amethi two months ago. Even if he is making no impact, that needs to be reported. The TOI did carry  a long report, but as late as April 23.

The TOI and the IE have reported that Kejriwal has held the most rallies in Varanasi. Were none of these worth reporting? It’s important to report that 'Aam aadmi Kejriwal is richer than NaMo, Rai', as the TOI did, but surely it’s equally important to report on how AAP came up with its Varanasi-specific manifesto, and, where does Kejriwal find the most resistance in the constituency? The experiences of IIT students from across the country in Varanasi would have made for an interesting story too, specially the contrast, if any, between those working for Modi and those for Kejriwal.

Every slap meted out to Kejriwal, and every attack on his workers is reported, as it must. But is AAP’s Lok Sabha experience only about getting attacked?

Reporters in the field are constantly being surprised by the kind of support AAP candidates have. The numbers may not be spectacular, but the diversity of support is. The number of individuals who have plunged into an election campaign for the first time, inspired by AAP, across the country, is a news story.  When AAP won in Delhi, this angle was widely reported. Why not when this phenomenon is repeated on a national level?

There have been other glaring omissions in the editorials of the TOI and the IE. Despite the Modi wave, despite AAP’s new politics, election strategies this time have focused as much on caste and religion as they always do. Is that why they don’t deserve editorial comment? Have senior editors accepted this as part of our elections? The uproar that followed Nitin Gadkari’s candid remark that casteism is in Bihar’s DNA, was hypocrisy of the worst kind. Editorials should have pointed out that casteism is in every political party’s DNA. The TOI reported a survey by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) and the NGO Daksh that showed for voters in Maharashtra that on a scale of ten, the party and the candidate scored 7.73 and 7.24 respectively. Caste/religion scored 5.69. Yet, when this reporter visited Nanded, where Ashok Chavan of Adarsh fame was the Congress’ candidate, and communally-sensitive Bhiwandi on the outskirts of Mumbai, she was given, by both the BJP and the Congress, a detailed break-up of the constituency on caste and religious lines, as well as the likely voting preferences of these castes and communities.  So who’s more hung up on caste – voters or parties?

Then there’s the report in TOI 'Cong, BSP play Brahmin card against BJP' (April 26) on Mayawati’s and the Congress’ strategy to woo Brahmins in UP, by pointing out how the BJP has humiliated its senior Brahmin leaders. Is caste then the only factor that defines voters? Shouldn’t reporters be asking voters whether that assumption made by all political parties is true – of course, if time permits. Reporting from a constituency often doesn’t give you that much time. But one TV journalist has made this the focal point of his election series. NDTV India’s Ravish Kumar goes off the beaten track to trace different segments and specifically asks them this question, hoping to be surprised. Alas, it’s not often that he is.

Perhaps it’s naiveté on this columnist’s part, or simply a disconnect with ground realities typical of the English press – the India-Bharat divide – that reports on how castes and religious communities are being played against one another, fill one with a sense of despair. Take this report on Mulayam Singh Yadav’s sudden shrill pro-Muslim rhetoric in eastern UP. The TOI report by Subodh Ghildiyal 'Is MSY using Muslim card to dent BSP, Cong?' (April 26) says that this is deliberate, aimed at pushing non-Muslim voters towards the BJP, just so that the Congress or BSP does not win. For a Congress/BSP victory would mean an undermining of the SP’s vote bank. To prevent that catastrophe, it’s alright, or so the SP chief believes, to raise the communal temperature, never mind the long-term effects this has. A report on  how the BJP is trying to break Mayawati’s Dalit-Muslim base by quoting Ambedkar selectively, to show he was against Muslims, fortunately made it to Page One in the IE: 'Ambedkar disliked Muslims: BJP’s pitch to lure Dalits in Agra(April 23). What is this is not sowing seeds of hatred? Then we in the press act amazed when a riot such as Muzaffarnagar breaks out.

Any aam aadmi would have snickered at Modi’s reference  to Varanasi’s 'Ganga-Jamunitahzeeb' during his nomination-day rally. But the TOI wrote an approving editorial on it! "Victory in Varanasi is imperative for the narrative that Modi will uphold a syncretic Hindu heritage. Hopefully, this can trump hate-mongering Hindutva in BJP’s identity’’, said the edit. This 'narrative' seems visible only to the TOI’s edit writer. And who wants to trump hate-mongering? Didn’t the edit-writer read the report in the same paper on RSS hate pamphlets being distributed in MP?

There’s yet another major development in this election that editors have refrained from commenting on, though everyone is talking about it. This time, the EC seems to have lost its teeth. Is a reprimand the worst it can do? Is an apology enough to forgive the worst lapses? Or are Sharad Pawar, who asked voters to vote twice – the video makes it clear he wasn’t joking -  and Narendra Modi – flashing his party symbol just outside the polling booth - too powerful for the EC to take on?

Finally, even in the deluge of election reports, space should have been made on Page One for the story on a 17-year-old Dalit boy being strangled and then hung  from a  tree after he was seen talking to a Maratha girl in Ahmednagar, five hours from Mumbai. Neither the Express nor the Times did so. 

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