Sunday, April 24, 2011

Media hyperbole and Bengal assembly elections

If we go through the standard news reports, analysis, editorials and opinion pieces been published daily in the national and local mainstream media concerning the ongoing assembly elections of Bengal, there can be little doubt in our minds about whom the voters would prefer to see in the next government. According to the obvious trends and predictions reflecting in the media, the people of Bengal have already “decided” to reject the worn out Left Front and embrace the impressive Trinamool Congress (TMC)-Indian National Congress (INC) opposition alliance. Experienced pollsters have concluded that in all probability, this grand alliance under the sagacious leadership of our famed railways minister Mamata Banerjee is heading for a clean sweep. Passionate supporters of the Left might still go on arguing that a sheer anti-Left bias in the print and television coverage during any election campaign is nothing new in Bengal. The spectrum of debate that gets released on various media forums during the election season has seldom been objective. They are also trying to point out that for a long time independent media organizations in the state have been completely polarized along political lines. But not many people are listening to them. The coming Bengal election results are therefore, as one thin on top editor recently wrote, “the easiest to predict in our electoral history in a very long time.”

The media is daily enlightening us why sympathizers of the Left needs to acknowledge that the situation on ground looks “qualitatively different” this time. We've all been repeatedly reminded how the famous lady has “singlehandedly shaken head-to-foot the patriarchal, ideology-fostered Left Front, led by the CPI(M)” and have pushed the Marxists almost to the brink of catastrophe after successfully capitalizing on the broad opposition to the Left Front government’s land acquisition policy. Isn’t it but true, we are asked, that the lady has elicited a suppressed desire for poriborton (change) that was simmering for years in the minds and hearts of the interned, subjugated and suffocated millions? In a predisposed tone, almost all of the mainstream media is barking daily that the people of Bengal want a phenomenon called Mamata Banerjee as their future leader – not a cold-blooded Stalinist chameleon! We are forewarned that the people do not want to breathe any more under a thirty-five year old, stagnant, wretched, ruthless and authoritarian regime.


One “eminent” Bengali academic, clearly elated by the Left Front and particularly the CPI(M)’s terrible performance in the 2009 parliamentary elections, blissfully wrote some time ago: “A spectre is haunting West Bengal – the spectre of change.” He then snarled further adding wisdom, wit and pathos to his unique view of history: “Moreover, as the end of History has been prognosticated, it seems that the era of ideologies too is over. The new generation does not give a fig for ideology.” (Source) The message our astute academic have tried to articulate here is quite simple. To get rid of the Leftists, first of all, attack its ideology and push ahead the notion that the theories of all Communist parties as no more than “repertoire of slogans”. Leftist ideology, after all, is a dangerous thing! Therefore, if the new generation prefers custard apple to mango – give them custard apple. If they prefer to stand aloof – provide them an isolated haven to enjoy their life since people “dislike being supervised”. If someone runs the risk of believing himself better than others and start criticizing something for his petty private interests – allow him to do so. 

Raising inane vilification against the CPI(M) is the stepping stone towards success today since it has become the easiest way to enter and get embedded with the Trinamool’s inner coterie. It matters little whether one needs to compromise one’s credibility and independence while doing so. Thus, the few illustrious “awake and aware” intellectuals and academics who have rose into prominence during the Singur-Nandigram stir finds absolutely no problem to extend their malleable necks to wear the golden buckle offered by Mamata Banerjee’s Railway Heritage Cultural Committee – plum posts, hefty salaries and attractive perks – as a “reward” for their services to the Trinamool Congress. The desire for “change” is so intense and the “greater cause” so sacred that we were told to keep our eyes shut and not to ask any uncomfortable questions that might jeopardize the “favorable situation”. “The true hypocrite,” remarked French writer Andre Gide “is the one who ceases to perceive his deception, the one who lies with sincerity.”  

The “success story” of the first batch of TMC intellectuals has certainly inspired a hoard of celebrities, intellectuals, film stars, big business agents, former civil servants, CBI and police bosses and even Marxist-Leninists to flock into the TMC bandwagon in great numbers. A manufactured euphoria of a potential TMC victory in the crucial assembly elections has lured these special brand of people further. Pushing the grass-root party men on the sidelines, many of them are now among the TMC chieftain’s “most trusted lieutenants”. All of them have turned into well-wishers of Bengal, howling under the pale summer moon to resuscitate the pitiable populace of a derelict state. Lies, as the saying goes, are more believable than the truth. 

