Media and Indian Elections

By

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

India would not be able to describe itself as the world’s largest democracy without the existence of an independent media. The mass media in India often reflects the diversity and plurality of the country, especially when general elections take place. At the same time, since much of the media is privately owned and driven by profit motives, commercial compulsions can and do sometimes distort the free and fair dissemination of information. This is especially true during periods of economic slowdown, when advertising revenues are down.

Close to 60,000 publications of various kinds in various languages are currently registered with the Registrar of Newspapers of India (RNI), which functions under the Indian government’s Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. An estimated 1900 ‘large’ daily newspapers are published in the country – over 40 per cent of them in Hindi, less than 10 per cent in English and the other half in dozens of other languages and dialects.

The Indian press includes a mind-boggling variety of publications, ranging from neighbourhood free-sheets, to school magazines, to mass circulation dailies like the Times of India (TOI), which claims to be the most widely circulated English-language daily in the world. A number of non-English Indian dailies individually sell more copies every day than the TOI.

Till the early 1990s, television viewers in India could only watch programmes broadcast by the state-owned Doordarshan (now part of the Prasar Bharati Corporation). Barely a decade later, they have access to hundreds of television channels from all over the world, most of them privately owned. In 1995, barely 20 million television set owning households in the country had cable and satellite connections. This number has since gone up five-fold to around 100 million households.

The first India-based private television channel to enter the news space, Zee News, began operations somewhat tentatively in 1994. At present, India is the only country in the world with over four dozen 24-hour television channels that broadcast news and current affairs programmes in over a dozen languages, including nearly 20 channels in the most widely spoken language: Hindi.

Although private radio stations have also entered the scene over the past decade, they are at present not allowed to broadcast news and current affairs programmes. So the state-owned All India Radio (also part of the Prasar Bharati Corporation) is currently the sole source of news relayed on radio.

Elections constitute an important feature of democracy. It is, therefore, imperative that the news media disseminate among the electorate accurate and fair reports on the campaigns of the contesting parties and candidates. The freedom of the media in this context depends, to a large measure, on journalists conducting themselves with a sense of responsibility and impartiality. In an effort to help the media adhere to the principle of fair and objective reporting of elections, the Press Council of India has formulated the following guidelines for the print media that are to be observed during elections:

  • It is the duty of the press to provide objective reports about elections and candidates. Newspapers are not expected to indulge in unhealthy election campaigns, exaggerated reports about any candidate/party or incident during the elections. While reporting on the actual campaign, a newspaper may not leave out any important point raised by a candidate or attack his or her opponent.
  • Election campaigns conducted along communal or caste lines are banned under the law relating to elections. The press should eschew reports that tend to promote feelings of enmity or hatred between people on grounds of religion, race, caste, community or language.
  • The press should refrain from publishing false or critical statements with regard to the personal character and conduct of any candidate or in relation to the candidature or withdrawal of candidature of any candidate that could prejudice the prospects of that candidate in the elections. The press should not publish unverified allegations against any candidate/party.
  • The press should not accept any kind of inducement, financial or otherwise, to project a candidate/party. It should not accept hospitality or other facilities offered to them by or on behalf of any candidate/party.
  • The press should not indulge in canvassing for a particular candidate/party. If it does, it must allow the right of reply to other candidates/parties.
  • The press should not accept/publish any advertisement promoting the achievements of a party/government in power at the cost of (the) public exchequer during the period when the Election Commission’s model code of conduct is in force.
  • The press should observe all the directions/orders/instructions of the Election Commission, the chief electoral officer or returning officers that are issued from time to time.

The implicit contract between the mass media and the functioning of democracy underpins journalists’ claims for a substantial degree of autonomy. A healthy democracy requires, among other things, the participation of informed citizens. One of the roles of the media is to enhance the level of public participation by providing information and analyses on a range of political, economic, social and other issues. Although the mass media play an essential role in the formation of public opinion and personal choices, most media organisations are commercial enterprises which seek readers, listeners or viewers, advertisements, a favourable regulatory environment, and other advantages. This creates certain intrinsic conflicts between media’s social obligations and commercial considerations that can and often does result in a compromise on ethical standards.

The concepts of democracy and of the market are both built on the principle of individual choice, but the principles governing the evaluation of choice in the two instances are fundamentally different. There is a danger that those who have accumulated wealth in the market will use it to exert influence over decisions that should be governed by democratic principles. Accordingly, the defining and policing of the boundaries between the market and democracy is a perennial problem in modern liberal societies.

Media institutions face particular dilemmas because they represent a key element of an effective democracy while being, for the most part, commercial entities seeking success in the market by maximising profits. There is an oft-stated concern that the commercial activities and market interests of media institutions might distort the role they play in the formation of public opinion and, consequently, in upholding democracy. Conversely, there is concern that favourable coverage of those in positions of power and authority by the media, motivated by commercial reasons, might influence the decisions made by these people.

