The 2014 general election is in full swing. Some readers have been writing to me specifically wanting to know about this newspaper’s approach to the election. They want to know whether the paper would endorse any candidate or a party. What principles govern its coverage of the biggest democratic exercise in the world? Does its approach vary from edition to edition?
The Anglo-American media and the Indian print media share some common traits. But they also differ in significant ways on certain key features. Election coverage is one of the points of departure. Newspapers there have been endorsing a candidate or a political party over a century. For instance, on October 11, 1860, the New York Times threw its weight behind a “Mr. Lincoln, of Illinois, familiarly known as ‘Old Abe,’ age 51, height six feet seven, by profession Rail-Splitter.” It is another matter that Mr. Lincoln not only won the election but also emerged as one of the first global leaders in a democratising world. Did the endorsement contribute to his victory?
In 2012, two scholars, Kyle A. Drop from Stanford University and Christopher Warshaw from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, came out with a study, “The messenger matters: media endorsement and election outcomes.” That empirically rich study of the U.S. elections established that “endorsements can help or hurt candidates depending on the ideological congruence between media outlets, voters, and candidates.” Their argument: “We find little evidence that newspapers increase the average level of support for candidates. But our findings suggest that endorsements have heterogeneous impacts across groups. Most importantly, we find that the level of ideological congruence between citizens and newspapers affects the impact of the endorsement.”
According to Datablog of The Guardian, in the United Kingdom the endorsement by newspapers for the 2010 general election was split three ways. The Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Times, Daily Mail and The Sun supported the Conservatives. The Independent called for tactical voting to keep the Tories out of key seats with the hope for a Liberal Democrat and Labour coalition. The Guardian and The Observer came out in support of the Liberal Democrats. And the Daily Mirror extended its editorial support to the Labour party.
In the 2012 Audit of Democracy, Stuart Wilks-Heeg, Andrew Blick and Stephen Crone looked at the representativeness of newspaper opinion related to the British public and concluded that newspapers were becoming ever more fluid in their political outlook. According to them, the 2010 general election saw the Conservatives gain a number of newspaper endorsements, and failed to win outright. They contend that there is a consensus that newspaper endorsements matter less today than they once did, but they do remain a significant force in shaping the political outlook of their readers.Indian context
In India, no mainstream newspaper openly endorses political parties. Some papers reveal their preference by the choice of their columnists and the focus of the areas covered. By not endorsing any party or candidate, The Hindu has been able to give itself space and elbow room to look at multiple issues critically and evaluate the stated positions of various parties based on their own feedback. India is truly a multi-party democracy. Here the representational character of many parties flows from both emancipatory elements and narrow identity-based bigotry.
As Amartya Sen points out, the British expressed anxiety over Indians’ ability to govern themselves but India’s democracy holds the country together. He wrote a decade ago: “India was indeed in some disarray in 1947, the year it became independent. It had an untried government, an undigested partition, and unclear political alignments, combined with widespread communal violence and social disorder. It was hard to have faith in the future of a united and democratic India. And yet, half a century later, we find a democracy that has, taking the rough with the smooth, worked remarkably well. Political differences have been largely tackled within the constitutional guidelines, and governments have risen and fallen according to electoral and parliamentary rules. An ungainly, unlikely, inelegant combination of differences, India nonetheless survives and functions remarkably well as a political unit with a democratic system.”
An endorsement in the Indian context can become a reductionist approach. The needs of a vast and populous country like India can be fulfilled only by a multi-pronged approach. Every development can be read legitimately in many ways. The emergence of new political parties in every election is seen by some as the fracturing of the body polity but by others as a multi-nodal representational model where every aspiration seems to get a party to articulate and advance a political goal. Indian election is a polyphonic manifestation of more than a billion people.
The Hindu tries to capture these multiple aspirations and expectations across the country, bring out the salient features of what each party or candidate represents and what their core competencies are. It also highlights the need for a plural social fabric and alerts readers whenever this multitude is threatened by a monochromatic vision. The aim is to enable the readers to exercise an informed choice rather than being prescriptive.