Siddharth Varadarajan

Journalist | Writer | Analyst

Elections 2014 – Chat with Siddharth Varadarajan

Elections 2014 – Chat with Siddharth Varadarajan May 15, 2014


Siddharth Varadarajan

Welcome to SaddaHaq Townhall again. Can we begin the session with this…The country awaits a new government. Most exit polls are predicting a Modi-led NDA government. But going by previous instances, should they be taken with a pinch of salt? Could there be surprises in store?An hr ago
I think a 20 per cent haircut is advisable … so that would mean scaling down the BJP’s tally to 220ish and the NDA to 245ish. Unless of course the exit polls are underestimating things, as they did in 1998!An hr ago

Dear Sir, In principle you were against giving undue coverage to any political leader including Modi, which apparently made you away from The Hindu. Now when right wing force is ready to take over Indian parliament, how do you see the role of media and the people’s acceptability in giving Modi this astonishing rise?3hrs ago
Well, it is clear the Modi camp were able to use the media as a force multiplier. The CMS survey has quantified the amount of coverage Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Kejriwal got and there is no surprise in the fact that Modi’s coverage far outstripped everyone else.

  • Vignesh Seshapriyan
    given that result you are showing…. Arvind kejriwal also got 10 % of prime time coverage….but that didnot multiply his vote count…

  • Siddharth VaradarajanI am not saying there is a 1:1 correspondence between media coverage and vote share, nor am I saying editors are not entitled to make choices based on their assessment of what is newsworthy. But by any yardstick, the Modi coverage was more than a little excessive.

Do you think, the various media houses & newspapers like, The hindu , Times , India express , have been partial and inclined towards certain parties ?
I think newspapers have been more or less even-handed. But the electronic media has gone overboard in the quantity and nature of coverage. Of course, newspapers should also be faulted for the kind of fawning interviews they did of Modi. The TOI devoted two and a half pages but there was no attempt to ask him proper questions that could educate readers about Modi’s views, his record, his attitude.

Dear Dr. Varadarajan,
What do you feel about the open letter by certain left-leaning intellectuals to some regional parties asking them not to support the NDA in the event of a hung assembly? In particular, does any of the language used in the letter stand out to you? Here is a report on it:
Thanks for your insightful opinion pieces and your astute observations on television and in print media.
I think we need to move beyond the politics of labeling. I find it hard to understand how the Samajwadi Party can be considered secular after t presided over what happened in Muzzaffarnagar, for example. The politics of dissent and opposition needs to adopt the language of rights rather than of labels.

Siddharth sir,I feel that now-a-days most of the print and electronic media are not in a position to come out with the real problems that people in the country are facing today.They are mere restricted to political issues,tit-for-tat actions of politicians,supporting a single political party that they are benefited from etc.,I think which is why people are unable to keep trust on a particular medium,expect one or two among hundreds of news papers and tv channels(which is also increasing everyday).Please give the ideas or solutions to bring back values in journalism,restrict media in publishing what is important to the people,so that people can have more trust in media.
You are absolutely right Sree Therthaji. What passes for news often is a reflection of what some person with means would like to define as news. So party statements, corporate announcements, government and political decisions tend to be given priority. The media does not devote enough attention or resources to news gathering, investigating what is happening on the ground.

Hi. Thank you for providing this platform. I would like to ask Mr. Siddharth about his opinions on the quality of journalism in India. Why don’t we have even a single television news channel in India that is of international quality in terms of programs, news content, originality, creativity, acting as a powerful tool towards solving problems in the country and most importantly the capability to present news with proper English pronunciation? Does he see BBC using this opportunity in the near future to set up an India specific base and make the Indian media change or abandon through its quality and acceptance? Would he negotiate such a proposal and convince the BBC to do so? Thanks
I have longed for India to have a news channel with an international reach, which would cover international affairs from our own perspective. But the costs are daunting; and the government, which may be able to bankroll the effort, would be too eager to control and direct, thus robbing the channel of its independence. I don’t think the BBC could do this for India.

