Why media describes participation in Assembly elections as a slap on separatists, and why less participation in parliamentary polls is attributed to broken promises of politicians? Isn’t media manufacturing consent in Kashmir, asks Naseer A Ganai
Large number of people participated in the Assembly elections of October- November 2008. In the first phase of elections, despite the Mumbai carnage, when large queues were seen outside the polling booths in Bandipora and Sumbal Sonawari, irrespective of the boycott call given by the pro-freedom groups, the media described it as defiance of separatists. It was one of the big events of the year. It was reported widely and debated for over a month. The target of the debate was pro-freedom groups that had given the poll boycott call. In one of the program Barkha Dutt of NDTV news channel asked a separatist leader that ‘time has come for you to read the writing on the wall.’ Some New Delhi based news channels described the voting as “vote for India.” Pranoy Roy of the NDTV in a TV discussion on Kashmir voting sought reaction from the Pakistani senator Mushahid Hussain from Islamabad. Pranoy argued that now that Kashmiris have come out to vote it is a clear message to all what Kashmiris are for. Secular India!
Mushahid retorted back, “If you are so confident about it, let us have plebiscite in Kashmir tomorrow.” The comment annoyed Roy and he responded by saying, “you are harping about the same thing.” Mushahid just laughed.
Other news channels adopted the same line - that participation of people in elections is the writing on the wall for the pro-freedom groups. However the correspondents based in Kashmir for various news channels described the voting in Kashmir as the vote for development and local issues. But the line was not accepted by the New Delhi based media, and they continued to propagate the theory that people defied the separatists. Fine. Everyone has the right to have his viewpoint even if the ground realities contradict it.
In the Parliamentary elections, situation was not different. The South Kashmir Islamabad constituency was first to go for polls. In the Assembly election there was large participation of people from the South. Like in Assembly elections the incorrigible pro-freedom groups and the High Court Bar Association (HCBA) had given the boycott call. But they were not given any level playing field. They were not. If in a democracy one has right to campaign and ask people to vote and elect him, another has equal right to ask people not to participate. But Kashmir is always different. Those who call for voting enjoy the full protection of the State and those who call for non-participation are put under house arrest or kept in jails. It happened in Governor’s rule, and it is happening now as well.
Now back to the polls.
Surprisingly, there was less participation of people in the poll process. The Tral constituency remained in news in the Assembly election due to 48.78 percent poling. This time the Election Commission says there was two percent polling in Tral. In other constituencies the long queues were not seen anywhere, except in Noorabad.
In Pampore this time it was three percent poling in contrast to 43.42 percent in the Assembly elections. But the media, whether local or New Delhi based, didn’t describe less voting this time as a result of the boycott call. Instead, it argued why people didn’t come out to vote and cited various reasons except the boycott call. This newspaper was no exception. The Greater Kashmir carried a front page three column story by Javid Malik (GK, May 1, 2009) with the headline, “Not Boycott Call, Broken Promises Keep Voters Away.” The Himalayan Mail (May 1, 2009) had lead news story, “Poll Fatigue Keeps Voters Away.” The Times of India carried story about the elections in Kashmir on page I, on May 1, 2009 with headline “Voters Lacked Zeal in Anantnag.” The Daily Excelsior carried the lead on May 1, 2009, ‘Voters Lukewarm Response to Elections.” The Delhi based media adopted the same line and said the response was lukewarm towards the elections.
Now here are some questions. If the participation of the people in the Assembly elections was vote for India, why is the non-participation this time being attributed to ‘broken promises’ as reported by Greater Kashmir, ‘poll fatigue’ as reported by the Himalayan Mail, and ‘Lack of Zeal’ as the Times of India wants us to believe? Why? Why it is not the other way round. There is no doubt that there was large participation in the Assembly elections and the response to the huge participation was projected in the manner, first by the media and later by the State, as “peoples’ final verdict about the Kashmir dispute.” The State and the political parties were not quick to react to the participation of people in the elections and didn’t come up with inferences within hours after the polling started in the Assembly elections in the State.
But the media was ecstatic, particularly Delhi based news channels. They were first to describe the elections as “vote for India.” And then the State reacted welcoming the participation of the people in the poll process and the Congress Chief Sonia Gandhi too welcomed it, while inaugurating the first international flight from Sheikh-ul-Alam Airport (the Srinagar Airport was to be renamed as Sheik-ul Alam Airport.) But it was not said that neighbors (Pakistan) should learn lesson from participation of people in the elections. In fact the Congress in its manifesto describes the participation of people in the Assembly elections in the State of Jammu and Kashmir as one of its major achievements. But the State and the politicians should be given credit for not going overboard soon after the 66 percent participation of the people in rural belts during the Assembly elections. The Srinagar city, towns including Islamabad, Varmul, Sopur saw far less participation in the Assembly election.
If the objectivity and the fairness is criterion of the reporting events then it seems we media persons are selectively objective and selectively fair in reporting. If the poll participation was news during the Assembly elections and the media was quick to describe it as the failure of the boycott call of the pro-freedom groups, why the non-participation this time failed to make any news, and if it made, why it was it attributed to the luke warm response and the broken promises. Why? Are there different standards of objectivity?
If during the Assembly elections media presumed that it was the vote against the pro-freedom groups and in favour of the secular democratic India, why this time media stopped short of presuming anything. Instead, it started looking for hardcore facts that were responsible for the low percentage of the voting. Why these facts were not sought during the Assembly elections? The participation or non-participation in the Parliamentary elections should make bigger news and should be debated because in parliamentary elections the vote means the vote for Indian parliament, and that means vote for India. And general perception is that the Assembly is all about the local issues and development. Moreover, the Assembly elections were debated for over a month on New Delhi based TV channels despite the Mumbai carnage and war like situation between India and Pakistan. Why the parliamentary elections were not debated. Is media manufacturing consent by giving two different reasons for the same process? The answer is a big yes.
(The article was originally published in the media watch website, Thehoot.org. Author is a senior correspondent with Greater Kashmir)