Just like the TMC band of intellectuals, the stakes seems to be too high for a section of the media also. A recent article in The Hoot by Asian News International’s (ANI) Kolkata bureau chief Ajitha Menon gives a shocking account of how a large section of the “independent” media in Bengal has entirely sold itself to the Trinamool chieftain and her party. High paid jobs in TMC sponsored television channels or newspapers, prominent positions in the executive committees of the railways and Municipal Corporations controlled by the party, powerful political posts endowed with several opportunities to make money and even party tickets are some of the many carrots that have been offered to a great number of journalists who, as Menon observes painfully, “seems have no pride left in their profession anymore and have become openly and acceptably corrupt, no longer even hiding behind the excuse of supposedly working for party mouthpieces […] The aspirations of journalists have moved from being an ethical watchdog for democracy, in the interest of the common man, towards power, position and money.” Menon bitterly writes that “several reporters, both senior and junior have become part of the Mamata coterie,” and even feel proud to “act as doorkeepers at Mamata Banerjee’s residence in South Kolkata.” (Source) Never before journalists of the mainstream media was embedded with a single political party so deeply as today. Never before has such blatant partisanship been observed in Bengal as we are observing today.

The situation no doubt looks weird but is certainly not unprecedented. In several aspects Bengal’s political situation today has lots of amazing similarities with the events of 2001. During the 2001 assembly elections a similar pro-Mamata “wave” was hatched with a definite urge to remove the Left Front from power. We were informed that the people of Bengal was “craving” for a change in government, the Left was facing its “toughest challenge,” the depth of resentment against the Left was “at an all time high” and Mamata Banerjee, driven by her inordinate anti-Left stance was on the verge of “creating history” by personifying the resentment. An all-out slanderous anti-Left propaganda were launched by the mainstream media to manufacture public consent against the ruling Left Front. Through obvious one-sided reporting, the media created their own myth of “change”. Perception upon perception was mounted to persuade the people of Bengal to profess this synthetic myth. 

In this post we want to illustrate how the mainstream media tries to influence the course of events during elections and works to fulfill a specific political agenda. We have based our argument on resources extracted from the website of ABP group’s flagship and influential English daily The Telegraph. We chose the Kolkata daily since it is generally considered as a impartial and liberal newspaper which offers a fair and balanced reporting. 


Protesting against the Congress high command’s “secret affairs” with the Left, Mamata Banerjee parted away from the Congress in 1997 and floated the Trinamool Congress. A year later she entered into an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This apparently strange alliance was based on a simple agenda – just like her, the extremely reactionary right-wing BJP is a traditional adversary of the Left. The alliance brought rich dividends for the TMC. Consolidating the anti-Left votes, the party went on winning seven parliamentary seats in 1998. The TMC joined the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 1999 and Mamata Banerjee became the railways minister of the country. A year later, the party added one more seat to its tally by winning the traditional Left stronghold Panskura in East Midnapore.

The 1998 parliament elections gave a clear indication to Mamata Banerjee that it will be extremely difficult for her to conquest Bengal from the Left by peaceful, democratic means. Though the BJP-TMC alliance had successfully weakened the Congress in the state, it has failed to dent the imposing Left which continued to benefit from their absolute support base among the rural poor. Realizing that she must strike right away to take advantage of the favorable climate, a vicious blueprint was prepared to unleash a reign of terror in the rural Left bastions like Keshpur, Garbeta, Sabang, Pingla and Khejuri during the 1998 panchayat elections. In order to establish their hegemony in rural Bengal, local CPI(M) leaders and supporters were physically attacked, village after village were “liberated” by armed TMC cadres, many of them notorious criminals of those area. Brutal murder, looting and arson turned out to be a regular affair. Several CPI(M) supporters were forced to abandon their homes and take shelter in makeshift camps in fear of being killed.

