Democracy as Permanent Advertising – Indian Media and Elections : Irfan Ahmad

Guest post by IRFAN AHMAD

It was nothing short of a scandal. On 12 April, India TV, a Hindi channel, telecast 117-minute interview of the BJP Prime Ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. Conducted by Rajat Sharma, it became, or was made, a mega hit. Tow days later, news director of Indian TV, Qamar Waheed Naqvi, resigned from his position alleging that the interview was ‘fixed’. Though Naqvi’s resignation was silenced in media, the fixed interview represents the dark and mutually constitutive relationships between media and politics.

Based on the analyses of select elections coverage by five television channels – India TV, NDTV, Aaj Tak, ANI, and IBN– I argue that:

  • The way journalists pose questions to their favorite politicians are often already answers;
  • In pursuing a storyline, journalists subordinate, even sacrifice, actual responses or events/facts to bolster their pre-determined narrative; and
  • Electoral polity like India is heading towards a designer democracy marked by permanent campaigning-cum-advertising.

In short, I caution against the use of widespread phrase: ‘media and politics’. It is more fitting to say: ‘media as politics’ or ‘politics as media’.

Share of prime time coverage, Image courtesy The Hindu
Share of prime time coverage, Image courtesy The Hindu

Modi’s ‘Fixed’ Interview: India TV

Known for his show, Aap ki Adalat (your court), Rajat Sharma conducted the interview with Modi with three hundred spectators in studio. In Sharma’s show the interviewee sits in a witness box close to which stands Sharma to level allegations against the interviewee who defends herself. At Sharma’s back on a higher pedestal sits the judge who pronounces his verdict before the show ends. In Modi’s case the judge was Pushpesh Pant, a retired Professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University.

That the show was fixed was evident throughout the program. After Sharma introduced Pant and Modi, the latter entered the studio amidst spectacular applause, many giving him a standing ovation. Before ‘interviewing’ him, Sharma showed an introductory collage of Modi which depicted him addressing rallies, greeting and greeted by people and marching in streets. He was described to have risen from tea seller to the prime ministerial candidate. In one visual Modi muscularly proclaimed: ‘I will not let the lamp be extinguished, I will not let the nation be eliminated’.  These lines were straightaway from BJP’s campaign advertisements.

Sharma stated the allegations by Modi’s rivals that so massive was his publicity that in all media –print, radio, television –he was omnipresent. Modi –relaxed and ever smiling –turned to audience to ask if they and the country supported him willingly. ‘Yes’ was the cheerful, unified reply. Modi asked Sharma to listen to the people.

Sharma didn’t interrupt Modi. Nor did he ask uncomfortable or counter questions.  He gave Modi rosy space to issue what appeared like rehearsed political sermons which Sharma himself looked so beholden to. For instance, Sharma could have asked but he didn’t: who seeks to extinguish whose lamp? Didn’t Modi already extinguish the lamp of hundreds of farmers in his ‘developed’ Gujarat who committed suicide and that of more than 250,000Muslims rendered as refugees and forced to lead a sub-human life in over 100 temporary camps of which 19 camps (with at least 21,000 people therein) existed till as late as 2012 as a result of 2002 anti-Muslims pogrom under his chief ministership? Furthermore, who threatens to eliminate the nation? Is the enemy internal or external? Importantly, is there such a threat? If not, why does he manufacture it?

It is not that Sharma’s more-than-reverential attitude to Modi extends to his every guest. In February 2014, he had interviewed Arvind Kejriwal. In contrast to his approach to Modi, he literally interrogated Kejriwal. Sharma interrupted him again and again. To Kejriwal’s every assertion, Sharma made a counter assertion. His approach to Kejriwal was hostile. Weeks after the show when Kejriwal’s party alleged that many media houses, including India TV, practiced paid news, Sharma ran a special program: ‘India TV Exposes Kejriwal’s Lies’.