Do you think that, today, the left is now as good as irrelevant in India? That is failed abysmally?
No, I do not think so. The Left will probably win less seats than it did the last time but its relevance — like that of the AAP — cannot be judged in ourely electoral terms. We need parties that speak openly on behalf of the working masses of India, that articulate their grievances and agitate for their demands. Today, given the entry barriers for getting elected — the average asset holding of MPs and even MLA is shotting up with each pasing election – the Left is the only organised force with the heft and support to carry the voice of workers and peasants into Parliament.

Hi Siddharth, as Yashwant Deshmukh puts it… opinion & exit polls are basically “Vote Share” Not “Seat Share” (case in point: 2004 UPA 35%, NDA 36% vote shares). Don’t you think thats a huge catch? As BJP can “win seats” in places where cumulative vote share’s less (yet concentrated) as well as “loose seats” where cumulative vote share’s more (but dispersed)?

So, which pocket do ‘you’ think can throw up such surprises? UP, Bihar, Delhi definitely seems like one such – specially in this election.

Valid but tough question Ron, and I am not sure I am qualified to answer this. It is of course a fact that there is no proper formula to convert votes into seats especially in a multi-cornered contest.
  • Ron BhattacharyaThe intriguing point (which I expected) is: can’t we Develop a Methodology for that “seat share” (going by assembly constituencies, keeping the sampling percentile in each even across the board.. et al). After all in a particular constituency the guy/gal getting “highest” votes wins.

  • Ron BhattacharyaAnnotation: That was as we as a nation (and I don’t think is very “wrong” from an average TV viewer’s perspective) are quite obsessed with “seat shares”.

  • Siddharth VaradarajanI shall passyour thoughts on to Dorab Sopariwala!

Sir , you having being part of The Hindu , I would like to take liberty in asking , If the Paper is bro-Brahmin and Pro-Hindu ?
No, The Hindu is neither pro-Brahmin nor pro-Hindu in editorial terms. I remember being attacked by a Tamil Nadu party leader for our coverage of the Dharmapuri violence which he claimed was too “pro-Dalit”. Actually, the newspaper’s forte is the stress it lays on objective reportage. This sometimes makes the writing dull but that may well be a price worth paying.

Modi and his followers have been notorious in being impatient and intolerant towards , any agitations and protests. Like: Amir khan supporting medha patkar in her narmada bachao andolan , led to Fanaa movies being shut down. Will that be a trend ?
Narendra Modi’s worst enemy is the legion of his followers. A large part of the negative image he has acquired is due to the aggression, intolerance and chauvinism of the Modi bhakts, though of course Modi’s own record has also contributed to this in no small measure.

How different will Modi be from Vajpayee in terms of his foreign dealings?
Hard to tell at this point. Vajpayee was assisted by Brajesh Mishra, who understood the world and its complicated geopolitics well and was trusted by Vajpayee to the extent to which he usually went along with whatever he advised, including to keep away from sending Indian soldiers to Iraq — something Advani and even Jaswant Singh were in favour of. We don’t know who Modi’s foreign policy advisers will be and what kind of relationship they will have with him. Of course, Modi is likely to let the professionals run foreign policy in the main but his own leadership will be tested when there is a provocation by terrorists from Pakistan or some crisis with China, or even pressure from American say on the nuclear liability or patents issue.

Another question which I think is very important and has been largely ignored by the Indian main stream media is the mysterious death of India’s nuclear scientists in succession. Vice channel USA carried a report on this and why is the Indian media not investigating this?
This is the first I have heard of this. Let me research the topic a bit before offering any comment.
  • Senyor SandeepI even tweeted this news, requesting you to investigate this. Please look into this matter and I think it is very serious issue interms of national security and we need to know what is actually happening. Thanks.

