In any election season, journalists navigate minefields — rampant misogynism, partisan considerations, ideological affiliations, and selective leaks. Reporters often develop a framework to evaluate the claims of political parties and institutions. Transgressions by political parties are generally easy to spot — misogyny, for instance, is a trait shared by most political parties. However, institutional failures are generally masked. For instance, how can one explain the bizarre development where electronic voting machines (EVMs) were found in a vehicle linked to a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate in Assam? How can one understand the Election Commission of India (ECI)’s decision to impose a two-day ban on A. Raja of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and commute the ban to a day for the BJP’s Himanta Biswa Sarma? If the ECI can accept Mr. Sarma’s apology, what prevented the constitutional body from not acknowledging Mr. Raja’s apology to the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu?
A chronicle of the times
I drew my personal framework for political reporting from George Orwell. He was a master of labelling. The collection of his journalistic writings is called Seeing Things As They Are . His fundamental contention is that journalism, if it has to be a chronicle of the times, should observe and record every transgression without fear and should resist wearing a narrow nationalistic lens that not only distorts the truth but also never provides a way out from messy reality. He took care to make a fine distinction between his journalism and his literary pursuits, though both were tied together by his respect for human dignity and self-respect. In his great dystopian novel, 1984 , the opening sentence made it clear that it was fiction and not reportage. The magnificent line was: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
In the elections to the four States and one Union Territory, Indian journalists have managed to document rather successfully the transgressions of political parties. However, they have dealt with institutional failures with kid gloves. One element of ‘seeing things as they are’ is to call out when the emperor has no clothes. The ECI used to be seen as an institution that protects and nurtures the democratic aspirations of more than a billion people. The constant erosion of its moral standing is undermining our democracy in more ways than one. From allocating symbols to holding elections in several phases, the electorate never suspected the motives of the ECI until recently. If every move of the constitutional body is viewed with suspicion, then the time has come for journalists to say in an unambiguous manner that the ECI should not only function in a fair manner but also be seen as functioning in a fair manner.
More questions than answers
On the question of the presence of the EVMs in a BJP candidate’s car in Assam, the ECI provided an explanation that begs more questions than answers. There are protocols for EVMs and they are constantly updated by the ECI. What was clearly evident is that the ECI did not follow any of its own protocols while transporting the EVMs in Assam. Instead of answering the difficult questions posed to it, it used a news agency close to the ruling party at the Centre to come up with a vague explanation. It said that the vehicle in which the EVMs were kept broke down and so the officials took a lift in a passing car which happened to be owned by a BJP candidate. Apart from the fantastic nature of the explanation, accountability was shifted from the top to the bottom tier and the ECI suspended four polling personnel.
It is in this context that Orwell’s ‘seeing things as they are’ assumes significance. Instead of glossing over major failures, the media needs to scrutinise the steady decline in adhering to institutional protocols and good practices. Good journalism often takes a cue from literature and literary giants to understand our immediate reality. Citizens expect journalists to conduct an in-depth inquiry to either validate or repudiate these assertions. Salman Rushdie, on the 40th anniversary of his celebrated novel Midnight’s Children , observed: “All of India belonged to all of us, or so I deeply believed. And still believe, even though the rise of a brutal sectarianism believes otherwise… But right now, in India, it’s midnight again.” It seems that Mr. Rushdie is seeing things as they are.