In the 2015 Delhi elections, Arvind Kejriwal didn’t just demolish his opposition; he also defeated the media. That might seem a strange thing to say since the general impression for a long time has been that Kejriwal and his AAP party are a creation of the media, and television news in particular. The fact is, February 2015 is not December 2013. Then, we couldn’t get enough of Kejriwal: he was popping in and out of tv studios and every move, every soundbite of his, was tracked with relentless energy. ‘Would you do it with any other chief minister?’ I recall Narendra Modi asking me once in a phone conversation. His concern was not unjustified. The so-called ‘national’ television media essentially operates out of a small corner of Noida. So much easier to have OB vans parked outside Kejriwal’s residence in the vicinity than, let’s say, in distant Panaji. ‘I am also an aam admi chief minister,’ Manohar Parikkar told me in 2013, ‘but you won’t highlight that I also live a simple life because I am not in Delhi.’ I have no doubt that Manik Sarkar living in distant Agartala would have had a similar grouse.
Yes, Kejriwal received disproportionate coverage in the build up to the 2013 elections. He was the new start up, there was a buzz and excitement around him. He also had an astute media strategy and understood prime time television (his party has an unusually high proportion of journalists too in its ranks!) And then, there was the ill fated dharna in January 2014 and suddenly the bubble was burst. ‘Anarchist’ Kejriwal became the most common epithet we used to describe the man and AAP now became bad news. This was also around the time that Modi mania was beginning to peak. Television news couldn’t have enough of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in the run up to the 2014 general elections: every speech of his was covered live, often two and three a day. A Centre for Media Studies survey suggested that in this key election period around 70 per cent of air time was hogged by Mr Modi. The others, including Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi, languished in single digits. The same media which had cheered the rise of Kejriwal towards the end of 2013 was now cheerleading the BJP’s mascot in his unstoppable ascent to 7 Race Course road.
But in the run up to the 2015 elections, there was another twist. A large section of the media actually turned either openly hostile, or else totally ignored Kejriwal. The AAP leader began his comeback bid in October 2014 in near-anonymity: his initial Delhi dialogue had no live coverage, didn’t make page one headlines. As he travelled across Delhi’s constituencies, there was no large media entourage tracking him. None of his speeches or press conferences got live coverage. Most were barely mentioned. Some channels took the extreme step of blanking him and his party out of their channels: AAP leaders were not to be called for studio discussions. This was ‘supari’ journalism at its worst. By contrast, when Modi entered the Delhi campaign fray with a rally at Ram Lila maidan in January, most channels devoted 24 x 7 coverage to the ‘event’.
Modi was clearly still box office; Kejriwal was not. It changed a little bit in the last fortnight of the campaign as we began to sniff the changing air. The political ‘hawa’ was changing and, typically, the media was beginning to feel the shifting mood. Suddenly, Kejriwal interviews were back on prime time and on the front page. And yet, the fact is, right till the end of the campaign, every prime minister rally was live but no Kejriwal speech was given similar prominence. Most exit pollsters were cautious in predicting a Kejriwal win. Some fly by night operators even suggested that the BJP was level pegging and in some cases even in the lead (I do hope these truly ‘bazaroo’ pollsters are held accountable)
In the end, none of it mattered. AAP won an astounding 67 of 70 seats, one of the biggest victories in the history of Indian elections. The mainstream media’s ambivalence to Kejriwal didn’t matter. The AAP leader had gone over our heads, effectively used social media, but most importantly, gone directly to those who really mattered: the voter! Pompous editors, noisy anchors and a corporatised media ownership had all been defeated. In a democracy, we in the media are only the surround sound: the actual power in the end rests with the real aam admi. As they would tell you on the streets of Delhi, Janata janardhan!