Given such a contrast, it is probably appropriate to call the Kejriwal show Aap ki Adawat (your enmity) and the Modi show Aap ki Ibadat (your worship), not Aap ki Adalat (your court)’. So biased was the Modi show that the judge, Pant, already took Modi as Prime Minister. Exonerating him of any role in the 2002 pogrom, Pant, warned him that people will ask Modi if ‘as Prime Minister he kept promises made during the campaigns’. Pant felt no need to qualify it with ‘if elected’. Smita Prakash of ANI channel did the same. She addressed Modi as: ‘You are the first prime minister who…’

Religion and Politics: NDTV and Aaj Tak

The election coverage by media subordinates facts to fit their pre-planned narrative. Consider this. Interviewing BJP’s Amethi candidate, Smriti Irani, NDTV’s Barkha Dutt asked her: ‘Has development taken priority over Hindutva or is the BJP a bit confused’? Irani replied: ‘I don’t think there is confusion… Hindutva is a way of life and when you talk about a better way of life, then, development is central to that entire thing [Hindutva]’. Dutt eliminated the crucial link Irani herself made between development and Hindutva to re-present development, not Hindutva, as the key issue.

Dutt posed the same question to Murli Manohar Joshi, a senior BJP leader who chaired its manifesto committee: ‘Is Hindutva now a footnote from being a core issue? Has development trumped identity politics?’ Joshi denied any shift. Persisting with her own narrative of development, she asked him again: ‘Is there an ideological confusion as ninety percent of manifesto deals with development’ whereas the BJP leader, Amit Shah, makes hate speech against Muslims. Joshi said: ‘Barkha ji, you have every right to be confused. But you have no right to confuse the people and me’.

Aaj Tak, a leading Hindi channel, too spins this development mantra. Aaj Tak’s Anjana Kashyap conducted a program with the students of Banaras Hindu University (BHU) regarding the contest between Modi and Kejriwal in Varanasi. When she asked students what election meant to them, the first response was: ‘I will say only this – har har Modi ghar ghar Modi’ – a religious slogan comparing Modi to Lord Shiva and indicating his presence in every home.  While a few students spoke about development in terms of employment and industrial growth, many – in fact, most – saw development and Hindutva as ditto substitutes. Read this conversation:

Kashyap: ‘What is the meaning of development?’

Student: ‘Since respected Modi, the greatest development man (vikās pūrush)’, is fighting from Varanasi our faith is reaffirmed that it is considered the greatest town of Hindutva’.

Kashyap: ‘…Will he win because of Hindutva’?

Student: ‘Yes, yes! He will win because of Hindutva’.

Kashyap: ‘What is the meaning of Hindustan [India]’?

Student: ‘The meaning of Hindustan is Hindutva’.

The student concluded shouting: ‘Victory to Hindus; victory to nationalism’. Many more students reasserted such views. Yet, Kashyap concluded the program stressing that from amongst development, religion and caste students found development more important. Realizing that students didn’t agree with her, she appealed to them to ‘clap in the name of development’. Only some did.

While imposing her narrative of development (and not religion) being crucial to the BHU students, there was no discussion about the religious title of Kashyap’s own program: ‘Kāshī kā Kurukshetra’, Varanasi’s Kurukshetra. Kurukshetra is where the religious battle, mentioned in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, took place.

Media’s skillful erasure of religion’s presence to reproduce the myth of development is not without contradiction, however. In his interview with Rajat Sharma, Modi rejected the idea of determining the under-representation of Muslims in the army on the ground that the religious counting in the army was divisive as ‘all are Indian’. If so, Sharma didn’t ask Modi why, then, a religious name like the ‘Sikh regiment’ exists?

Compare Modi’s view with the statement of activist-author Madhu Kishwar, a Modi fan. She said that top security officials told her that the Congress party was desperate to push Modi out of electoral race through ‘phony cases’ against him and ‘if they don’t succeed they might even assassinate him’. And the assassin will be ‘some crazy, hotheaded Muslim’. Leaving aside the very issue of Kishwar’s prophesied allegation, why didn’t she say: ‘Some crazy, hotheaded Indian’? Barely did the media find her statement objectionable.

Why is it that Muslimness is highlighted when Muslims are mediatized as aggressor –prophesied assassin in the case of Kishwar – whereas they become abstract ‘people’ or at best nameless minority when they are victim of political hate and violence?

Permanent Campaigning: The Logic of Advertising  

Such relationships between media and politics are not limited to the time of electoral campaigning. In democratic polities like India, the US and elsewhere there exists permanent campaigning. The end of elections is just the beginning of new campaigns for another election which in India happens almost every half a year (if we include municipal, assembly, Panchayat or by elections). In 1997, Tony Blair, the UK Prime Minister, told the newly elected MPs of his party: ‘Today is the day one of the campaign to win a second term’.

