Overhyping the Ajmal Factor in Assam polls

Sections of the media failed to see the BJP wave and made the mistake of over-estimating the role of AIUDF’s Ajmal.
RAJEEV BHATTACHARYYA analyses the coverage

Media predictions of the parties' fortunes differed substantially in the run up to the elections. Pix: India.com.

 

The recently concluded assembly polls in Assam have been the most interesting the northeastern state has witnessed so far.  It was expected that the BJP and its allies would win but the total tally which stood at eighty six out of a total of 126 in the assembly stumped almost all poll pundits and analysts.  

The change of political equations and shift of loyalties were subtle and remained concealed to many journalists and commentators. They produced a bewildering range of news stories that swung from objective reporting and speculation to news churned out with preconceived notions and agendas.  These trends were discernible as much in the national media as in the local across all news channels, dailies and portals. 

First, the coverage of the assembly elections by the local media.   Several media houses in Assam are owned either by politicians or businessmen with affiliations to political parties.  Therefore, it was not surprising that the coverage by some houses was impacted by the prospects of the parties they belonged to or sympathized with. 

Former Congress agriculture minister Rockybul Hussain who owns the news channel Assam Talks and a daily called Janasadharan claimed that the BJP and its allies would be defeated.  Their journalists even doled out ground reports and micro-analyses of the constituencies to counter the findings of the exit polls.  They were of the firm opinion that the Congress would secure at least 40 seats and be in a position to form the government with other parties. 

In the same vein, the channel and the daily owned by the wife of BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma - Newslive and Niyamiya Barta - focused on anti-Congress stories and started predicting a Congress defeat almost a couple of  months ahead of the elections.  But it must be mentioned at the same time that Sarma has a reputation for always hitting the bull’s eye with his analysis of the poll results.  For instance his estimate to the Indian Express in mid-April of the number of seats that the BJP and its allies would get did say that it could be in the eighties.

That there was a massive wave in favour of the BJP and its allies is undeniable.   The writing was on the wall months ahead of the assembly polls in at least 50 of the 126 constituencies. The favourable circumstances for the alliance surfaced as a result of a combination of many factors, some recent and some stretching back a few years.

The reportage by several media houses was comprehensive with both statistics and analysis. They struck a fine balance, refrained from taking sides, and avoided being overtly judgmental about the poll results.  There were Assamese language dailies that dropped sufficient hints about the possibility of the Congress rout in much the same way as most of the English dailies published in Assam.  Among the news channels, Prag News and DY365 have benefitted the most in terms of credibility with their analysis turning out quite accurate even though it was initially not accepted by many.    

Amid these episodes was a regular dose of speculative news which has been a distinctive feature of the vernacular media in Assam.  The rationale, as an editor once explained, was to increase circulation and increase TRP, which is what usually happens whenever there is paucity of information.  The end result is false and unverifiable news stories but it has hardly mattered to the media since there is no penalty of any sort.   There are no complaints and readers and viewers have rarely reacted whenever dailies and channels publish and broadcast such news.    

On some occasions, speculative stories have been proved true by subsequent developments in the elections. For example, many Assamese dailies highlighted that Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, the chief of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), would face a tough contest in his constituency.  He lost the elections by a margin of 16,723 votes which was unthinkable given his past performance and support in some pockets inhabited by Bengali Muslims and Bangladeshi immigrants.

 But speculation was also discernible in the national media this time around and especially in the news portals that had sent young and inexperienced journalists to cover the elections.  Ajmal, with the long beard and skull cap, captured the imagination of these journalists who somehow jumped to the hasty conclusion that he would emerge as the kingmaker after the results. They ought to have done a bit of homework before landing in Assam which is a multi-ethnic state and undoubtedly one of the most complex states in the country.  It takes time to understand the social fabric and political equations which changed rapidly ahead of the polls. 

The fact of the matter was that the Maulana had dug his own grave by his confused policies and declarations. Elections have never been fought on religious lines in Assam and his appeal at a rally on January 23 asking all Muslims to unite against the polarization of Hindus by the BJP boomeranged, with the result that a large chunk of his traditional support base was encroached upon by the Congress.   But the AIUDF did manage to perform better in the Bengali- dominated Barak Valley where votes from a few traditional bastions of the Congress shifted to the Front.  

Likewise, the national media’s assumption of the importance of Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s role was way off the mark, barring a few dailies. That Gogoi had become a big casualty for the Congress could hardly be understood by reporters who were asked to churn out a few stories as quickly as possible and return to New Delhi.  The Congress, in fact, had won three consecutive terms simply because there was no opposition and no alternative before the electorate.  

Many would agree that Gogoi has been one of the most inactive chief ministers that Assam has produced.  Things had come to such a pass that the ten dissident legislators led by Himanta Biswa Sarma had made a case several times before the party high command two years ago to replace Gogoi but the pleas fell on deaf ears. Above all, the Congress came to be viewed as a party determined to protect the interests of Bangladeshi infiltrators and join hands with the AIUDF to form the next government if circumstances demanded.  The BJP and its allies cleverly picked up the issue and identified Ajmal as the “real danger” to the khilonjia (indigenous) which struck a chord as much with the Hindus as with the Assamese Muslims and Bengali Muslims who are genuine citizens.

The BJP was too confident of victory and there was no question of engaging in “secret talks” with the AIUDF as some reports suggested.  The BJP joined hands with the PDP in Jammu and Kashmir but doing the same with the AIUDF in Assam would have come at a heavy cost. 

The PDP is a party of Kashmiris but the AIUDF is largely considered a party of Bangladeshi immigrants.  A couple of journalists, in particular, reported on the possibility of a coalition government in Assam with the AIUDF as a partner. These were stories in The Quint (20 April) and an IANS report that was carried in The Statesman (21 April) and in other publications which went wrong in their prediction. A few BJP leaders also clarified in Guwahati that talks were not held with AIUDF for the formation of the government.  

The IANS report was carried in the Times of India, but was contradicted by another report by their own correspondent in the Economic Times.

The fate of the AIUDF had become apparent as early as February following the internal squabbles and financial distress within the party. There were also allegations that Ajmal had taken money from candidates to distribute tickets to gather funds for the elections. It is simply not possible that the reporters who claimed that Ajmal really counted would have missed all these developments, especially if when they had been keeping a close tab on the Northeast. So why they reported this is mystifying. In addition, the Telegraph also carried his claims  thereby giving them credence.

In short, Ajmal’s dismal performance was not sufficiently anticipated by media reports.

 

Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Assam and author of Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men.

 

 

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