How the television news industry scripted the Indian elections

15 May 2014
Much of the television coverage of Narendra Modi was predictably reverential, and was guided by ulterior motives.
Much of the television coverage of Narendra Modi was predictably reverential, and was guided by ulterior motives.

History will judge the just-concluded elections as republican India’s first intensively televised elections. Never have close to four hundred news networks (they equal the number of entertainment networks, such is the saleability of “news” in our culture) in a bewildering variety of languages and dialects communicated political messages from an equally bewildering array of politicians and political actors across the country. But, equally, never have so many news networks dished out the same fare: Narendra Modi. The Narendra Modi persona, for good or for bad has been largely a television media construction, amplified by saturation-point coverage of the leader, spread out over more than six months—staggering and almost unprecedented, even by global standards. Only Barack Obama’s campaign, which officially began in April 2011, for a second term in 2012, eclipses it.

But what remains opaque is the cost of this media blitz. What was the trade-off between Modi and television networks? Was it the phantom of television rating points? Or was it a matter of ideology? There are no clear answers to these questions. Several factors appeared to have played a part to varying degrees.

At a seminar in Gujarat last year, Rajat Sharma, the owner-editor of India TV, said, “The TRP of our news channel increases by more than 60 percent when Narendra Modi is there on TV.” Modi’s interview with Sharma’s India TV in April this year “garnered the highest number of eyeballs in the Indian news television genre,” according to the channel’s website, which doesn’t provide a clear frame of reference for the claim. The extent of the channel’s focus on Modi should come as no surprise, then, considering similar TRP-chasing was on show by channels during other high-profile media events, such as the Anna Hazare led anti-graft movement in Delhi in 2011, which was covered to saturation point.

But was it TRPs again that propelled Zee boss Subhash Chandra to openly take political sides with the BJP? In an alignment that can only be considered brazen, Chandra actually campaigned for the Haryana Janhit CongressBJP alliance in the state. The PTI quoted Chandra’s press release saying, “Kuldeep Bishnoi’s victory would strengthen the hands of Narendra Modi, who has become the voice of the nation.” The fawning came full, absurd, circle when the network placed the PTI copy, which quoted its release, on its own website.

The Zee editorial team recast their boss’s political slant into some shoddy spin doctoring, though it is possible that it proved effective on some viewers. Terribly made “features” (on Modi’s mother, brother), which aimed to wrench hearts and portray Modi sympathetically as a self-made chai-wallah-turned-chief minister, were dished out on an hourly basis. But easily the most horrifying was the channel’s “exclusive” Modi interview, which was played (with the tagline “the biggest interview of 2014”) every single day on Zee network’s prime-time band, right up to the day Varanasi went to polls. The network’s news anchors transformed into Modi cheerleaders, especially when it came to the BJP’s pet peeve—the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

Sandeep Bhushan was a television journalist for twenty years. He is currently an independent media researcher.