The free run of Trinamool goons were earnestly backed by several erstwhile landlords who bearded a rancor against the Leftists for confiscating nearly 45,000 acres of fertile land from them and redistributing it among the landless poor. As some media reports had suggested, the violence against the CPI(M) was also actively assisted by clandestine People’s War group squads which had surfaced in the violence hit areas. The ultra-Left PWG with their technical proficiency in annihilation came as an excellent handy tool in the TMC sponsored class war in rural Bengal. Trinamool’s terror tactics reached its high point during the May 2000 Panskura bye-election. The election brought into open Mamata Banerjee’s vaunted “Panskura line” – a strategy of ruthless violence, booth capturing and all-out rigging orchestrated by local TMC henchmen like Mohammed Rafiq in favor of the TMC candidate Bikram Sarkar. In 2000, the TMC also grabbed the Kolkata Municipal Corporation.

Just before the 2001 assembly polls, Mamata Banerjee ditched the BJP and join forces with the Congress after the website Tehelka exposed BJP’s internal corruption. An opportunist to the core, her decision to ally with the Congress which she had discarded four years ago was based on simple electoral arithmetic. The combined vote share of the TMC-BJP alliance and the Congress in the 1998-99 general elections was near to 51 per cent against the 47 per cent of the Left. Pollsters of both the camps and a section of the mainstream media had predicted that since the Left Front’s position has grown relatively weaker after twenty-nine years of uninterrupted rule, a one-opposition vote added with even a slight erosion of the Left’s vote share can easily do the desired magic. Besides, Mamata Banerjee’s friends inside and outside the media had advised her that the BJP cannot be her right choice as a coalition partner against the Left considering Bengal’s huge 22 per cent Muslim vote bank. The Congress high command’s eagerness to dethrone the Left was so intense that no one had dared to ask why Mamata Banerjee did not need to announce a complete break with the NDA while clinching a deal with the Congress.


The chief sponsor of the TMC-Congress alliance, clearly, was the Congress president Sonia Gandhi who according to TMC insiders has always maintained a soft corner for their charming leader. The Telegraph mentioned in a report Dejected Cong Still In Pursuit Of ‘Best Bargain’ on April, 2 that the Congress president has briefed Kamal Nath, Congress general secretary in charge of Bengal, to “reach an alliance by any means.” Kamal Nath was duly assisted by Pranab Mukherjee, a loyal and seasoned war horse who had taken the charge of the state Congress from the veteran ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury just a few months before. On April, 3 the newspaper reported that “a potent alliance against the Left took shape today as Mamata Banerjee and the Congress sealed a seat-sharing deal.” The report further pointed out that the Congress and Trinamool would fight the polls under Mamata Banerjee’s leadership and remarked that the agreement has “virtually taken the wind out of the state leadership’s sail. Most leaders who had been vocal against Mamata’s bid to deny nomination to sitting legislators appeared to have accepted the arrangement.”

Realizing the significance of the development, the daily jumped into action. In the April, 4 editorial titled United Stand, the daily praised the efforts of Sonia Gandhi by saying: “One important element in the context was the refusal of Ms Sonia Gandhi, the Congress president, to shut the door on Ms Banerjee. Ms Gandhi kept herself aloof from the petty bickerings of the state Congress and saw in Ms Banerjee a leader who had a popular appeal among the people of West Bengal.” Calling the Congress “her natural habitat,” the editorial certified the Trinamool chieftain as “a leader who has been uncompromising and relentless in her opposition to left rule.” In a manifestly delighted tone, the editorial went on to optimistically predict that the alliance “takes Ms Banerjee a few steps closer to what has all along been her stated political objective: the defeat of the Left Front,” since the development “rules out the possibility of a split in the anti-left votes in West Bengal.”

What The Telegraph editorial meant by “petty bickerings of the state Congress” was the public discontent displayed by a section of the state Congress leaders who were “not too happy with the deal”. The daily reported on April, 7 that “Ghani Khan and Adhir Chowdhury do not intend to concede a single seat in their strongholds,” and did a follow up on the story the next day to report that the “last hurdle to a unified battle against the CPM-led Left Front was removed today with Mamata Banerjee and the Congress”. Though the report gave due importance to the fact that a host of state Congress leaders including Ghani Khan Chowdhury, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi and Somen Mitra “sat in the front row along with Nath and Mamata” while the announcement was made in a joint news conference, there were many indications in the same report that TMC’s seat sharing with the Congress did not pass on calmly.

