Setting the agenda for the Telangana elections

BY PADMAJA SHAW| IN Regional Media | 02/01/2018
The media’s coverage of a dalit protest reveals how it played into the BJP game, promoting its agenda by repeating its claims and slogans,
says PADMAJA SHAW
Students symbolically burning the Manusmriti in Karimnagar

 

The battle-lines are being drawn for 2019 elections in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. And it is not just the ruling parties. Various media platforms and their behaviour will have an impact on the outcome, and the political parties are only too aware of the fact.

McCombs and Shaw came up with the Agenda-Setting theory after studying the behaviour of media consumers in the 1968 presidential elections in the USA. They published it first in 1972. The theory evolved over the years to say that the policy agenda, public agenda and media agenda interact and mutually impact on each other. It also elaborates on the forces that influence media, policy and the public agenda. The theory describes the process as one that can only work over time. It is not a short-term effects theory.

Calling it “influencing the pictures in our heads”, McCombs cites several research studies where the images in the media about people, ideas or objects tend to have a strong correspondence with that of the voters.

When the media pick up an event, repeated coverage over a period of time makes it an issue. Whether corruption, ‘love jihad’, Pakistan, or gau raksha, the events have to be created and kept hot in the media to be primed for election time. This then depends on the media coverage, for love or for money. Many significant issues such as farmers’ suicides, a hike in the prices of petroleum products or essential commodities do not get coverage from the mainstream media and do not become issues of immediate significance.

Come election time, Indian political parties get energised both on the streets and on the media, attempting to capture more of the voters’ mind space for themselves.  Among all the political parties, the BJP and its various tentacle organisations seem to have perfected this art. Whether they unfailingly reap grand political outcomes is still a moot point. But the attempt is on.

 

The campaign for 2019 has started in earnest

The Telangana state elections are in 2019. The BJP and its affiliate organizations have activated their cadre with one of the state leaders already declaring that the BJP will form the next government in Telangana.

The violent statements made by the BJP MLA from Hyderabad on the film Padmavati made it to the national headlines promptly. There are other local BJP leaders helping to manufacture headlines for the party, mostly focused on the caste and communal agenda that appears to be the platform for the 2019 state and national elections.

The most recent such incident that is occupying media attention in Telangana is based on the ‘’HCU/JNU formula’’. The Rohit Vemula suicide in the University of Hyderabad (Hyderabad Central University) had its origins in ABVP/BJP leaders hounding him for his association with dalit causes. But as the protests spread to other universities nationally, the JNU incident with fake videos claiming that the students raised anti-national slogans was orchestrated by the ABVP/BJP leadership, thus painting all progressive student groups as anti-national.

On 25 December 2017, dalit bahujan students of Satavahana University in Karimnagar, Telangana, held an event to burn “Manusmriti”. This programme is done every year on the same date to preserve the spirit of the first such event conducted by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar in 1927.

While the students were symbolically burning the “Manusmriti” (according to a photo of the event shared by Professor Surepally Sujatha on her FaceBook page – it was not even the book but the word written on large chart sheets that were burnt) a local BJP politician and his supporters arrived to disrupt the event. The students resisted. A violent clash ensued. The BJP group promptly began to tell the media that the students were burning the image of Bharat Mata and the Indian flag.

Since the 25 December, the university has been under siege, and was forced to close down. The BJP is also targeting Surepally Sujatha, a well-known Professor of Sociology who is now the Principal of the College of Arts and Commerce of Satavahana University.

Professor Sujatha has been an activist espousing a range of causes such as dalit and minority rights, and the right to the commons, environment and land, apart from being a women’s rights activist. She was also in the forefront of the movement in support of Rohith Vemula.

She has a wide following and is known to be the go-to-person whenever any atrocities against dalits come up in Telangana.  In a recent instance, a video of a BJP leader, Bharat Reddy from Abhangapatnam, brutally assaulting dalits went viral and she was one of the activists who moved the National SC Commission and the NHRC . Before this, she anchored the protests against various atrocities and supported the victims.

