SHARANYA KANVILKAR writes from Bombay: Hindsight, as the moronic aphorism goes, is always 20/20.
And we have been seeing plenty of hindsight dressed as foresight over the last fortnight following the announcement of the results of the general elections, which bucked the “anti-incumbency” cliche and put the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance back in power.
# Indian Express editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta has said the politics of aspiration trumped the politics of grievance. CNN-IBN editor-in-chief Rajdeep Sardesai writes that it is a vote for decency in public life. Outlook editor-in-chief Vinod Mehta sees it as a vote against hate and abuse.
# Journalists aligned to the BJP like Swapan Dasgupta have said the BJP failed to keep pace with the realities of a new India. The BJP spokesman Sudheendra Kulkarni has said stability won over change. Atanu Dey says the Congress managed the media better.
# Many analysts have seen in the surprise Congress win, a vote for youth. Political psychologist Ashis Nandy detects a vote against arrogance. The economist Bibek Debroy among others has attributed the Congress win to its social welfare programmes. Pratap Bhanu Mehta has said the era of votebank politics is over.
And so on and on.
And on and on.
The grim truth is that all this is post-facto rationalisation by media sages, policy wonks and psephologists, ever so wise, as so many of us usually are, after the event.
Like the blind men who felt the elephant, they touch different parts of the gargantuan electoral animal now that it has come to rest, and they feel different things.
The reality is nobody in our media—television, newspapers, magazines—and nobody at the top, bottom or middle, knew what was going on. And what we were being peddled for days and weeks was drivel as wisdom.
And how does this happen election after election?
In 2004, the media had “called the election” in favour of the BJP-led alliance and was acting as if “We, the People” should only go to the polling booths and fulfil their prophecy.
Well, “We, the People” decided to spring a surprise and put the Congress-led alliance in office.
In 2009, most media vehicles somewhat got the winning alliance right, but chastened perhaps by the 2004 experience, weren’t willing to stick their neck out beyond giving a wafer-thin margin for the UPA over the NDA.
In reality, the huge gap of over 100 seats between the victor and the vanquished; the surprise showing of the Congress in States like Uttar Pradesh where it had been written off; the number of first-time MPs belowed the age of 40 (58); the number of women elected (59), etc, shows that there is something truly, incredibly, unbelievably wrong in our mass media’s connect with the masses.
Of course, the term “media” is a loose, general one because there is no one, single media oeprating uniformly, homogenously in every part of the land. There are various shades to it, in various languages, in various forms, in various States and regions, etc. And then some more.
Still, how could almost all of them get so much so palpably wrong?
Did the tide turn in the favour of the Congress inside the secrecy of the voting booths preventing our esteemed men and women in the media from knowing what was happening?
Or was it building up slowly but we were too busy or distracted to notice?
If it was the latter, why?
Is there a disconnect between mass media and the masses? Is the undercurrent of democracy too difficult to be spotted? Or are our media houses and personnel not equipped with the equipment and wherewithal to detect these trends?
Given the poor presence and even poorer coverage of the mainstream media in the rural countryside, it is understandable that we were unable to get the rural countryside wrong.
Why, even the one English paper with a “rural affairs editor” was backing the wrong horse which, it turns out, wasn’t even in the race at all, all the while.
Little wonder, the electoral magic being ascribed to the National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) scheme and the farm loan waiver—moves which were dismissed as wasteful expenditure by the neoliberals in the “free market” media—went largely unnoticed.
But what about the urban pockets?
The powerhouses of our media pride themselves on being fiercely urban and urbane; serving the aspirations of the middle-class and the wannabes. Yet, the fact that so few of them could detect the ground shifting from underneath the urban, middle-class BJP’s feet shines an unkindly light.
The Congress and its allies (DMK, Trinamool, NCP) won all the metros—Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, Madras—except Bangalore and Ahmedabad. Why, for example, was it difficult to detect the anger of the urban middle-classes against the BJP’s abuse of prime minister Manmohan Singh before counting day?
Or their thirst for fresh, young faces before they were elected and sworn in?
Certainly, the function of the media is not to serve as a soothsayer. It is not expected to tell us what will happen in the future. Nevertheless, it is expected to have a finger on the pulse. Two successive electoral failures suggest that we are consistently holding the wrong vein and coming to the wrong prognosis.
Indeed, on current record, we seem to be living in an echo chamber, hearing our own voices, and relaying it to the world as gospel truth. Or selling our space and airtime without batting an eyelid.
As a piece on the Satyam scandal on this site asked:
Is journalism that doesn’t shed light journalism?
Also read: How come media not spot Satyam fraud?