The turnout in the Delhi state elections, held earlier this month, was way above average at over 65 per cent. Then there is the result — the performance of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which came out of nowhere to win 28 seats in a 70-seat assembly. At least some of the credit for bringing the middle class out to vote and for the victory of a completely unknown party goes to the media. It emphasises what happens when the media plays a positive role in our chaotic, chatty democracy.
Take the turnout first. To get voters to come out on a really cold morning in Delhi is something. And some of this is due to the phenomenal pressure on people to vote — through advertising, articles, news TV or simply social media. The pictures of celebrities from sports, films, or business proudly raising their left forefingers on voting days are wonderful. They are a rude reminder to the people who don’t vote and no matter how busy their lives, this is one thing they need to make an extra effort for. Right after voting, at a largish gathering of friends, I asked people if they had voted. Most just raised their left forefingers or quickly rattled off their reasons for not doing so. Of these, the only reason that really matters is the trouble with getting a voter card or getting your name moved from one city or area to another. And this again is an area where media can play a positive role. More on that in the paragraph after the next one.
The second pat on news media’s back is in its role in giving a new political party, in this case AAP, lots of space and discussion time. On most days, the large amounts of media we have, seems like a pain. However at times like these more than 135 news channels, 86,000 registered publications, thousands of websites and social media platforms create a multiple effect that is phenomenal. To my mind this means that any political force that wants to come up in the country can do so more quickly and easily than ever before in history. Remember, this is not about media creating something, but about there being so much media that the creation of a new political party, movement or any other vehicle for change, becomes easier.
There is one more area in this festival of democracy, the election, where media can play a positive role.
In India, while the Election Commission does a wonderful job of conducting elections, it really needs to work harder to ensure that people can enroll onto voter lists easily. The process is painful, the guys sitting at the form-collecting end are bureaucratic and obstructionist. The chances that they would take a form with full documentation in one go are very low.
It took me one-and-a-half years to move my name from the voters’ list in Mumbai to the one in Delhi. Finally it took a tantrum of sorts, by a seven-month pregnant me, in the local election commission office, for them to accept my form. Later, the chap who was humming and hawing earlier, said that they usually rejected poor people or those from the slums because of identity proof issues.
There was nothing wrong with my form but he made it seem like he was doing me a favour.
But the whole thing cannot be about individual discretion. It has to be a transparent, clearly articulated process where if all the boxes are tick marked, he just has to take the form. By the way, it had taken me equally long to get my name onto the list in Mumbai. So this is not a Delhi-Mumbai thing.
Every year there are a large number of complaints from people who were on their local lists earlier, suddenly going missing. In the online world, this is being reported as bungling bureaucracy by some and as some form of gerrymandering by others. The point — all the pressure the media has put on people to come out and vote is working. Now could it turn the spotlight on these issues to ensure speedy, transparent enrollment and changes in voter lists?
Maybe this will undo some of the harm news media has done to democracy in recent times.
The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik