City City Bang Bang, Columns

Obscured by media?

If one were to predict the outcome of the elections on the basis of reports in mainstream media, there would appear to be no contest. A few months ago, the picture seemed to be blurred, but the narrative seems to have changed in the last few weeks. Post-Pulwama, the triumphal din that populates our television screens has morphed into a continuous celebration of Prime Minister Modi as an individual and as a leader. A succession of interviews, swooning coverage of him filing his papers in Varanasi, and growing talk of a wave that is building or at the very least an undercurrent that is sweeping the country in his favour is rife.

Is this kind of media representation a true reflection of the reality on the ground or is it a contrived and exaggerated picture intent on constructing a narrative? Does today’s media discourse implicitly favour a strong charismatic individual over the fragmented arithmetic of Indian politics? It is possible to argue both ways. As things stand, there could well be a strong undercurrent of support for Mr Modi which might return him to power with much greater ease than is currently anticipated. Equally, this noise on the surface might be serving to obscure the reality of quieter disenchantment that might reveal itself only on the 23rd of May.

It was never easy to predict elections in India, but it was easier to acknowledge the same. Ten years ago, the division was clear. Television spoke to the loud few, newspapers to scattered literate audiences, while the rest of India was largely media-dark hinterland. Debates in TV studios were a form of indulgence; political parties played the game knowing that these had little impact on the elections. The media tried hard to construct national narratives sitting in the studios but these were hit-and-miss affairs, aimed more at helping pass the time while the real action unfolded. After the results, certainty arrived with great force, and analysts made retrospective sense of the results with bewildering swiftness.

2014 changed that view of the power of national media. BJP’s campaign revolved around Narendra Modi, and used a highly media-driven strategy. The individual-centric, symbol-laden larger-than-life campaigning style was highly suited to the kind of television that had come into its own by then. The conversion of a regional leader into a national figure was made possible in no small measure due to the kind of rapturous coverage that Mr Modi received from mainstream media as well as his ability to frame his message in emotionally resonant terms. This was also the first election in which social media played a key role- not directly in terms of eliciting votes, but certainly in terms of galvanising the party’s support base.

In the last five years, the media landscape has changed dramatically with the entry of a large number of new players. At one level, social media has become more influential and powerful, but at another, it has stopped being any real reflection of the mood on the ground. Twitter, the primary battleground has become a manufactured space, and while the BJP still enjoys the upper hand in terms of its presence, the platform itself suffers from a lack of credibility.

What has really changed and what complicates things immeasurably is the proliferation of what can loosely be called unorganised media. The BJP has most of the major channels on its side, but there are many new kinds of voices that are highly influential and popular. Comedian Kunal Kamra, vloggers Dhruv Rathee and Akash Banerjee, and an act like Aisi Taisi Democracy which combines music with comedy to demonstrate this new-found ability to provide a counterpoint to the mainstream media narrative in a highly engaging manner. Several digital news platforms are also playing a key role in providing an alternative view. New ways of presenting news too are becoming part of the larger media discourse. Even on the digital platform, the numbers these independent voices chalk up is very significant. If influential anchors in English news channels can attract viewership of a few lakhs over a week on TV, so does Rathee. The rise of these new platforms is not limited to one side of the political divide. Many noteworthy titles play a similar role for the Right.

What these have done is to reduce the ability of any medium, no matter how powerful, to construct a coherent singular narrative. The mobile phone is a potent site that assimilates these influences at the level of the individual and we simply do not have the means to fathom what kind of influence is at play at this granular level. Meaning making has shifted from a central vantage point patrolled by experts to the individual, who knits together many fragmented inputs to form a view. The power shift has taken both in terms of who wields the microphone as well as in terms who and what the voter chooses to engage with.

Between a motivated mainstream media that has diminishing interest in representing reality as it is, and more on delivering to its agenda, social media that is the playground of enlisted warriors on both sides and a surge in influential but scattered ground-up content with a new political grammar, we are left with an election that simply cannot be made coherent sense of. Mainstream media might well be showing us the true picture, it might be making its own manufactured reality come true or it might have missed the mood on the ground significantly. We don’t know, and more importantly, in this media landscape, we cannot know. We are all experts, and none of us is.

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