“India is Modi. Modi is India” screamed the headline in India’s most popular pink paper, The Economic Times, the day after the new Prime Minister’s historic electoral victory, the greatest by the Indian Right and the first clear-cut majority mandate for a single party to rule India in thirty years. It was a smart inversion of another wonderfully unsubtle and crude slogan of the 1970s from the opposite side of the Indian political divide. “India is Indira. Indira is India,” the Congress party’s Devakant Baruah had chimed when confronted in 1974 by criticism of the last Great Leader in the Indian political firmament, Indira Gandhi. To invert the spirit behind that old sycophantic slogan now seems apt in more ways than one: in the sheer magnitude of Modi’s victory; in the personalised manner in which it was achieved; and in the larger import of what it portended for the country’s politics.
Much of what Modi means for India has now been analysed in great deal, as people have tried to answer questions such as what this election means for India’s politics, its economics, its governance, indeed, the very idea of India. What has been relatively less debated is what this means for India’s media. For a country with the world’s second largest newspaper market, its third largest TV market and its fastest growing internet market, this is not a trivial question.
Indeed, if the ET’s headline writers had been tasked with looking at the media-politics equation and not just the politics alone, they may well have come up with the headline, “Media is Modi. Modi is Media.” And nobody would have batted an eyelid. For one of the big questions that has underpinned the 2014 poll has been: did an increasingly powerful Indian media do a fair job in this election or did it deliberately stoke the Modi wave?
This is important because the media and the way politicians dealt with it and communicated their message mattered more in this Indian election than ever before. In the 2009 election, politicians were dealing with only about 300 TV channels, 50 of which were 24-hour news networks. Mr Modi, in 2014, had to deal with more than double: over 800 channels, half of which deal with news. Similarly, in a world where traditional newspapers are asphyxiating virtually everywhere, daily circulations continue to rise in India. They have increased by roughly ten percent every year since 2009, mostly in the regional languages, and more than 100 million newspapers now hit Indian streets every morning.
Much has also been made about how this was India’s first social media election, about how there was only one active Indian politician on Twitter in 2009 with just 6,000 followers and how Modi harnessed the power of social media to engage the young, the urban and the middle classes. The rise of what has been termed the “Internet Hindu” is well documented, and Facebook, a platform where Modi dominated conversation for much of 2014, now has over 100 million users in India.
So, how did the mainstream media treat this election and why are so many questions being raised? First, in the past decade, television has come to dominate the news agenda and within news television there is no question that large sections have come to be dominated by what the journalist and one of India’s foremost TV anchors Rajdeep Sardesai calls “supari” (“for-hire” in Mumbai slang) journalism. What passed off as election coverage in many of these channels, especially in the regional languages, would not qualify under any objective measure of ethical journalism. Elevating Modi to God-like status, this was cheerleading hagiography, not reportage.
This was accentuated by the fact that since the last general election, the biggest development in Indian television has been its virtual takeover by three kinds of investors who now have deep stakes in the majority of news TV businesses in most Indian states: politicians, real estate, large corporations, and chit fund and money market companies. As a genre, news attracts less than 10% of viewership in India and only about 16-17% of advertising (FICCI-KPMG 2012), yet, more than half of the over 800 licensed TV channels in the country are news channels, and one-third of these beam 24-hour news. This is a bizarrely high ratio compared to other countries, especially so, when Indian news channels have turned into financial black-holes for their investors. Yet, more keep getting launched and more and more money keeps getting pumped into them, especially in election season.
The recent takeover (after the election results) of Network 18, India’s biggest news conglomerate, which runs CNN-IBN, Reliance, the country’s biggest corporation, has attracted much commentary, but much of this commentary misses the fact that increasing corporate stakes in Indian TV are the norm, not an exception. Further, my research shows that between them the three categories of owners cited earlier make up over roughly half the networks in Hindi; over80% of the news TV business in Andhra, Karnataka and Orissa; and between 60-70% in Punjab, Maharashtra West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and the North-East. Ownership in many cases guides the tone and tenor of coverage. For politicians and real estate companies, news was a way of buying influence, and leading captains of Indian industry have made no secret over the past two years about their support for Mr. Modi’s pro-reform credentials.
Outside the realm of conspiracy theories and the media-ownership debate, in many cases, coverage of the election was driven purely by what worked on the ratings. Somewhere around mid-2013 television managers discovered that every time they showed Narendra Modi, ratings would zoom. Not so with Rahul Gandhi. In an industry which lives and dies by advertising, the tyranny of the rating meters meant that this cynical calculation dominated many TV newsrooms. When India TV’s Rajat Sharma, for example, interviewed Modi on April 12, 2014, on his “Aap ki Adalat” (Your Court) programme, he was accused by some critics of being “excessively deferential.” Yet, that special Modi episode broke all TV news viewership records. According to ratings data provided by TAM, not only did 74 percent of Hindi news television viewers in India tune in, the show doubled the viewership of the entire Hindi news genre itself.
The only person who eclipsed Modi on the ratings ahead of the 2014 elections was Arvind Kejriwal of the the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and he got a lot of play too, although the nature of the discourse changed somewhat after his resignation from Delhi’s chief ministership in early-2014. (For an analysis of TV news coverage of the 2014 general election see CMS Media Lab Analysis). A year later, digital data from Delhi’s state assembly election in February 2015, where AAP completely outsmarted BJP both online and offline, once again demonstrated that at least in India’s social media sweepstakes – which increasingly drive daily mainstream media calculations as well – Kejriwal’s AAPremains Modi’s only political challenger.
