Diary of India election 2019: The polarising view from partisan media

TV channels fall largely into one of two camps in their support (or not) for the prime minister Narendra Modi - but it's not always obvious which.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks to media after casting his vote during the third phase of general elections at a polling station in Ahmedabad on April 23, 2019. Some 190 million voters in 15 states are eligible to take part in the polls on the third of seven days of voting in the world's biggest election. / AFP / SAM PANTHAKY

Through the five-year term of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, India’s television news stations have tended to fall on either side of a divide. Last week, I decided to change the channel and take a look at the world from the other side.

My diet of TV news is limited, and what there is of it is restricted to channels that question Mr Modi’s government relentlessly, and that view the religious polarisation and Hindu majoritarianism supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with worry. These are the channels mocked most often by BJP supporters for being too close to the opposition Congress party, or for being hypocritical in their secularism.

The channels I usually browse are at times guilty of breathless sensationalism, but their scrutiny of the BJP is, at least in my eyes, balanced and substantiated.

For Mr Modi's supporters, their own stations of choice are Republic, India’s most popular English-language channel, and Times Now, owned by the country’s largest media group. The face of Republic is Arnab Goswami, an anchor who never speaks when he can holler.

Mr Goswami was at Times Now until 2016, and although he departed, he left behind both his high-decibel aggression and his political tilt. Indian media regulation does not enforce neutrality on newspapers or television news, which leaves Republic and Times Now to decide their own coverage.

On Thursday, as India wrapped up the second phase of its seven-stage election, I decided to exclusively get my news form Republic and Times Now, to see the country through their eyes.

It was a busy day, the news led by the BJP’s announcement that it would field Pragya Thakur from the constituency of Bhopal. Ms Thakur, who styles herself as a “Sadhvi,” or “Holy woman,” dresses in saffron robes. When she wears her spectacles, she looks uncannily like Mr Goswami himself.

Ms Thakur’s candidature is controversial. She is out on bail in an open investigation into the conspirators behind two bomb blasts in the north Maharashtra town of Malegaon in 2008. Six people died, and more than a hundred were injured in the explosions. Ms Thakur is accused of being one of the masterminds, in a case that has come to be known as an exemplar of “Hindu right-wing terrorism.”

On Republic, though, I encountered no commentary on how inappropriate it was for the BJP to be running an accused terrorist for parliament. Instead, Mr Goswami opened his nightly broadcast by referring to Ms Thakur’s press conference earlier in the day, in which she tearfully said she was tortured and abused during her initial spell in custody.

The images of the press conference, Mr Goswami said, “resonated nationally.” He then claimed Republic had obtained documents “this evening” showing that the case against her was not strong enough. It was, he said, a “political persecution” of Ms Thakur.

Republic's web page, late that Thursday, contained numerous interviews and videos of BJP politicians, and just one reference to a politician from any other party: an Aam Aadmi Party candidate facing questions over his affidavit of personal wealth. The web page did, however, hold a link to the news that Jason Momoa, a star of Game of Thrones, had shaved off his beard.

An audience poll on the Maoist rebels active in large parts of rural India reported its results. “Shouldn’t India wipe out Maoists instead of ‘talking to them’?” the poll asked, with scare quotes around the final three words. Ninety-three per cent of respondents voted Yes.

For a while, I turned to Times Now, which aired the news that, in a Muslim-majority village in West Bengal, some Hindu citizens were stopped from voting. Times Now called the incident a “SHOCKER!” and deemed it religious profiling. One man said he was beaten up near the polling booth.

The next day, I searched for evidence of these incidents elsewhere. Other outlets reported stray outbreaks of violence in the region, but no newspaper or television channel produced any reporting that confirmed Times Now’s story.

On to Swarajya and OpIndia, two web sites that share the same stretch of the political spectrum as Republic and Times Now. Both carried rewrites of the Times Now news from West Bengal. Both also shilled, in various other ways, for the BJP.

OpIndia, which was once owned by Swarajya, argued that by fielding Ms Thakur, the BJP is “no longer apologetic in being the voice of Hindus.” In passing, it referred to various Congress politicians as “rats” or “motor-mouths.”

Another article defended a Mumbai citizen, a supporter of Mr Modi, who found himself threatened with violence by the workers from the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), another Hindu nationalist party. This man had only criticised MNS’ leadership in a Facebook post, the article argued.

It omitted to mention the numerous instances of arrests or police harassment of Indians who have criticised Mr Modi on social media over the past five years.

After reading Swarajya, I assumed the web site had some special ability to peep into the minds of voters. In the Kerala constituency of Pathanamthitta, the BJP candidate was at an advantage, Swarajya claimed. In Thiruvananthapuram, “things are not looking up” for the Congress politician Shashi Tharoor. In Hassan, the BJP was rising. Coastal Karnataka “looks all set to vote BJP.”

Taken together, these media outlets offer a contradictory picture of India. It is one in which Hindus are persecuted by minorities or by the hypocrisies of liberal opposition parties, and yet one in which Hindus are coming together to sweep the BJP back into power. These are both themes that the BJP’s politicians employ routinely in their rhetoric.

I ended my exile by returning, after a day, to the web site of The Hindu, one of the newspapers often lambasted by the BJP's devotees. The biggest story reported how many Indians had turned out to vote through the day, and the accompanying photo showed women in line, holding up their voter ID cards, smiling broadly, waiting for their turn in the polling booth.

It was the first reminder I’d had in 24 hours of what this election was about: not politicians but people, exercising the most fundamental right of their democracy.