A Message For Media From Mandate 2004

Updated: May 28 2004, 05:30am hrs
The verdict of the 2004 Lok Sabha election is not so much a victory of the Congress against the Bharatiya Janata Party as much as it is a victory against the media, a senior member of the Union cabinet told this writer last week. The Congress minister was more pleased with the humbling of the journalist and psephologist than of the BJP!

Theres a lot of media bashing going on these days, thanks both to the inability of large sections of the media to forecast the 2004 result and because of the view in the ruling alliance that the media, especially the so called pink press, was not adequately critical of the India Shining campaign.

The politicians glee at the discomfiture of the media is not new. If it is the Congress Party that now chides us for not reflecting the mood of the voter, it was earlier the BJP that so admonished us. I recall the evening the results of the elections to the Gujarat assembly were out last year. I was at an official reception at Rashtrapati Bhawan in honour of some visiting dignitary. Former deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani walked into the Durbar Hall smiling like a cat that ate a canary. Paying a backhanded compliment to the group of editors gathered there, Mr Advani said tongue-in-cheek, We must thank you for the victory in Gujarat! The medias negative campaign against us helped us. It won us the voters sympathy. This is a verdict against the media.

It was the BJP then and the Congress now, but the same media that is being criticised for not gauging the voters mood. Fair enough. It feels nice to be bashed by both sides! While the opinion and exit polls did not get the final result right, most of them got the trend right. In the first quarter of 2004, most polls showed the NDA way ahead of the Congress and its allies. By end April, the Congress and allies were shown improving their tally, while the NDA was shown falling behind.

However, it is true that few analysts predicted the complete rout of the NDA. But then, many Congressmen too didnt predict this outcome. I personally know of some Congressmen who had made holiday plans after the elections expecting the NDA to be back in power and hoping to get away from the Delhi heat! In the event, they had to cancel their bookings, sweat it out here and be sworn in to ministership!

There is, however, a more serious charge that has been made by politicians and political commentators against the pink press. It has been suggested that not only did the financial press get the voters mood wrong but it played along with the NDAs India Shining campaign without understanding the mood of the masses.

To be honest, the financial media is not particularly well equipped to understand the mood of the masses. Rather, we are into trying and understanding the mood of the markets! More to the point, the view that the masses were gripped by some all encompassing mood that was visibly anti-incumbent and that this was missed by the media is not an accurate view.

The fractured nature of the verdict suggests that there in fact was no all-encompassing national mood. Rather, the 2004 verdict is a summation of disparate mandates that in its totality has worked for the Congress and the Left and not for the BJP. The fact is that as in 1996, when also few predicted accurately the defeat of the incumbent Congress Party, the outcome in two states made all the difference. In 1996 it was Tamilnadu and Uttar Pradesh that upset the Congress apple cart, in 2004 it is Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh that upset the NDA apple cart.

The media got the mood in Tamilnadu more or less right, even if not the seat shares, but in AP the pink press did fail to gauge the mood of the masses, but in a way very different from what critics suggest. More on that later.

What of the charge that the pink press uncritically endorsed the India Shining campaign. First, this is not a fair charge. Many did criticise the government on a variety of grounds ranging from its use of public money to promote a party political campaign to the fact that this was essentially a campaign aimed at the foreign investor audience and was being misdirected to the domestic political market.

In one of my columns I quoted a popular Hyderabadi quip, oopar sherwani, andar pareyshaani, to say that the shine was more external than internal, because Indias external economic indicators were all robust and healthy but many domestic economic indicators, like rate of capital formation and employment generation, were not so reassuring.

More importantly, as Surjit Bhalla has argued in many of his columns, there has over the past decade been an improvement in the overall macro economic and social indicators of development in India. What is entirely possible, as I have suggested in an earlier column, is that there is underway in India a revolution of rising expectations because of which the voter demonstrates an anti-incumbent mood even though there has been a modest improvement in the standard of living. This was, I believe, the case in AP.

As economist Vijay Joshi of Oxford University reminded me recently, the French Revolution occurred not because the French masses were worse off but because they were better off and yet unhappy because their expectations exceeded their reality. It is the upwardly mobile who revolt with more conviction and hope than the truly downtrodden, whose energy is often dissipated by the sheer burden of survival.

Stand on New Delhis Bahadurshah Zafar Marg, the street where we work, when Parliament is in session and hear the variety of protestors who wind their way to Sansad Marg. The loudest slogans are shouted by middle class unionists. The quietest processions are those of Bihari peasants. There is no denying that India has been shining for the middle classes this past decade, but their aspirations are ahead of the ability of governments to deliver. That is why New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Chennai have all been anti-incumbent in their vote.

All this is not to deny that there is need for introspection in the media on whether or not we do our job as professionally as we would like others to do their job.