Second, despite the intellectual dishonesty of some networks, driven either by ratings or by the propensity of their owners, it would be completely misleading to interpret the Modi wave as some sort of an artificial media creation, contrived and created somehow by the media-corporate complex.
Make no mistake, Modi ran a brilliant campaign, pointed in its messaging and all-encompassing in its reach. He is without doubt the greatest communicator of this generation of politicians, both strategically robust and tactically versatile. The taciturn and on-again-off-again Rahul Gandhi offered virtually no competition, pitted as he was against a leader like Modi: one who virtually began his election campaign as far back as 2012; one who, between September 2013 and May 2014, addressed 437 big rallies, participated in a total 5,827 public interfacing events and travelled over 300,000 kilometres across 25 states. As one analyst put it only half-seriously, the contest itself was a bit like watching Roger Federer versus Leander Paes (for more on this, see Mumbai Press Club discussion on “Did the Media Create the NaMo Wave,” between Rajdeep Sardesai, Kumar Ketkar, Arnab Goswami and Uday Shankar, June 2014).
In fact, in the early stages of the race, some leaders within the Congress are said to have encouraged a Modi versus Rahul Gandhi contest, convinced that they could paint the Gujarat chief minister as the ogre of communalism and fight the battle on old ideological lines. This strategy misfired completely.The Congress ended up fighting on an imaginary battlefield, redolent of memories from the past, unmindful of the fact that the ground beneath it had shifted in a young and aspirational electorate, large parts of which were voting for the first time. If anything, Congress tactics, or lack thereof, helped Modi as much as his own strategic victories.
To be clear: while the media may have ridden and stoked the Modi wave, it certainly did not create it. Evidence from this comes from the fact that that the BJP under Modi wiped out the opposition in some of India’s most backward regions, where media penetration is abysmally low. In Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand – all states with extreme poverty and poor cable TV and internet penetration – the BJP upset all pre-poll estimates. Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, which focuses on Dalits, couldn’t win a single seat (down from 21 in 2009), Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), which hasdone relatively good work in Bihar won only 2 (down from 20 in 2009). In contrast, Modi’s BJP won 13 out of 14 and 10 of 11 seats in the tribal states of Jharkhand and Chattisgarh respectively; 22 of 40 in Bihar and an astounding 71 of 80 in Uttar Pradesh.
If Modi had won only in urban pockets and areas with heavy media penetration, then allegations of media bias and conspiracy theories of the kind loved by its opponents may have been arguable. The evidence though overwhelmingly shows though that this was not just a wave but a tsunami election, cutting across various traditional barriers and upending the normal rules of Indian politics.
Third, Modi understood the nature of modern media and the way it operates better than most. As Sardesai says in the above video, he seemed to have a “Master’s or Ph.D in communications and was a natural theatre artist, made for the television age and 21st century media.” With an unerring understanding of what feeds the media mill, he managed to remain constantly in the media eye, while giving it virtually no real access until the very end of the campaign.
Most of his communication was direct, through his Twitter account (where he is now the third most followed world leader on the planet), on Facebook or through his rallies, live television coverage of which was slickly produced by the BJP and made available to channels. By keeping hacks away for most of the campaign Modi could control his message and speak directly to his audience.
When he did do interviews in the very last lap, he focussed on a chosen few in the language and regional press. This tactic smartly gave him far greater reach than the English language press and again the narrative could be controlled. The way the narrative changed was particularly instructive given the fact that between 2002-2013, Mr Modi was arguably the one Indian politician with the largest amount of negative press due to his stewardship of Gujarat during the communal riots of 2002.
The BJP has always dismissed the criticism as unfair vilification, and Mr Modi’s media strategy was perhaps influenced by the fact that his managers knew that the English-language press, which came to be identified with the “secular” critique of his years in Gujarat, would always be more critical. His interviewers were carefully chosen, all except one (Arnab Goswami of Times Now, who was the only English TV interviewer given access) chose not to ask or persist with older questions and most interviews turned into fawning public relations exercises. One TV editor of a major Hindi network even quit in protest, alleging institutional bias by his network in a long audience-based Modi interview. The fact that the lower courts have accepted the Central Bureau of Investigation’s contention that there was no evidence of personal wrong-doing by Mr Modi in 2002 provided an effective answer to questioners, ultimately ending the issue as a media trope.
In the final analysis, Modi had little competition from the ruling UPA, played his political cards right and got his messaging and communications on target. He successfully presented a binary between himself, as the robust commoner’s challenger out to cleanse the system, and a reluctant and slightly confused, if well-meaning, prince who despite himself symbolised all that was wrong with politics. India bought this broader narrative, as did large sections of the media. Those that didn’t could have been more robust and more questioning. They could, for example, have questioned the simplistic binary juxtaposition between the candidates and they could have interrogated the Gujarat model more closely (both its positives and its negatives).
In Mr Modi’s first few months as Prime Minister, a large part of the establishment media in the capital discovered that it was no longer business-as-usual in the rules of Lutyen’s Delhi as they knew them. It is still too early to draw any definitive conclusions but the early impression was that access seemed more controlled in the new regime, ministers less prone to open their mouths. As serious journalists settle down to understanding the DNA of the new regime they must also confront the many lessons from the 2014 campaign.
One of these lessons is that media does matter, but perhaps not as journalists traditionally understand it, and certainly not as much as they think.