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Media, Civil Society, Elections

When Edmund Burke, Henry Fielding, Thomas Carlyle and William Hazlitt used the term ‘the Fourth Estate’ to denote the newspapers, they were acknowledging the emergence of the media as a power centre outside the Establishment in 18th century Britain. Since then newer media forms have come up and together they have emerged as a powerful element -- for good or bad. Civil Society is composed of myriad voluntary civic and social organizations which remain outside the power structure but interact with all the four estates on a continuing basis and often influence them, on the strength not of numbers but of the justness of the causes they espouse. What role do media and civil society play in our democratic process, especially in the elections? When we seek an answer to this question in the context of the need for electoral reform, it is necessary to take a close look at the way our democracy works. Barring the Emergency period, when the life of the Lok Sabha was extended by a year, parliamentary elections have been held regularly without fail. Elections to the Assembly have been put off from time to time in several states using the expediency of President’s rule. After the Supreme Court laid down parameters for use of this constitutional provision, the Centre has been unable to invoke it recklessly as before. In the early decades of Independence, many states habitually delayed local self-government elections taking advantage of the absence of any compelling constitutional provision. After the Constitution was amended to make local elections mandatory, they have been held at stipulated intervals in most states. Thus elections are now a regular feature of Indian democracy at all levels. However, the democratic process remains deficient inasmuch as the citizen’s role in it does not extend beyond exercising the right to vote when called upon to do so. In the long interval between one election and the next, he remains a passive spectator at the mercy of the political system. To use a term familiar to us from the working of the market economy, he is a mere ‘consumer’ of governance. The law as it now stands provides for holding of meetings of the gram sabha (village assembly), which all citizens residing in a specified area are entitled to attend, at regular intervals. This is the only forum to which a citizen has free and direct access. To begin with, people turned up at the gram sabha meetings enthusiastically, ready to use the opportunity they provide to question those responsible for management of day-to-day affairs. Soon they realized that the powerful elements, social or political, which dominate life in the area are able to limit their role. Consequently they lost interest in the institution of gram sabha. Today in many parts of the country, the gram sabha does not function in the intended manner. Officials are compelled to hold its meetings with a captive audience – in Kerala, women belonging to the Kudumbasree self-help network are the chosen victims -- or to fabricate records to show that the sabha has met.

It is against this background that we must examine the performance of the media and the civil society, two institutions which have the ability to augment the content of the democratic process, at election time as well as during the interval between elections. In the early years of Independence, the large metropolitan newspapers in English came under the control of business houses. In the first General Election, the Congress helped the owners and editors of some newspapers to enter Parliament and the State Assemblies. There was only one metropolitan newspaper owner among them: Ramnath Goenka of the Indian Express, who was elected to the Lok Sabha from Madras state. Two decades later, he re-entered the house, from Madhya Pradesh as a Jana Sangh candidate. Even when the Indian newspapers, which had been following the British pattern, started adopting the ways of the US press, they steered clear of the American practice of endorsing a party or candidate at election time. However, when J. B. Kripalani took on V.K. Krishna Menon in the North Bombay constituency in 1962, the big business press did not hide the fact that its sympathies lay with the former. Frank Moraes, who was the Editor of The Indian Express at the time, joined the “Defeat Krishna Menon Committee” formed by right-wing elements. As literacy spread and reading habit grew, provincial newspapers in English and several Indian languages emerged as major players in their respective regions. The owners of many of these newspapers cultivated political links. Some entered politics directly and sought public offices, but most of them were content with the influence they wielded by virtue of their proximity to the political establishment. Apart from owners, some editors and working journalists also sought elective posts or other political favours. Thus a cosy relationship developed between politicians and media persons. Rajiv Gandhi made M.J. Akbar, a rising media star of the time, a member of the Lok Sabha but he did not remain in the political arena for long. More recently the Shiv Sena sent Pritish Nandy to the Rajya Sabha. What is common to them? It appears, by and large, the relationship between the media and the political parties has been of the wheel-and-deal kind. Recent revelations about “paid news” indicate that it has now metamorphosed into a commercial one. Apart from attempts to trade favours, there have also been attempts to browbeat each other. There have been instances in which newspapers which invited the hostility of the political establishment were penalized. Media offices and media persons have come under attack from Kashmir to Kerala. Several parties and politicians have their own media organizations. To begin with, the party newspapers did not aspire to anything more than the status of a political organ. Lately, however, there have been efforts to establish and sustain newspapers and television channels on a commercial basis. Some politicians have acquired control of long established newspapers or started new ones in recent years.