A special correspondent of the newspaper continued the story on April, 9 with a slightly different twist under the banner headline Resignation, Rumblings Greet Congress Deal. “At least half-a-dozen Congress leaders, including ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury and Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, have revealed their resentment at the manner in which a seat-share deal was struck.” In contradiction to the previous day’s report, the story had also revealed that several of the leaders present during the joint news conference were in fact sitting “glum-faced,” swallowing a bitter pill prescribed by the high command from party compulsion. The story also mentioned that Adhir Chowdhury, the Murshidabad leader who skipped the joint news conference “appeared determined to put up Independent candidates against the Trinamul nominees in at least two Assembly segments.”

The incidental or one sided versions of the daily stories about seat adjustment between the two parties gradually disappeared from the news pages. The newspaper made a banner headline report on April, 16 about the first joint election rally of the Trinamool-Congress alliance to mention how Pranab Mukherjee, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi and Somen Mitra, the three top Congress leaders, all her senior in politics, “proclaimed Mamata as their leader.” To circulate the message of a cordial domesticity between Mamata Banerjee and the Congress leaders who just a few days ago were questioning the efficacy of the alliance, the report gave a graphic depiction from the dais of unity depicting how the veteran leaders rained respect for the Trinamool chieftain. Quoting Pranab Mukherjee, the report in addition asserted that the alliance was born out of historic necessity – from “the demand of the common people,” and its sole aim is to remove the Left Front from power.

The English daily’s political polarization was pretty obvious in its April 20 coverage of a Jyoti Basu meeting in Dhuliyan, Murshidabad. The report acerbically mentioned how government funds were spend to bring stone-chips from nearby Pakur and thrown on the brick-laid path leading to the dais, how PWD rollers were pressed into service to take care of the ailing leader’s back and ensure as much comfort as possible “so that the CPM’s star campaigner could do his bit for the party.”

The Telegraph, which clearly doesn’t feel any affection for the Left made few interesting observations on the TMC-INC alliance in its April, 21 editorial. Fascinated by the “astute political understanding” of the Congress president Sonia Gandhi for reaching out to the Trinamool supremo from a “larger political necessity”, the editorial has discovered a pragmatic politician in Mamata Banerjee for dumping the BJP and choosing the Congress. The editorial had also speculated that “she still will have the vote of many saffron sympathizers, for whom the first priority remains the end of the red raj.” It is significant to note the effort undertaken by the newspaper to remove any doubt or confusion in the minds of its readers about the effectiveness of the Congress-Trinamool Congress alliance when it stressed in the editorial that the alliance “seems the best possible arithmetic against the Left Front.”

Four days later, the newspaper ran an extremely opinionated piece Bengal Turns National Alliance Lab where the staff analysts went on claiming at full volume that Bengal “could alter the future course of politics”. What the editorials were shying to express was vociferously expressed in this politically motivated article where the analysts had consciously inserted their preconceptions to build-up their case. Giving the TMC-INC combine a clear edge over the Left Front, the article claimed that the “Opposition never stood a better chance in Bengal,” since the “anti-incumbency factor is running so high that the Mamata-Congress alliance threatens to aggregate the non-Left vote in its favour.” An April, 28 feature article titled Left High & Dry by Soaring Aspirations pointed out at cracks in the Left Front’s traditional support base – the rural poor. Based on inputs from rural Midnapore, the report went on describing how the rural voters are thinking not to vote for the ruling alliance this time. “This time the ‘M’ party will find it difficult,” one Jadunath Hembrom bitterly tells the feature writer complaining about power deficiency in his village. Though there can be sufficient scope for suspicion on the authenticity of the report, the sheer anti-Left Front bias that lurks below the surface of such reports cannot go unnoticed.