 

Spinning ‘’anti-national’’ allegations 

The strategy of the BJP has been to call press meetings and to feed the media the Bharat Mata story repeatedly. They have dalit, Muslim, and Christian spokespersons who come and spin the story as an anti-national event where Bharat Mata’s image and the flag were burnt. No one presents any evidence. The media does not ask for any nor does it counter question.

All their press conferences have been targeting Professor Sujatha, who was neither present at the event, nor in town on that day. There have been loud debates on HMTV, TV9 and other Telugu TV news channels, all providing time to the BJP spokespersons to malign her and the dalit students with the anti-national tag. Now there is an orchestrated campaign to remove Professor Sujatha from her position in the university.

"The strategy of the BJP has been to call press meetings and to feed the media the Bharat Mata story repeatedly"

 

On social media, Facebook in particular, they have unleashed an abusive campaign against her, calling her ‘Surpanakha’ (Ravana’s sister). The followers of that post have held out personal threats (including shooting her) and abuses, interspersed with Bharat Mata ki jai . The person who has abused on this FaceBook post is also threatening Christians. Now there are also a large number of memes with her photographs, one of those equating her with Gauri Lankesh. When Sujatha attempted to file a case, the Karimanagar police refused to do so .In a statement given to local channel Bharat Today, Bandi Sanjay, a BJP person  leading this campaign, can be heard raising communal issues against Christians, saying dalits who have converted to Christianity are continuing to take away the reservation benefits from dalits who have not converted. He also said that Christian missionaries are instigating the dalit youth to indulge in activities against the nation, all without a shred of evidence . We do not know what else is being spread on WhatsApp.

The same playbook is playing out elsewhere too. Create a ruckus, spin it as anti-national through media channels which are happy to run aggressive stories as long as they garner TRPs, and run an abusive campaign on social media maligning specific people who are seen as the voices of any social movement.

The BJP has been pro-actively setting the communal agenda well before an election. Through the controversies created on the ground they get the compliant media to cover the issues and escalate them further through social media channels.

 

Forget the facts...

The media coverage works insidiously. Professor Sujatha said that the media routinely carry everything from the press releases/ press conferences of the BJP while ignoring her rebuttals or clarifications. For instance, on the day of the event she was not in Karimnagar. She came to know of the incident later. But the BJP spokespersons have made her the central figure in their campaign, claiming that she encouraged the students to burn the picture of Bharat Mata when, in fact, no such image was at the protest site. The media coverage has not bothered to emphasise this point.

The public perception spread through the mainstream media about JNU students and faculty through fake videos during the 2016 controversy in New Delhi is being attempted again here through efforts to paint some Satavahana University teachers and students as anti-national. The physical intimidation and threats to JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar have meant that he goes everywhere with a security detail.

"Television channels create a false equivalence between the victims of crime and the perpetrators by giving airtime to the latter to justify themselves"

 

The BJP has been fielding dalits as spokespersons on the media to justify their activities. They loudly proclaim their dalit identity and claim they are the true inheritors of Ambedkarism.  This is much like Muslims in the BJP being called in to firefight the lynchings of Muslims.

 

False equivalence between victims and culprits

Television channels create a false equivalence between the victims of crime and the perpetrators by giving airtime to the latter to justify themselves. This false neutrality is helping the BJP to create new leaders such as Raja Singh or Bandi Sanjay who shot into media visibility by indulging in outrageous activities and repeatedly getting away with it. It has become a sure formula for ensuring their consolidation as leaders. However, in this process, some intellectuals and thought-leaders are becoming collateral damage in BJP’s bid for political power and media’s pursuit of TRPs.

Social media, despite the ugly underbelly of trolls, remains the only channel for reaching large numbers of people and building a counter-narrative to the mainstream media’s propensity – at times deliberate, at times unwitting – to become a platform for communal propaganda.

The fact that the mainstream media are always willing to make manufactured communal conflicts the main agenda through persistent coverage of fringe leaders while ignoring important public interest issues of health, education, and employment that directly reflect on the performance of the political players, both the ruling party and the opposition, does not bode well for the health of our democracy. 

 

Padmaja Shaw was a professor of communciations at Osmania University

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