The 2019 election verdict has been covered by the Indian media (with a few notable exceptions) with breathless praises for the ruling party for returning with a ‘tremendous’ and ‘extraordinary’ mandate. Even rational journalists, who until a few weeks back were scathing critics of the ruling dispensation, are now fawning over the NDA’s win.
This preoccupation with electoral victories signifies a worrying trend both for our media establishment and for the manner in which we engage with democracy and politics.
Do We See Elections Like Cricket Matches?
With the advent of televised election coverage, Indian voters have witnessed a ‘sportification’ of politics. Elections are increasingly seen as just another game (much like cricket), where we cheer for the player who plays as if they have nothing to lose, and victory is the only currency for praise. The losers are lambasted for being losers, and the winners applauded for being winners.
Politics has increasingly come to be perceived as a free market where there is no good, save the consolidation of power, and morality takes a backseat.
The focus is on the size of victory margins and comparative strategies to capitalise on vote-banks. In the new democracy, as the craft of voter manipulation and image creation assume centre-stage, the commodification of the voter is normalised.
The fact that the voters may be the worse off at the end of five years has come to be seen as irrelevant. Instead, political pundits debate on who was more effective in misleading the voters into strategically evasive debates, to undermine the exercise of their franchise.
Why Is This ‘Sportification’ Of Politics Unhealthy for Democracy?
Firstly, the narrative of ‘sportification’ displaces other, more thoughtful ways of looking at electoral verdicts. If mere political strategy and a desire for power are applauded without context, the question of how the party won the people’s mandate gets eclipsed. Why did the voter vote as she did? Was she under the influence of a polarised campaign? Did her vote reflect aspirations that can be reasonably fulfilled by the party she voted for? Is the fulfilment of these aspirations for the greater good?
These questions are lost amidst the deification of the political party that managed to thrift its way to a parliamentary majority. This new way of covering elections smoothens the road to a personality-driven politics rather than one where the issues of the voters are in focus. Once these issues are displaced from the political narrative, it is difficult to hold governments responsible for delivery on concrete promises.
Secondly, a preoccupation with results is reflective of a vision of politics that is deracinated of its transformational promise as a quest for justice.
The questions of right and wrong are drowned out in the language of electoral meritocracy. The compelling questions of the acceptability of the means employed, and the legitimacy of the passions aroused, are sidelined.
The electoral verdict is judged the supreme arbiter of right and wrong, and to interrogate the wisdom of the voter’s choice is deemed anti-democratic heresy at worst, or a sorry excuse for one’s own defeat at best.
Difference Between Popularity & Worthiness
This feeds into and is reflected in the recent trolling of journalists and commentators critical of the ruling dispensation. They are variously accused of being elitist and out of touch with the masses, as if political virtue only lies in making accurate predictions and not in critical reflection on popular narratives.
This same narrative is reflected in the slogan of the ruling party: “Aayega Toh Modi Hi”.
All critical appraisals of the successes and failures of the government were subsumed under the narrative of the inevitability of the BJP’s electoral success.
Not only are the questions considered automatically rebutted by the ‘popular vote’ but they are increasingly deemed to be tangential to the mainstream political discourse.
Thirdly, to shower praises upon the victorious in an election is indicative of a juvenile political culture that fails to distinguish between popularity and worthiness. There is nothing inherently praiseworthy about winning elections; it is how a candidate mobilises voters and what she does when in government that is praiseworthy (or not).
To celebrate all victors without reference to the context of the victory condones the damaging and unethical tactics politicians often employ during elections. Voter behaviour is influenced by a complex range of factors, and is vulnerable to media manipulation. Commitment to democratic principles requires recognising the verdict as a legitimate basis for selecting the party that will form the government. It does not mean an automatic faith in the wisdom of the voter’s choices. To celebrate and praise the victors is to reason backwards in presuming the goodness of those the voters have chosen.
Why Journalists Must Stay Critical & Sensible
However overwhelming an electoral verdict may seem to be, journalists must maintain their sobriety and not become unwitting contributors to a narrative which states that electoral victory translates into a wholesale redemption and a certificate of righteousness.
Coverage of an electoral sweep must be tempered by an analysis of the means employed to win votes, and how legitimate those means were.
How we talk about public mandates can either sow the seeds of democratic accountability or strengthen the dangerous narrative of ‘winner takes it all’ in an electoral meritocracy. The Indian media must make a decisive choice in favour of the former.
(Vineet George is currently pursuing an LLB at Campus Law Centre in Delhi University. He is interested in debates on constitutional law, philosophy and politics.This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)