The newspaper also gave “due importance” to the joint rallies addressed by Sonia Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee at the south Bengal districts of Midnapore and Burdwan. A banner story titled Sonia for Sight, Mamata for Sound on May, 4 adoringly gives a detail account about how the Congress president started “speaking Mamata’s language” after getting a taste of the Mamata “wind”. Inserting his own preconception, the reporter of the story noticeably mentioned about a “striking” similarity between the languages and tenor of the two leaders, emphasizing on how the Trinamool chieftain showing her gratitude gave the final-speech honor to Sonia Gandhi. The next day, the daily published another report to point out that after her Bengal tour, “Sonia was confident that Mamata will be the next chief minister,” and reported that Mamata Banerjee “has given a ‘firm commitment’ to Sonia Gandhi that she will not go back to the BJP-led alliance irrespective of the poll outcome.”

The editorial on the same day tries to analyze the importance of the Bengal elections and expounding the impact it might produce “all the way in New Delhi”. “In West Bengal, the Congress hopes to ride on a Mamata Banerjee wave,” the editorial comments. It then went on glorifying the Trinamool chieftain’s “immense popularity,” asserting the readers about how she has “touched a chord in the heart of West Bengal’s disaffected. Disaffection towards the Left Front, like loyalty towards it, cuts across social and economic boundaries. Ms Banerjee personifies this disaffection. […] The articulation of the discontent may well constitute one of the major surprises of this election.”

On May 8, the daily published another opinion piece which found “a pathetic manifestation of the bankruptcy of political dialogue” put into practice by both the contending parties during the poll campaign and mourns that the new trend “signals the demise of the bhadralok brand of politics”. Though the article does not elaborate what this “bhadralok (gentleman) brand of politics” actually means, it didn’t blinked twice to say that the “the first attack on bhadralok politics in West Bengal came from the left”. Mamata Banerjee, according to the article, was just “matching the Marxists in their words and action”. The article furthermore pointed out that, since the left “has become the most recognizable face of bhadralok politics” from the day it came to power, it is nothing wrong for Mamata Banerjee to shun bhadralok politics and “degrades the level of political discourse to cheap entertainment.” She is after all “the face of the anti-establishment movement. Hers is the mission to break the political status quo.” A fantastic analysis indeed!

On May 9, the newspaper published three interesting stories. The first one was based on the several opinion polls conducted by various independent agencies which had predicted a fifty-fifty chance for the opposition combine to come in power. Referring to the opinion poll results, the report tried to keep alive the hope that the Trinamool Congress-Congress combine has a good chance to “sail with the wind into the corridors of Writers’ Buildings” and end the twenty-four years of communist rule in the state. The second report was based on chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s press meet. It starts citing a “seemingly confident” chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and then twists the report to mention that Bhattacharjee has “promised the Left Front would give a responsible Opposition to West Bengal”. According to the report, the chief minister was “forced to admit that the Left was facing its most difficult challenge; the government had failed to live up to the expectations of people…..” The third report that attempted to divulge Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s political future was a stunning display of how The Telegraph can became terribly prejudiced to push a particular viewpoint instead of reporting in an objective manner. “Never before have the prospects of a chief ministerial candidate been doubted so much,” the speculative report claimed after conducting a micro opinion poll at the Jadavpur 8B bus stand among twenty commuters and found that “more than half the respondents were not sure of his prospects”! “Bhattacharjee is better placed to win in Jadavpur than the CPM is to win in Bengal,” was the inevitable conclusion of this fictitious report.

But a marked difference can be seen in another story that had appeared on May, 10. The story tried to sense the minds of Bengal businessmen and find out why they are “throwing their lot behind the leader of a party founded with the vow to make them an extinct species.” Obliquely indicating at CPI(M)’s trade union wing CITU for pushing out industry from Bengal due to their militant trade unionism, the report cited unnamed and faceless “sources” from the business world to praise Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee who has “proved himself to be proactive to industry in a very short time,” and for “talking about the right things” the business world like to hear. The objective behind the story was plain and simple – strongly condemn CITU, condemn the policies and programmes of the CPI(M) but at the same time start heaping praise on Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee as the poster boy of reforms. It took some more time for the corporate media to achieve its biggest success when Bhattacharjee fell pray to this cunning strategy. But that is another story to tell.


