After Mayawati does mainstream media matter?

BY James Mutti| IN Regional Media | 15/05/2007
Despite refusing to feed itself into the media machine that is believed to be essential to disseminating political information, the BSP won.

James Mutti

Throughout the long drawn-out Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, the media has unceasingly bombarded the public in UP with the news, the personalities, and the political propaganda of various political outfits fighting it out. First, Amitabh Bachchan himself was controversially stumping for the Samajwadi Party (SP). Then there was endless coverage of Congress icon Rahul Gandhi`s road shows prior to each phase of the polling in hot, dusty UP. Rahul`s now-notorious statements about the Babri Masjid and the 1971 war generated extensive coverage of other parties` withering condemnations of said statements. There was the communal CD controversy that drew the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the issue of Hindutva into the public eye early in the voting.

The new strict rules of the Election Commission were another story in themselves. The statistics of each phase were religiously reported before and after each round of voting - numbers of candidates, who had criminal records, voter turnout, largest and smallest constituencies. The boasts of every political party were given voice. Every political alliance was scrutinized. Regional personalities filled the pages and airwaves at certain times - Ajit Singh, Dadua, Yogi Adityanath, Beni Prasad Verma among them. Throughout, the SP liberally filled newspapers in UP with its ?Mulayam is my?? series of advertising as well as its ?The answer is in your hand, Uttar Pradesh is in your hand? campaign. Animated advertising declaring that Mayawati would do anything to get seats was a daily feature as well in English and Hindi language newspapers. Anyone who followed these elections can surely offer dozens of other examples.

But what political observers and casual news watchers did not see much of was eventual landslide winner Mayawati or representatives from her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). While the SP, the BJP and the Congress aggressively courted public opinion through the circuit of TV programs and daily newspaper headlines, the BSP was nowhere to be seen. In contrast to the publicity machines of the 3 other parties, I don`t recall seeing one BSP advertisement in newspapers for the entire month and a half I have spent in Lucknow. As the BJP, SP and Congress slugged it out on cable TV`s political roundtable shows, the BSP declined to participate, aloofly placing itself above the fray.

Mayawati`s campaigning was not as frenetic, nor as heavily covered by the media as her rivals` were. With the exception of her promise to put CM Mulayam Singh Yadav and right-hand man Amar Singh in jail upon her victory, her quotes rarely filled the front pages. The intentions and opinions of Mayawati`s workers and supporters were seldom taken note of. The BSP seemed to generally shun, or at least avoid, the media eye. And the media complied, eagerly following Rahul or Mulayam or the leaders of the BJP in the latest attention-grabbing story.

And yet, despite refusing to feed itself into the media machine that journalists, academics, and politicians believe is essential to disseminating political information that will create an educated and involved electorate, the BSP won. And by much more than anyone in the media predicted. Not only was the BSP under-covered in the media flooding UP, that same media did a poor job of predicting the final outcome of the election. Which begs the question, has the victory of the BSP and Mayawati proven the media to be superfluous to the democratic process? In the world today, people assume that the media and spreading information through mediated channels is the way to win elections since it reaches the most people and can offer a steady stream of information. It is a modern, efficient, better way of advancing the cause of  democracy. That`s what many assume. The SP, Congress and BJP assumed this as well.

As the three other parties talked and posed, hoping that any publicity was good publicity, what was the BSP doing? Those who are versed in the strategies of electoral politics in Uttar Pradesh better than I could probably answer this question. But it must have involved intensive, well-organized and disciplined mobilizing and reaching out to potential voters and ensuring that people would make it to the polls on their given day. It involved, in other words, old fashioned, non-mediated, face-to-face contact and hard work. In any case, it did not involve pouring money and time into a corporate media structure perceived to be hostile, or at least indifferent, to the issues and ideas of India`s more marginalized communities.  

I wouldn`t go far as to say that recent events have made the media irrelevant to the democratic process in India. It clearly plays an established role in Indian elections today. It distributes vital information about candidates, events, issues and parties. But, like the commercial media in any country, it suffers shortcomings, and if it ignored the biggest political story in UP for at least two decades - the stunning transformation and dramatic ascendancy of the BSP -because it was not a glamorous, sensationalistic enough story to justify covering, then one of those short comings is glaringly evident.

Or perhaps the news of the rural poor in UP was not deemed as that important to a largely urban, educated readership or to those who can afford cable TV`s endless news channels or to corporate advertisers? For while Mayawati`s rainbow coalition cut across caste and religion, it was especially strong among the rural poor of many communities - groups who have been historically marginalized in India`s English and Hindi language media. These problems show that if the media wants to continue to claim that it is an objective provider of politically important news, than things will need to change. As Mayawati said on her first speech as CM-elect on May 11, there is now indeed a need for the media to introspect. 

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