Do media organizations influence the voting pattern? This question needs to be looked at carefully. The pronounced anti-communist bias of the Malayalam newspapers, which hold sway in Kerala, did not prove an insurmountable obstacle to the Communist Party of India in its successful bid for power in the state in 1957. While there has been no marked change in the attitude of the large newspapers -- the state CPI-M alleges they are part of a media syndicate which is conspiring to destroy it -- the Left Democratic Front which it heads has been coming to power in alternate elections. The experience of other states is no different. Both the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna DMK rose to power without any support from the large newspapers of Tamil Nadu. The BJP probably got some push from sections of the press in the north but Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati rose to the top in Uttar Pradesh and Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar overcoming the indifference or even scorn of the media. Andhra Pradesh has a different story to tell. The Telugu newspaper Eenadu was primarily responsible for N. T. Rama Rao’s sensational electoral triumph there within a year of the formation of the Telugu Desam party. Its owner-editor, Ramoji Rao, with the help of his correspondents in the state, had identified candidates with a winning chance for the fledgling party. His tactics worked because circumstances were favourable. He could not repeat the performance later. Over the past two decades, television has emerged as a more powerful medium than the press across the country but there is no evidence so far to conclude that it is able to influence the outcome of elections. Lately the major political parties have been enlisting the services of public relations and advertising agencies at election time to mount media campaigns. The impact of these campaigns remains questionable. The BJP sought a renewal of mandate in 2004 with a pithy slogan “Shining India”, coined by an ad agency. In 2009, it tried an even bolder slogan “Strong leader, decisive government”. Neither slogan worked. James Mutti, a Fulbright scholar who was in India last year to study the media’s role in the democratic process, observed that it was not playing a significant public service role. He wrote, “The media may do a good job of providing news to the estimated 300 million members of the Indian middle class – in fact, coverage of political issues tends to be quite good – but as long as over 700 million Indians are sidelined from the media's gaze by their inability to conspicuously consume, the media’s role as public service is severely limited.” Mutti said the country needed a new media model which balanced its profit motive with coverage of issues relevant to the poorer, voting classes, and which could serve as a model for the entire developing world. Electoral reform has figured in the media sporadically and the major newspapers have extended editorial support to the concept in general terms from time to time. The media enthusiastically endorsed the Law Commission’s reform proposals of 1999. When

Tehelka exposed political corruption, the Times of India pointed out that “any solution aimed at cleansing the system must address the issue of electoral reforms”. The media also supported the limited efforts made by the Election Commission to improve the working of the system. However, no media institution has made serious and sustained efforts to mobilize public opinion in favour of electoral reform. Civil society, which lacks the reach and resources of the media, has been striving to fill the breach. Tarun Tejpal, Editor of Tehelka, draws an interesting contrast between media and civil society. “The media,” he says, “has become a purely commercial construct. Civil society, in contrast, is not. There is no money to be made out of the activities that civil society is involved in. I think this has become the fundamental difference between the media and civil society organizations.” Several national and international civil society organizations have been campaigning for or extending support to electoral reform. Notable among them are the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), Lok Satta and People’s Union for Civil Liberties, whose public interest litigation resulted in the Supreme Court order of 2003 requiring disclosure of the criminal, financial and educational background of all contesting candidates. The National Election Watch has been gathering information filed by candidates about their assets and criminal antecedents and giving wide publicity to it. Such activity has not inhibited the parties from offering tickets to criminals. Nor has it prevented criminals from getting elected. Quite obviously the campaign needs to be continued with great vigour. There is reason to suspect that some of the affidavits filed by the candidates are not truthful. NGOs working at state and local levels must come forward to verify their statement and initiate legal action against those who have made false declarations. Transparency International, Amnesty International and the Asian Human Rights Commission are among the international NGOs which have called for reform of the Indian electoral system with a view to eliminating malpractices and cleansing the democratic process. At the root of the malaise is the emergence of money power and muscle power as major elements in the electoral exercise. Various ideas to tackle the problem have been before the country but the political establishment has been unwilling to initiate purposeful measures to check the twin menace. The media is a beneficiary of democracy in more than one sense. The democratic set-up allows it to function freely. It also helps them commercially: newspaper circulations grow and channel ratings rise at election time. In the circumstances it has a duty to play a pro-active role in the efforts to ensure the wellbeing of the democratic system. -----------------------------------------------------------------------Paper presented at the National Seminar on Electoral Reforms organized jointly by C. Achutha Menon Study Centre and Library and Indira Gandhi National Open University at Thiruvananthapuram on July 10, 2010