A widespread problem is the attempt to influence public debate through the purchase of advertising space and the purchase of (favourable) editorial comment. Although quality newspaper editors try to erect a firewall between journalists and buyers of advertising space, in some sections of newspapers and magazines the wall has many convenient access doors. Those seeking the legal or ethical regulation of the media often face flat denials of the existence of such a problem. They are often asked to prove that media corporations have misused their capacity to influence public opinion by favouring particular candidates, supporting certain policies or following a single line of argument. Such actions are difficult to prove because they are, by nature, not transparent or open.

As already stated, India is the world’s largest democracy: roughly 70 per cent of the country’s population of over one billion is eligible to vote and close to 60 per cent of the electorate actually exercises their franchise. The size of the electorate for the 15th general elections held in April-May 2009 was 714 million.

India is also one of the most heterogeneous and plural nation-states in the world, divided as it is along lines of class, caste, race, region, religion and language. Voters spread across the length and breadth of the vast Indian subcontinent – from the icy heights of the Himalayas in the north and the dense forests of Arunachal Pradesh in the north-east to the deserts of Rajasthan in the west and the emerald isles of Lakshwadeep in the Arabian Sea and the Andamans in the Bay of Bengal – elected 543 representatives to the lower house of Parliament (known as the Lok Sabha or house of the people).

Elections in India are amazing not merely on account of the incredible logistics involved. In the weeks leading to the polls, thousands of candidates conduct colourful, boisterous campaigns: elections are serious business but, in India, they involve fun and games as well. Large sums of money are spent on attracting the attention of potential voters through banners, posters, hoardings and advertisements; through loudspeakers, road-shows and public rallies and, of course, heated debates on television news channels. Just about every trick in the trade is deployed to woo the voter.

During election season the proverbial ‘poor, illiterate masses’ are suddenly made to feel important as they are cajoled, persuaded, bribed or, even, browbeaten to vote for one candidate or the other. High drama, song and dance, tall claims, unrealistic promises, defection, desertion and corrupt practices – all mesh together in a unique and spectacular kaleidoscope of election-related events, the likes of which are not witnessed anywhere in the world on such a massive scale.

While covering the 15th general elections in India, the media reflected the plurality of Indian society to a large extent. Even publications and television channels that generally focus on news and views that interest the upper classes had to perforce attempt to ascertain the mood of the electorate as a whole. Not only does every man and woman above the age of 18 have a vote, irrespective of his or her economic, social or educational status, in India the poor and the underprivileged exercise their franchise in larger numbers than the middle and upper classes. The fact that the 2009 elections were held in the heat, dust and humidity of summer meant that a large proportion of the affluent sections of the population stayed away from polling booths despite widespread attempts by and through the mass media to convince people of the importance of actively participating in the democratic process and to urge them to go out and vote.

While covering elections, the Indian media tend to focus more on personalities than on issues. This creates the incorrect impression that matters such as the state of the economy do not matter much to ordinary voters. Yet, during the 2009 general election in India, there were more than enough indications that job losses related to the shrinking of export markets during the global recession and high food prices were important issues affecting the lives of the majority of Indians. The two largest political parties of the country, the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, competed with each other in promising subsidised rice and wheat to those living below the poverty line in their respective campaigns.

A number of surveys and opinion polls indicated that what mattered most to ordinary individuals were issues like internal security and the performance of the government in providing basic public goods and improving both the social infrastructure (healthcare and education) and the physical infrastructure (drinking water, roads and electricity) of the country. Most citizens were apparently not too concerned about the more emotive issues relating to caste, community or religious identities (including the issue of building a Ram temple in Ayodhya that was again raised by the BJP in the run-up to the 2009 election) or even “national security” (in the context of cross-border terrorism).

However, for newspapers and television channels economic topics were obviously less “sexy” – not just in comparison to the pronouncements of election candidates who were from the film world, had criminal antecedents or were the progeny of prominent politicians, but even in relation to their attire and demeanour. On the whole the media emphasised the trivial and the sensational over the more substantive but “boring” issues, such as the quality of governance, reduction of corruption, implementation of employment guarantee programmes in rural areas and waiver of loans to farmers.

A number of civil society organisations, as well as many journalists, expressed concern about the misuse of print and electronic media by certain political parties and candidates contesting the 2009 elections and about media organisations allowing themselves to be thus ‘abused.’ They pointed out that such practices would breach the trust of readers and viewers who are entitled to expect unbiased and fair news coverage, especially during elections.

Traditional distinctions between news, views and political campaigning (read advertising) were often blurred. There were charges that some media organisations colluded with political parties and candidates in violating the model code of conduct formulated by the Election Commission of India, which includes a cap on campaign expenditure by individual candidates.

Although important sections of the mass media in India covered the elections in a nonpartisan manner, there were sections that compromised their independence in favour of commercial interests. However, on the whole, a substantial section of the media in India was able to live up to the faith ordinary people have in democracy by disseminating information and analyses of a wide variety of events and issues, and news and views of interest and concern to the electorate.