Gujarat, BJP And The Media

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Dec 19 2002, 05:30am hrs
What do you call a phenomenon when everything comes together and works splendidly but the final result is the exact opposite of the script. From the perspective of the Congress party, here is a list of how things could not have been more right in Gujarat: 1) Modi is lambasted and targeted by the media and influential non-governmental organisations, most of whom preponderantly support the Congress 2) Modi loses his feud with the Election Commission and elections are postponed 3) the rath yatra of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad is curtailed by the Election Commission 4) a battery of anti-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stalwarts are mobilised to campaign in the state 5) a victory in Kashmir elections spurs Congress morale all across the country 6) the local BJP is beset with internal dissent, and there is speculation that some BJP leaders may actually undermine Modi during the campaign 7) civil society and other opinion leaders comment endlessly about how defeating Modi would be in the national interest 8) political pundits tell us that even should the BJP win, it will be a defeat since it will be denied a simple majority and certainly an overwhelming victory.

Taking all this together, popular wisdom remained that the Congress had everything to gain and the BJP everything to lose. But the results have confounded this neat package of assumptions and analyses. The real lesson from Gujarat perhaps lies not in why Modi won but how the national media is so out of sync with reality and how it has advanced so little beyond the euphemisms it uses.

Lets start with opinion polls, all of which were off the mark. I do not know of a single commentator or news organisation which got it right. But this is not new. For the last seven years, opinion polls and analyses have become slicker and sexier, and more wrong. From the 1999 general elections, here is a compendium of predictions about Congress seats Ashok Desai: 200, India Today: 203, Outlook: less than 120, The Pioneer: 165, Doordarshan: 174, Lokmat Times: 201. Not all of these are biased sources, and in fact I read Ashok Desai for his methodically researched comments even if I frequently disagree with him. But most were off by a mile and were worse in state-level predictions.

The only reason that some, such as the Times of India/DRS poll, got it largely correct overall was because their state errors cancelled each other out. Similarly, the outcome of the last Bihar assembly elections was in sharp contrast to polls which predicted a rout for Laloo Yadav. After state elections in 1998, few bothered to look at the political history of Rajasthan, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh and realise that these have always been two-party states. The demise of non-BJP and non-Congress parties was declared with much haste. What sort of industry is this Why bother to comment or poll if there are too many cross-currents

Second, there is also selective marshaling of facts and curious logic, both pre- and post-facto. Many national newspapers are reflexively anti-BJP and usually let this bias colour their otherwise high standards of coverage. A BJP victory is usually attributed to a split in anti-BJP votes, a thesis seldom used in relation to the Congress. But since the BJP has won almost 50 per cent votes in Gujarat, what they are now saying is that the communal card of the BJP was successful in polarising the masses. But have we not heard time and again, especially when the BJP loses, how wise the Indian voter is and how he can see through evil designs of politicians

No matter how undesirable to many, the Modi victory comes from a free and fair election. The people have spoken. Many of us hardly feel happy about it, and in fact it offers real fodder for thought regarding Indian society and how public opinion is moulded, but in the long term it is equally dangerous to have a media which is so powerful but also so self-righteous, opinionated and openly in league with political parties. A truly liberal society requires graciously accepting an electoral verdict one may not like and not by denouncing with messianic fervour and use of unedifying labels.

The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors