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Many waves and a media Tsunami

modi hologram Many waves and a media tsunami

There was a wave. More than one. A wave of revulsion against the Congress-led UPA government at the Centre. A wave of anger too, against the highest sustained price rise over a five-year period in decades. A wave of despair over swiftly eroding livelihoods. A wave the Modi-led BJP was  best placed to surf on, and did, pulling off a very big win.

However, in almost every case, that anti-Congress-UPA wave benefitted  the main organised opposition force in a given state. Across the Hindi belt and most of Western India,  that force was the BJP.  In Odisha, it was the BJD. In West Bengal, the TMC. The AIADMK gained in Tamil Nadu. The TDP and TRS in Andhra Pradesh. So if there was any wave of a national character, it was the anti-Congress one. But more on ‘waves’ lower down.

The 2014 elections were about many important things. Just a few of them here:

The collapse of the Congress Party 

The Congress was doomed by gross corruption and worse policies, the one flowing from the other. A policy framework that the new regime will not change much and will intensify with greater ruthlessness in some sectors. Neither the neo-liberal framework nor the endless corporate kar seva will change. Mindless deregulation saw the outbreak of the Radia, 2G, KG, Coalgate, scores of other scams -  and paralysed the UPA. ‘Clearances’  for industry slowed down, with the Courts stepping in. That slowing down of the resource grab saw an enraged corporate sector dump its icons Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram and  trade them in for Modi. Watch out now for faster ‘clearances.’

P. Chidambaram was bitter about it. After all, he had done so much for them.  “The most fickle constituency in this country is business,” he told CNN-IBN’s Pallavi Ghosh on April 13, half way through the voting. Chidambaram also read the anti-Congress wave early on. He did not contest.  And his son Kaarti who ran from PC’s old Sivaganga seat in Tamil Nadu, came fourth.

The Congress-UPA set themselves up, charging ahead the policies demanded and driven by big business. Yet, when sinking in the swamp  of those measures   -  they were flayed by an ever more assertive corporate sector and its captive media for not going fast enough.

This election will also mark the consolidation of the Indian corporate state.

Internally, too, the Congress worked hard at burying itself in both Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. These two states alone had gifted the party more Lok Sabha seats in 2009 than it has from all over the country today. On both states it imposed chief ministers who gave non-entity a bad name. It wrecked itself in other states as well.

The highest-ever spending on elections in India

A tidal wave of spending dwarfed even the money-awash 2009 polls.  Since a lot of that was totted up as party expenditure  -  on which there is no legal limit, big spenders got away with it. No one has a serious  estimate of what the TV ads, newspaper ads, rallies, helicopters, scripted for television events must have totalled. (And that’s apart from vote-buying). But we know the BJP topped the list.

As the Association for Democratic Reforms points out: In 2014, “82 per cent of all the winners are crorepatis.” Also, the ADR reckons : “The chances of winning for a crorepati candidate” were at least ten times greater those of candidates with less than a crore of rupees in assets. Fittingly,  we’ve got a parliament with 442 crorepatis. That is, fully 82 per cent of members in the new Lok Sabha are people with assets of ten million rupees or more. Massively up from 58 per cent in 2009.

In 2014 the average asset worth of each winner, ADR says, was Rs.14.61 crores. That’s 173 per cent higher than the 2009 winner average of Rs. 5.35 crores. But average citizens have simply been priced out of the game. Can they ever afford to contest?

Two decades of neo-liberalism have produced independent India’s worst-ever levels of inequality. We have 56 dollar billionaires on the Forbes List. And close to 300 million human beings ‘officially’ living on 50 cents a day or less.  In elections, such inequality simply shuts out all but the very rich. Predictably, the corporate world wielded power to a greater extent than ever before in an Indian election.

The biggest ever corporate-media drive in favour of a single party and individual

Seldom have so few,  carried so much puffery, to so many, to benefit so few. Everyone will pay the price for the media’s embrace of  a campaign that fought a US-presidential style election in a parliamentary democracy. Not least, the BJP which has subordinated itself to an individual.

That building of a cult around Narendra Modi was a propaganda triumph. But it worked because we are India’s most media-saturated electorate ever. Vast audiences left untouched by Advani’s rath yatra over 20 years ago, were drowned in the media wave of 2014.

And the most corporatized media ever, at that. That process was still young when Advani mounted his AC chariot. In 2014, some major corporate houses with big media holdings formed ‘cells’ to help advance  the Modi campaign.

A study by the CMS Media Lab, part of the Centre for Media Studies, New Delhi, found that Modi hogged over a third of the prime time news telecast on five major channels. And that was between March 1 and April 30. From May 1 to 11, says Prabhakar of  the Media Lab, “Modi’s time crossed the 50 per cent mark.” Over six times what Rahul Gandhi got. And ten times the share of Kejriwal.

Also, quite a bit of the coverage of Kejriwal was negative. Not so with Modi.

Never before have the media participated in an Indian election to the extent and in the manner they did this time. For weeks, any speech by Modi in any distant district  -  ran live on several channels.

