On March 5, during the election debate on TV, BJP's Ravi Shankar Prasad asked NDTV's Barkha Dutt to introspect on the amount of TV time that all media, her channel included, had given to Rahul Gandhi, compared to the pittance other parties got.
On the afternoon of March 6, by which time it was amply clear that Samajwadi Party was coming to power, SP's Shahid Siddiqui admonished CNN-IBN's Rajdeep Sardesai, telling him that it is strange that even when it is evident the Congress is down in the dumps, the channel was devoting 70 per cent of the discussion to that party.
The two comments in a nutshell tell the story of the media coverage of the Uttar Pradesh elections. Living south of the Vindhyas and only following the election campaign on TV, one would have thought Rahul Gandhi was running away with the election. The media kept their cameras focused on the `family that campaigns together, stays together' theme, airing several of Rahul and Priyanka's speeches live. Damaadji's foray into his Sasural got its fair bit of attention too till Robert's naked political ambitions forced the Congress High command's hand to get him out of Amethi.
In contrast, Mayawati, UP's reigning queen got next-to-nothing national media coverage. Journalist friends in Lucknow said that's because she does not allow any access and treats the media with utter disdain. That translated into a virtual blacking out of the BSP's presence in the electoral arena, barring a covered elephant here and a covered Mayawati there. Compare this with Tamilnadu where an equally imperious Jayalalithaa keeps the media at bay, choosing when to talk and when not to talk, mostly the latter. But that has never meant that the AIADMK's place in Tamilnadu's electoral arena does not get due space.
Looking back, if it was not for Akhilesh Yadav, who was accessible and `connected' to the contingent of young Delhi media crowd, the SP too would have been a footnote in UP's election battle. One has to concede Mulayam Singh Yadav does not make for great television, his soundbites barely clear. The other Yadavs in SP are only extensions of the family tree and none of them interest the national media. No sooner was Akhilesh's ability to articulate was discovered, it became a Rahul vs Akhilesh battle, a clash of personalities, with Mayawati pushed to the sidelines.
The fact that the media chose to virtually reduce the election to this uni-dimensional duel, was its biggest failure in UP Election 2012. Because as the results show, nothing could be farther from the truth.
And lest we forget, there was yet another party in the fray - the BJP - that had ruled UP in the 90s, through one of its most turbulent phases, the Babri Masjid demolition. Its performance finally was just marginally better than the Congress but in terms of the media narrative, it was as if the BJP had been dismissed as a no-hope party at the start line itself, and the presence of its regular spokespersons in its Delhi studios, the only consolation.
This kind of media coverage for one of the most important elections in recent times, to my mind, is dangerous. The national media, sitting in Delhi, decides the pecking order. From a lay viewer's point of view, it was as if the media was running for Rahul Gandhi, who was clearly carrying a handicap (read Congress organisational weakness). An obliging media lent a helping hand by mounting a high-decibel television campaign, that made it seem as if a Rahul wave would blow everyone away. As it became clear on Tuesday, the aandhi was felt only in television newsrooms.
UP Election 2012 is also symptomatic of the way national media has redefined itself in the last couple of years. Today news that you see is no longer what's happening in a Tamilnadu, a Karnataka, an Orissa or Gujarat. It is the Delhi view of a Bangalore or a Chennai and more importantly, the Delhi identification of personalities from any of these states, that gets them into the rundown. A development surrounding a Kanimozhi will be covered because Delhi `knows' her. Stalin or Vijaykanth will not get that privilege. The articulate face from Orissa Jay Panda would be covered, but Kerala CM Oommen Chandy perhaps wouldn't.
The other issue is the over dominance by the Delhi voices on anything and everything under the sun. Tune into any news channel between 8 and 11 pm, any day, and you will find the usual gallery of suspects on air, offering the same fare. It is like a sometimes cosy, sometimes noisy living room conversation broadcast live every evening.
Issues are no longer relevant, unless they have a Delhi dateline. What you find today is news where a Hyderabad, a Bhopal and a Patna merely reacts to what is happening in Delhi. Dr Pramod Kumar, one of the panellists on CNN-IBN made a very pertinent point in the context of national parties not encouraging regional satraps. He said,``while regional leaders are nationalising themselves, national parties are not going regional.''
The same is true for national media. By reducing the nation to Delhi-Noida-Gurgaon, national media has become just another regional media. And as long as it continues to believe that `India is Delhi, Delhi is India', it will keep shooting itself in the foot.