Manufacturing Consent

Editorial: May 2014
Hardnews Bureau Delhi

Change is here.  Come May 16, 2014, this change will formally unpack itself in the electoral results of the keenly fought parliamentary elections. The contours and content of change have been repeated hysterically by opinion polls over the past few months. Searching questions were raised about the methodology of polls and the ease with which conclusions were drawn without paying attention to the profile or the size of the constituencies to arrive at a desired outcome. A sting operation suggested that the opinion poll results could be bought by any bidder. So what is the purpose of these polls? As many pollsters would indicate, they invariably cause a bandwagon effect that sharpens choice amongst fence-sitters or dithering voters. If you take a look at the opinion polls that have been conducted ever since the country came into poll mode, we would find that while the BJP’s victory has been consistently predicted by nearly all the polling agencies such as CSDS, Hansa, CVoter, AC Nielsen, they have quoted varying poll percentages. Nearly all the opinion pollsters show the National Democratic Alliance ahead of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance. Most of these polls predict the BJP winning around 180-220 seats and the Congress about 90-120 seats. The difference in vote percentage between the two parties varies from 9 percent, according to Hansa, to a whopping 26 percent, according to AC Nielsen. While the difference in vote percentage may be dramatic, it does not convert into seats. In short, the vote to seat conversion is visibly flawed. That does not deter the pollsters or their patrons from going ahead and tracking the elections despite being so incredulous and off the mark. What is the reason? The 2014 election is marked by the emergence of the mass media as the major influencer and hence persuader. TV, newspapers, social media, mobile phone penetration have all increased to a point where it has begun to impact a large mass of population. There are about 100 million Facebook users alone. Add to that TV viewers, newspaper readers and even those who compulsively thumb 140 characters on the Twitter platform. This is a seriously big number. That clearly indicates that the media is a serious player in shaping opinion and that is how it was used. Every opinion poll that was put out in the public domain, properly done or not, was disseminated through traditional and new media – as long as it showed the rise of the BJP and its putative Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.

This process began when an opinion polling agency strongly suggested to the BJP top brass that the party could win the 2014 elections and wrest about 205 seats if Modi led the party. Interestingly, the number of seats that the BJP will win has by and large remained the same — even when the vote percentage has bobbed up and down. Opinion polls are an important component of building a political wave in favour of any party or individual, if the media is complicit. In the past few years, the media, in the name of being adversarial, has been so blatantly partisan that it has worked as force multipliers in spreading surveys without questioning their flawed methodologies. Exhaustive studies of the process of media use to build a movement have been undertaken after the Arab Spring. In all cases, it became clear that a manipulated reality was palmed off as gospel truth by the media. In India, it was the opinion polls that were doing this job. There are ethical issues that are associated with the way the wave has been created by the media. In fact, all over the country, political activists openly state that they have nothing to do with the elections as the bulk of the work is being done by the media. Is this the right way to usher in change? Can the media be the sole norm-builder and judge of what constitutes national interest and who should protect it? The nature of funding behind the corporate media rules out this ownership of national interest as it is exclusionary and meant to make fat cats fatter. If the change that will unveil itself on May 16 will be mid-wifed by such vested interests then the nature of policy-making and government concerns would seem very different.


This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2014