This is by no means the first corporate media coronation. Only its scale is unprecedented. The Manmohan Singh that media have taunted for two years  was once dearly beloved. And that despite his being India’s first-ever (and hopefully last) unelected Prime Minister. This was the ‘Economist Prime Minister.’   Not a politician, they said. Oh, what a virtue.   In 2009, they credited him with the UPA’s return to power. Unshackled from the Left, he would enrich the corporate kitty  much faster. As late as August 2011, a large group of electronic media chiefs and editors held a lengthy meeting with him  – without asking him a single hard question.

Long before his corporate champions  decided he was past his use-by date, the public were looking for a leader who would speak to them. Not just to CII, FICCI, ASSOCHEM or Morgan Stanley. In 2014 Modi, who stood out as a politcal person and public speaker, gained greatly from that.

However, the Modi-Media embrace deserves a separate look at another time.

The math of electoral massacre

The Modi wave celebrated in the mainstream media is about the spectacular seat tally of the BJP in the Hindi belt and Western India.  In Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, MP, Gujarat there were almost straight fights between the Congress and the BJP. In the giant states of UP and Bihar, the BJP was aided by multiple fronts and a first-past-the-post system at its most whacky.

And the wave came down to a puddle in the southern states.

In Kerala, the BJP  drew a blank. In Tamil Nadu, its five-party alliance got just two seats. In Telangana it got a single seat for itself in alliance with the TDP. The TRS that opposed the BJP and Modi was the big winner. In Seemandhra, it won a couple of seats, tying up with the TDP. Was there a Modi ‘wave’ that helped the TDP? The latter won the elections to the local bodies in Seemandhra held almost a month before the Lok Sabha polls. There was no BJP-TDP alliance then, and they contested against each other.

Even in Karnataka, the BJP won only after B.S. Yeddyurappa returned to its fold. It had been routed in the assembly polls (despite Modi campaigning)  when he broke away to form a regional outfit.

In Odisha, Naveen Patnaik’s BJD increased its tally over 2009. And the Congress still got a higher percentage than the BJP did.

Modi’s contribution to his party’s win lay in his ability to crystallise the anti-Congress anger in its favour. He did that brilliantly but could do so mainly where the party was already strong. He was also able to strike a chord in new (and younger) strata of the middle classes (and even the less well-off) as in Maharashtra. His impact in those states where other strong anti-Congress forces existed was limited.

The first-past-the-post system of elections outdid itself this time. With multiple parties, fronts and candidates battling it out in hundreds of seats, and with strong regional concentrations for some forces, it went berserk.

Nationally, the BJP got 31 per cent of the vote and 282 seats. The Congress got 19.3 per cent of the vote and 44 seats. As Siddharth Varadarajan writes,  that’s a 12 per cent difference in votes, but an over 500 per cent difference in seats.

In UP, the BSP got nearly 20 per cent of the votes and zero seats. The Congress in that state got less than 8 per cent of the vote but won two seats. The Samajwadi Party  got 2.6 per cent more than the BSP and got five seats. The BJP got just over 42 per cent of the vote -  and close to 90 per cent of the seats.

In Seemandhra, the difference between the TDP-BJP front and the YSRCP in the Lok Sabha polls was barely 2 per cent.  The combine however got twice the number of seats the YSRCP did.

In Tamil Nadu, the DMK got 23.6 per cent of the vote  -  and bagged zero seats. The BJP-led five-party alliance got 18.6 per cent but bagged two seats.  There were five-cornered fights in many places. That is, the AIADMK, the DMK, the BJP-led alliance, the Congress and the Left. Ultimately, the AIADMK took all but two of the 39 seats with 44 per cent of the vote.

In West Bengal, the Left Front got nearly 30 percent of the vote and just two seats. The Congress got less than 10 per cent but took four. The Trinamool Congress got 40 per cent of the vote, but 80 per cent of the seats, winning 34 of the 42 in the state.

Do these kinds of waves hold much water? Some 60 per cent of Indians who voted did not favour the BJP and its allies.

Is it time to consider bringing in some degree of proportional representation? Perhaps, for a start,  by placing a third of Lok Sabha seats under PR while the rest remain in the first-past-the-post system. We’d  be able to compare the outcomes.

And now it’s future tense

Narendra Modi’s appeal went down well, too, with sections of a younger generation that reached adulthood years after the massive communal riots and bloodshed that shook the country between 1980 and 2002. Sections that have also grown up in a neo-liberal environment and know no other.  That believe, together with several older ones too, that he will deliver on the millions of jobs needed.

The media have been cloying in their praise of Modi’s ‘focus on development.’ How good to see a departure from that archaic communal rhetoric. Well, let’s skip the Gujarat ‘model’ for now, that’s another story. Modi did not stir the communal or caste cauldrons. He outsourced that job to the likes of Amit Shah, Giriraj Singh, Baba Ramdev  and others. While he plugged development, they promised doomsday.  That campaign brewed a deep sense of fear and insecurity that won’t easily go away.

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