Ideas

Credibility Plunge: How Did English Media Miss The Modi Waves Of Both 2014 and ‘17?

Supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gather ahead of the forthcoming Uttar Pradesh assembly election in Allahabad. (SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • The recent UP elections only showed the sheer distance between reality and Indian English media’s projection of it 

Most Indians who support right-of-centre political parties look at the recent election results with happiness, but also feel a sense of déjà vu setting in. 2014 elections will bring back the memory of the shocked expressions of English television news anchors, who tried to mask their defeat with a show of objectivity and wherever possible, sarcastic comments against the winning Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Not surprisingly, this dutifully played out again on 11 March 2017.

As the results from Uttar Pradesh rolled in, the whole debate of Bharat versus India – the disconnect between the “masses of the hinterland” and the English-speaking urban elite came through in English mainstream media. Again, we saw the same old phrases of the “Hindi heartland” having given its verdict, some references to how city-dwellers could not predict the poll outcome, and the like.

In India, it’s almost a given that if you’re an educated, English speaking person, you just have to be a supporter of one of the Left parties or the Congress. It is almost unthinkable to the mainstream English media that an educated Indian could have a view that is right of centre.

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Because Uttar Pradesh is the largest sub-national entity in the world in terms of population, at over 218 million this article’s observations are restricted to just this state, its media consumption and how the English language media largely failed to see the facts that stared them in the face.

Looking back at the pre-poll coverage in the English news channels and mainstream print media, it is clear that such a thumping victory by the BJP in the electorally crucial state of Uttar Pradesh was completely unexpected. All the talk till then predicted a hung Assembly or certain return of either the Samajwadi Party alliance or the Bahujan Samaj Party.

It was indeed shocking for the English channel news anchors. But instead of introspection, the shock drew them further into their comfortable cocoons – that of the English-speaking elite who looks at the rural Indian with bemusement and scorn. Who visits the rural areas of Uttar Pradesh to cover the campaign, sure, but almost like they are foreigners, not Indians. Bar one English TV news channel, which at least projected BJP seats over the 270 mark, none had predicted an outright BJP victory.

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As the results unfolded, English TV news anchors struggled to maintain the external pretence of journalistic objectivity and print media veterans were busy scrambling for reasons for the victory they had not seen coming.

Ignoring Media Consumption Trends

Interestingly, according to Broadcast India Research Council, (Barc India), as of January 2017, while television-owning homes in India have increased from 153.5 million to 183 million, rural India has 17 per cent more television-owning households than urban India. The urban-rural split of the percentage of television penetration has changed from 49:51 to 46:54.

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Underlining the irrelevance of English news media is that while general entertainment like serials and films are the biggest eyeball-catchers, news channels too have seen growth over 2015-16. While English news channels’ viewership grew at 54 per cent, that of Hindi news channels grew at 81 per cent!

This, again, needs to be seen in the light of mobile phone penetration in rural areas. Over two out of three rural households own a mobile phone (SECC 2011). And not surprisingly, Uttar Pradesh tops the list of states with highest rural penetration of mobile phones.

Hence, what the English media missed out, was a heady cocktail of high levels of media consumption of television news and the internet through mobile phones. Video clips that did rounds of mobile phone channels like Whatsapp and Youtube showcased the situation of the people of UP and connected directly with voters during campaigning.

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The English media brigade barely understood the concerns of the people of Uttar Pradesh. From law and order problems, agricultural distress to unemployment and cattle smuggling - none of these were captured sufficiently. What they also failed to identify was the growing aspiration levels of even the poorest person in the state. Much of this was reported by most leading Hindi news channels whose reporters are closer to their communities.

The English media failed to connect the dots – by not assessing the impact of critical welfare schemes like the Central government’s Ujjwala Yojana, for example. Launched in May 2016, it provides liquefied petroleum gas connections to poor women at no cost. Business newspaper Livemint reported that 5.31 million women in UP alone benefitted from this as on end-February and pointed to a potentially positive impact on the UP polls. But hardly any mainstream English newspapers noticed this.

Angrezi Media Doesn’t Matter

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An artificial India versus Bharat narrative exists in news reportage and commentary which was clearly seen in the coverage of UP polls and its outcome.

But the people of Uttar Pradesh showed the media wallahs that they go by the truth that they live, that the Prime Minister which the angrezi media likes to run down is a leader they look up to. And also, that what the angrezi media says does not matter.

To all the la-di-dah English media folk – “India, that is Bharat”, as enshrined in the Preamble of the Constitution of India, lives in the people of India – be they from the hinterland or the cities. India and Bharat have never been separate except for the left-leaning English media.

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If there is a little less arrogance among them, at least now, they would see that especially from 2014 and onwards, India that is Bharat is speaking as one. And will be heard.

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