On May 11, two days before the results, The Telegraph had a story on Mamata Banerjee to describe how confident she was about her victory. “I have no doubt that we are coming to power. We are the rising sun tomorrow morning,” a confident Mamata Banerjee told the reporter “with her lips spread in a smile and her fingers parting in a ‘V’.” On the counting day, the daily reported how Trinamool Congress activists made elaborate preparations at their chieftain’s south Kolkata residence “in anticipation of her victory in the polls.”

But after all the hype and hyperbole, the high-flying opposition alliance received a lethal blow from the Bengal electorate and ended up landing on their nose. The alliance which was cocksure about forming the next government was successful to win only 86 seats against the 199 seats won by the Left Front. The Front not only swept the countryside but also achieved remarkable success in urban and industrial areas. In many so called “neck to neck” seats marked by the pollsters, Left Front candidates won by comfortable margins. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, whose prospects The Telegraph had doubted, won the Jadavpur seat by more than 29,000 votes. Soon after the results were declared, a disgraced Mamata Banerjee offered to resign owning moral responsibility for her alliance’s defeat and vanished from public view.

The staff analysts of The Telegraph, those who had previously visioned a sure success of the opposition alliance, made a 360 degree somersault to attack Mamata Banerjee for “not been able to translate resentment into votes and votes into seats.” Squarely putting back all the trash created by them on the Trinamool chieftain’s doorsill, the analysts lampooned her by saying, “She was preparing to take credit for a victory she assumed was inevitable.” “She began with several advantages,” another angry analyst wrote, “and then went about dismantling and reducing them to irreversible losses.” An editorial on May 16 accused the TMC  chieftain  for being “her own worst enemy,” and called her a leader “completely unprepared for defeat.” The editorial left no stone unturned to harshly criticize her for choosing “to nurse her own sense of hurt and disappointment precisely at the time when her party workers and supporters needed her to be at their side.” Terming the verdict as “one of the great anti-climaxes in the history of West Bengal politics,” the editorial argued that her “egocentric behaviour may be at the root of the debacle the Trinamool Congress has suffered.”

On May 23, eminent economist, noted author and a former Left Front minister Dr. Ashok Mitra’s scathing article Look Back In Triumph appeared in the pages of The Telegraph. Lambasting the media’s vindictive political role Dr. Mitra, wrote:

A few months ahead of the election date, important segments of the media launched a furious campaign of dissembling. The people of West Bengal, it was ipso facto evident, want a different regime to rule them and they, the media, are ambassadors extraordinary, directly despatched by the Almighty to bring about this change. The media set to work. They posted hilarious imaginary tales about how the minds of the voters were working in district after district and constituency after constituency. Once such an exercise is on, it is contaminating: A’s gossip becomes B’s staple, B’s gossip becomes C’s staple, and so on down the line, with illusion feeding upon illusion. […]

None of the media bothered to find out whether voters in West Bengal, in town and country, could have a mind of their own and might have benefited in some measure or other on account of the activities of the Left Front regime in the course of the past two and a half decades. They regarded the electorate in West Bengal as dummies who would vote as the media would direct them to.


Mainstream media constantly tries to thrust particular political viewpoints, omits actual facts, misinforms, systematically makes or breaks a candidate’s popularity or a party’s success and failure through obvious one-sided reporting. Sometimes they succeed; sometimes they fail but pretend that they didn’t. Keeping in mind the 2001 events, we humbly offer a suggestion to the pompous TMC leaders and their obsessive supporters – do not get carried away by the media hyperbole. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  


Postscript: While tracing the mainstream English and regional language media’s blatant projection of Mamata Banerjee as the next chief minister, R Uma Maheshwari wrote in a most recent article in The Hoot that “Mamata seems more like a media candidate than that of a party”. Titled “A media bubble called Mamata?” the article points out how The Telegraph, for instance, seems to have “appointed itself the election manager of Mamata Banerjee / Trinamool.” Rather than focusing on crucial socio-political issues, the motivated media has concentrated, as Maheshwari has observed, on a a single-point “hate campaign not just against the Left Front, but Communist ideology itself.” “Today the poll battle is not merely, as I see it, about Mamata and the Left, per se, but a fight between different forms of economic and ideological developments. It is a concerted effort made by a section of media, supported by a certain class, against Communism,” Maheshwari comments bitterly. (Source)

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