Democracy in India – 9: Who Speaks for India?

Every five years there is an election in India and we interpret the results to conclude what we think the majority of Indians want. But what happens between two elections? How do we know where the majority of Indians stand on the various issues that crop up between elections?

Let us take an issue like the relationship of India with any of its neighboring countries that might become salient because of some random incident. What determines the policy response of the Indian government to such an incident?

If we are not Indian and are outside India, all we have to go by is the English language media. How representative is this of the voice of the majority of Indians who are rural?

We know that newspapers in India sell well below the cost of production and are heavily subsidized by revenues from corporate advertisements. It is natural to assume that newspapers would tend to project the perspectives of corporate India. And would it be reasonable to suggest that the views of corporate India are unlikely to be representative of the views of the majority of rural Indians?

Would it be also fair to assume that the urban upper and middle class individuals who comprise the majority of professionals putting together the content of the English language media are not able to reflect the aspirations of the rural majority? This is very much a South Asian phenomenon where the gap between urban and rural worldviews can be very wide. In fact, there may be less distance between urban South Asian and urban North American views on many issues of contemporary relevance.

Indians and those living inside India have the advantage of access to the local language media. One would assume that this would reflect local opinion somewhat more accurately than what one might term the ‘metropolitan’ media. But corporations also control many local language newspapers, at least those operated by major chains. One can assume that Indians in India are more in tune with the views of the majority of Indians but one is not sure of the degree of this closeness.

From the perspective of representative governance, what is of interest is to understand how the views, opinions and preferences of the majority of Indians get reflected in the decisions that are made by the government of India on their behalf.

Is there a process by which such preferences are filtered up that those outside India do not understand? Or is the voice that is reflected in such decisions the one that is presented in the English language media? And, if so, is that an issue that needs some debate and discussion?

One example that comes to mind is the ‘Shining India’ campaign of the BJP in the 2004 elections. It seems that this was very much a reflection of the aspirations of the ‘metropolitan’ elite and must have been both applauded and promoted by the English language media. Were there any projections of the aspirations of rural or urban poor voices? And, if so, why did they not carry more weight in the electoral agendas of the various parties?

Of course, policies related to trade, industry, foreign relations, etc., can present even greater difficulties in being truly representative of all the citizens of India.

Could it be the case that the urban metropolitan elites have a paternalistic attitude towards the rural majority feeling that they know best what needs to be done (or not done) on behalf of the majority? If so, what does it imply for the working of representative governance?

We are fortunate to have received interesting feedback on the previous post in this series covering the election results. Tasveer Ghar has compiled a pictorial essay that goes beyond both the English and local language media and presents posters put up by local community groups. This provides a different window on one aspect of electoral politics.

 

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6 Responses to “Democracy in India – 9: Who Speaks for India?”

  1. Anil Kala Says:

    “We know that newspapers in India sell well below the cost of production and are heavily subsidized by revenues from corporate advertisements. It is natural to assume that newspapers would tend to project the perspectives of corporate India.”

    I can’t see how one can make this assumption. By extension you would suggest that electronic media, which is almost entirely funded by corporate India, is similarly airing corporate India’s point of view. The truth is contrary. In fact electronic media often attacks corporate India rather gleefully because in their perception viewers like it.

    “Could it be the case that the urban metropolitan elites have a paternalistic attitude towards the rural majority feeling that they know best what needs to be done (or not done) on behalf of the majority?”

    This probably is correct. I have often read articles of big city folks descending on villages, small towns and writing about abstract issues with a sense of Gulliver.

  2. Vinod Says:

    Very educative. Keep writing.

  3. almostinfamous Says:

    The truth is contrary. In fact electronic media often attacks corporate India rather gleefully because in their perception viewers like it.

    i have not seen a single instance of this phenomenon, except of course when a corporate fails to maintain the veneer a la Satyam inc. in fact i have seen hosts of the so-called ‘respectable’ channels like NDTV and CNN-iBN grovel in front of corporate honchos and show righteous anger against politicians…

    btw, a number of regional channels are in fact television propaganda arms for a particular party – this is most apparent in Tamil Nadu, where the dominant networks in the regional language(tamil) are all bitterly opposed to each other but the case is quite similar in Andhra Pradesh and I am sure it is reflected elsewhere.

  4. Aakar Patel Says:

    The media is not always representative and that’s not always a bad thing.

    “Let us take an issue like the relationship of India with any of its neighboring countries that might become salient because of some random incident. What determines the policy response of the Indian government to such an incident?”

    After the attack on Parliament, the Indian government mobilised for war. In this it was supported by the media, which was voicing the opinion of its audience. Corporate India lobbied the government to back down.
    Capital fears the emotional nationalism that Desis are roused to easily. Therefore corporate interest may not always be a bad thing.

    “Could it be the case that the urban metropolitan elites have a paternalistic attitude towards the rural majority feeling that they know best what needs to be done (or not done) on behalf of the majority?”

    Let’s assume that they do. The question is: how does this paternalism manifest itself? The argument is that the urban citizen imposes his ideas on the peasant.
    The argument could actually be the opposite: that media and citizens are utterly unconcerned with what the agriculture and rural development policies are, and that the representatives of the peasantry legislate what their constituents want (free power, no income tax on farm produce, pricing of commodities).

    English newspapers are edited by journalists who sit to the left of their audience on social issues. The readership is actually quite conservative and comes into a sort liberalism through the newspaper.
    Non-English newspapers reflect much better the drawing-room wisdom of their readership on issues like Pakistan, homosexuals and politics. These papers become dangerous when the state is pressured by them, during periods of religious violence or war.

  5. SouthAsian Says:

    Aakar, I am still looking for an answer to the question that I started with. Suppose I am an American student in New York writing a thesis on what India’s rural majority thinks (and how that thinking varies across states) about whether India should have a hard or soft policy towards Pakistan. Is there a source I can consult short of doing primary field work in India?

    Would the English language media be of any help? If I follow a debate on the topic in parliament could I reasonably conclude that rural MPs represent the views of their constituents?

    An unrepresentative media might be good in some cases and not so good in others. It can certainly project a false picture of general sentiment on any issue leaving outsiders with incorrect perceptions.

  6. Aakar Patel Says:

    The language (non-English) dailies are very representative of the majority that they reach.
    This will not be a majority of people in the state given literacy levels, but even so it will be an accurate indicator.
    The view is collective on very few issues in India because of caste and regional identity, but these views will also come through if one state’s papers are read carefully.
    In Kerala for instance, between Malayalam Manorama (Syrian Christian) and Mathrubhoomi (Hindu) we could glean what was happening in the state and where the communities stood.

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