The permanent campaign is largely built on the logic of advertising industry as a result of which civic participation is transformed into a commodity brand possessing unique selling point (USP) and the raising of meaningful question and debate into constant broadcasting of the statistical ratings of mediatized politicians. It is important to note that Modi hired APCO, a Washington-based lobbying and public relation company, whose job it was to ensure, inter alia, his ‘image-makeover’. In the BJP manifesto, India itself has been turned into a brand as it promises to ‘revive Brand India with the help of our strengths of 5 T’s: Tradition, Talent, Tourism, Trade and Technology’. Note that brand is written with a capital B. The Congress Party is not far behind. While it accuses the BJP and Narendra Modi of spending crores of money on advertising, seldom does it admit following the same path. In early January this year, some media reported that the Congress was in discussion with public relations agency Genesis Burson-Marsteller and Dentsu, a Japanese advertising company, to ensure, among others, Rahul Gnadhi’s ‘makeover’. The logic of branding and advertising pervades the depiction of the country, parties, and political personalities as much as the media reporting on them. Themselves as brands of some sorts, media consider it normal, even moral, to pose such question as this: is brand Gandhi diminishing or still holding strong or ‘Brand Modi: Is he unstoppable?’

That media asks questions which are already answers are best illustrated by the pre-election conversation between Rajdeep Sardesai of the channel IBN and Raj Thackeray, militant leader of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Sardesai asked him: ‘Is politics mission or commission [business] for you?’ Anyone can guess the answer.

Irfan Ahmad is Associate Professor of Political Anthropology at the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry, Australian Catholic University, Melbourne and author of Islamism and Democracy in India: The Transformation of Jamaat-e-Islami (Princeton University Press, 2009).



7 thoughts on “Democracy as Permanent Advertising – Indian Media and Elections : Irfan Ahmad”

  1. very apt and timely article…i wonder that people have lost their sense of reasoning and blindly put in their faith in rhetoric…its all due to the obnoxious corporate media


  2. A good analysis of the Indian media which, invariably, enters into business contract with those having slush money for doing the needful–the image-making exercise, manufacturing opinion, defaming and rendering devilish the target groups and minorities and whipping up ultra-nationalism to a hysteric frenzy (as Moditva). And ‘paid news’ phenomenon, which, hitherto, absorbs the anxiety and concern of well-meaning Indians, fades into insignificance in the face of sophistication acquired by the high-tech media /PR companies, albeit, available on payment of big fee.
    In entire democratic facade –right from elections to the governance– is manufactured calculatedly—- and it has been continuing since the first election of 1952. Now, its exposure has begun but much more is to be done.
    Alas…. really it was the misfortunes of the minorities……Muslims subjected to recurring so called riots since 1947 and the Sikhs butchered in November, 1984, but there was no such piercing perception appeared in public domain to expose mechanization of the Hindutva poured out through the persona of Indira Gandhi in the name of maintaining Unity and Integrity of India with underlined attempts of building ‘ Nation-State of India’ on the ethos and religio-cultural trappings of the Hindu majority of India.


  3. Unless AAP gets 1/3 of the votes that BJP gets nationally, giving AK 1/3 of the airtime given to Modi is merely Media projecting its wishes onto indian society. And there was a report earlier which said AK actually got more airtime than Namo and Rahul. We will see for sure on May 16 whether AK is a media creation or not.


  4. Though I could not agree more with the said article. I have a minor nitpick. Asking Modi questions or anyways asking questions about names of regiments for any purpose is rather ignorant of the way army has shaped up in India from the times of British Raj and how it functions today.


  5. I am writing this when the elections are over and Mr.Modi is going to be sworn in in a couple of days. It breaks my heart to see the whole country making a mockery of a good clean patriotic man like Kejriwal and lionizing a common politician like Modi whose party is full of thugs and looters and convicted criminals. Some of them will be given cabinet positions and meanwhile they have put Kejriwal in the jail.. what more irony can you think of?? criminalizing of a good man and making a hero of a common politician.. I don’t see any future for this country and while congratulating the people of the country for giving absolute majority to this ordinary politician I say LET THE LOOTING BEGIN!!!


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