Ping Pong Express

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WATCHING THE media cover the elections is like watching a ping pong game from hell, as both sides pong every ping, or vice versa as the case might be. We see non-stop name calling, with the debate being framed more by way of rebuttals of the last name called rather than by way of issues. It would be tedious to go over all that name calling again, so let us simply agree that this has been the case and move on to more substantive things.

Like Sanjay Dutt, the newly minted General Secretary of the computer-hating Samajwadi Party, with his jaadu-ki-jhappi invitation to Mayawati. Or Jaya Prada and her heroic campaign in Rampur. Or our new folk hero Varun Gandhi with his newfound love for protecting the majority community. Or perhaps we could spend time discussing whether the Congress Party is a Budhiya or a Gudiya, given that Mr Narendra Modi has been kind enough to give us that choice.

It is true that covering elections in India is extraordinarily difficult. The country is too large, the political formations too amorphous, the electorate too diverse and the issues too numerous for anyone to make sense of easily. This places enormous responsibility on the media to add a significant dimension to our understanding of the elections. Unfortunately, television channels have chosen to frame the elections through personalities rather than through issues. This allows individuals to lead the discourse, diverting attention from things that will determine the outcome to those that make good television. So we have copious coverage of Priyanka Gandhi’s speeches, ignoring the fact that she is campaigning in only two constituencies while we have seen very little of Karnataka because there are no recognisable leaders through whom we can frame the debate. This also means it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell the coverage of one channel from another, given that all of them feature Sudheendra Kulkarni, a man who deserves a long holiday for performing with such stoic calm after appearing on every election show on every channel. Interviews, too seem to be replicas of each other, particularly the ones that involve flying in LK Advani’s plane. And of course, one cannot avoid Jayanthi Natarjan’s whine or Arun Jaitely’s smirk, no matter which channel one escapes to.

It is true that covering elections in India is extraordinarily difficult, but this places responsibility on the media to add to our understanding

Print coverage, on the other hand, has been much more rooted. The Hindustan Times’ initiative of sending reporters all over India, for instance, is yielding a basketful of flavourful stories. It is not that television is not doing anything similar: NDTV has its own Election Express traveling from city to city, but it is a case of too little done with not enough depth.

It is difficult, admittedly, but apart from the usual opinion polls, which we have learned not to rely on, there is little by way of a big picture perspective. The coverage is also skewed in favour of the two major parties; not much has been heard from other parties that are expected to play decisive roles, barring Amar Singh, who is heard from all the time.

This is, without question, an election that has revelled in the insubstantial. Having figured out that success or failure will be determined by alliances rather than by electioneering, all parties are taking their chances in the haggling that will take place once the results are out. This has made the debate in the media little more than a parlour game played by indignant children. And, with the television channels happy to play referee in an inconsequential fight, our only role as viewers might well be to switch to the very thoughtfully timed IPL.

Desai is CEO, Future Brands

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