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Covering Elections. That’s All.

For the media a day has to mean a lot. It can’t accept nothingness; can’t engage with stillness.

Winston Churchill once remarked that in his younger days a senior British politician told him, “Winston, nothing really happens.” Churchill goes on to observe – “since then nothing has stopped happening.”

For all the flourish of Churchillian anecdotes, a happening is an addiction for the contemporary media, and non-happening is an absolute nightmare.

Today the country counted Assembly Election votes, found its winners and losers – all this covered by the media as a happening, an event. Spare a thought, elections are an event, a democratic carnival, but democracy itself is a non-event, a non-happening. And the issues that are at the core of democratic elections are also rooted in nothingness of non-events – they don’t happen. In a strange way, the Indian media’s approach to issues concerning this democratic exercise is caught in this happening and non-happening divide. It all boils down to that what a day means for news media.

The fundamental problem with contemporary media is somewhat philosophical. For the 24 hour beast, a day always has to mean a lot, or at least, something. It can’t accept the nothingness of a day and it can’t engage with stillness. There is an innate fear in news media – the fear of a non-event. These feared things are what constitute real issues in democratic space. In this may lie the feet of clay of news media, the bankruptcy of its cognitive imagination, and the script for silly season stories. And yes, this beast is getting deadlier – there is a senseless rush to make sense of minutes and seconds.

For our news, a day in the political life is never a day of political education. The coverage of the run up to the polls and the poll process itself exposes these fault lines.

Personalities have a face. Their words, demagogy, antics and idiosyncrasies constitute a media event in itself. So does election time journalistic tourism of the hinterland by fly-by-night journos. But the seminal issues of body politic have a banal presence throughout the five years separating one election from another. So, if an election is an evaluation of the incumbent government, you will be forgiven for thinking that there are no issues to make your choice except the screen presence, utterances and the persona of the leaders of the present government and those of the opposition. Today as the country watches the counting of votes, it is sobering to think how media was out of sync with the issues that constituted democratic space in the five states that went to polls recently.

Sample this: In UP – was the media dissecting the effectiveness of a flagship programme of the current government Mukhya Mantri Mahamaya Artthik Madat Yojna? The latest report of the 61st Round of National Sample Survey shows that the poverty rate in UP has reduced relatively (as compared to other states in the same period). It has been claimed that Ambedkar Yojna, launched in mid 90s, has been instrumental in curbing the poverty rate within the Scheduled Caste communities in Ambedkar Yojna villages. Has the media been keeping watch on the policy implications of this programme and its socio political repercussions? Has the media engaged with sugarcane pricing policy? How effective has been NREGA in curbing migration of rural workers?

The media has focused on the killings of the medical officers in the wake of National Rural Health Mission (NHRM) scam in the state. But has it analysed how effective or ineffective the programme is in providing health care facilities to remote corners of India’s highest populated state? What about urban development policies of the Mayawati government? What about land acquisition policy? The economic viability and administrative sustenance of the proposed four part division of the state did not come for dissection. The impact of such policy initiatives on voting trends was nowhere on any radar.

In Punjab – how far was the bleak state of state finance analysed? How were perceptions of an agrarian crisis in waiting addressed? In Goa, was the Regional Plan 2020 discussed at all in mainstream media? In Uttarakhand, the issues relating to disillusionment of development dreams of a new state, the sorry state of tourism, unemployment and migration from Garhwali region were not seen or heard. So where does that leave Manipur? Did any channel find space for questions of territorial integrity, the Naga question, the brunt of economic blockades and developmental issues that concern the state ?

If the immediate context of recent elections are not enough, have a retrospective look at media coverage of elections; the subtext of non-happening elements which constitute issues would be conspicuous by their absence. For the record, the clichéd ‘India shining’ electoral campaign today seems as much a metaphorical indictment of the cocooned hubris of BJP, as it is of a large section of mainstream media which lapped up the rosy picture.

So the eventful days are 30 – the normal course of electoral coverage. The non-days are 1795 – the uneventful banalities that lie between five years of democratic extravaganza. The contest is uneven, but ironically on your television 30 days has to triumph. 30 vs 1795. Advantage 30.

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