What is your take on the Third Front?
The Third Front is a non-starter. The numbers are unlikely to give them much of a role and the Congress will likely not win enough seats to make this ungainly beast take flight.

Two Indian journalists, including The Hindu’s Meena Menon have been asked to leave Pakistan. While India has reacted strongly to the decision, calling it ‘unfortunate’ and ‘regrettable’, the Pakistani government has virtually shown no interest in giving an explanation. The External Affairs Ministry has claimed that it will resolve the issue at the earliest. Taking into account the kind of relationship India shares with Pakistan, do you think India will persue the matter further?
India needs to pursue this matter but it is clear to me that the Pakistani establishment – i.e. its military — has decided to send a message to the new government that it does not particularly care if the bilateral relationship deteriorates. The Pakistani side, incidentally, has shown no interest in sending the two journalists it is allowed to station in Delhi — the slots normally filled by APP and Radio Pakistan have been vacant for two years now — and when I raised this issue with Mr Sartaj Aziz, the foreign policy advisor to Mian Nawaz Sharif, his officials said the Information Ministry (which is in charge of appointing the correspondents) had taken the view that in the era of internet there is no need for reporters to be sent!

What has the difference been between the two Yadav leaders in this election? What has made Lalu far more attractive to Bihari Muslims as opposed to Mulayam and the Muslims in UP? Are the latter angry with the SP to some extent after their shoddy handling of Muzaffarnagar? Do you think the SP would have done much better in an open pre-poll alliance with the Congress, given the lack of open animosity between the parties and the mutual quid-pro-quo as far as fielding strong candidates against top leaders go?
Laloo has been the beneficiary of a tie-up with the Congress. The pre-poll alliance sent a clear signal to Muslims interested in defeating Modi that this would be their best bet; the fact that Yadavs do not seem to have been attracted by Modi but stuck by their “caste loyalty” with the RJD also helped cement this process. In UP, urban Yadavas and even rural ones have not been immune to the ‘namonia’ sweeping the upper castes. And many Muslims have been embittered by Muzaffarnagar. A Congress-SP alliance may have helped somewhat but don’t forget the fundamental feature of this election is that there is an anti-Congress wave.
  • Vignesh SeshapriyanI seiously donot understand the way indian voter thinks…congress has led the most corrupt govt in indian history and all it projected was it is against rise of hindutva….and people want to vote for it…

  • Abhishek BanerjeeEven more frustrating and depressing is the rise of Lalu at the expense of Nitish. I really hope that the people would vote differently in the Vidhan Sabha elections as the return of Lalu to the CM chair would be a complete and unmitigated disaster.

  • Senyor SandeepI think we are obsessed with this false thinking that Indian voters, mostly from rural areas care only about the caste and religion over corruption and mis governance. It is my personal belief that the average voter is very smart and congress is going to be brutally punished this time. But I also do not see the traditional congress voters shifting their base to BJP completely. Therefore the regional parties and AAP have a lot to gain from this anti congress and anti BJP section. It is my personal analysis that AAP would get more percentage of votes and hence more seats than what the opinion and exit polls have predicted.

  • Abhishek BanerjeeWith due respect, I disagree with your analysis, Sandeep. Caste is a dominant factor in rural North India. Barring a complete abdication of responsibilities, akin to 90s Bihar, people still vote their caste in the Hindi heartland. Only this can explain the resurgence Mr. Lalu Yadav and Mr. Chautala in Haryana (where the AAP is struggling to make headway, by the way).

Sir my question is about the reservation policy. Don’t you think that after more than 60 years of independence the system of reservation based on caste should stop. Clearly it has been a major failure and also slows down the development of the nation as people less qualified are selected for services that runs the government. Don’t you think that its time we stopped this injustice and if there is any reservations system at all it should be based on ones financial condition?
I don’t think reservation is an ‘injustice’ but I do think it would be good to do a thorough audit of how well the system has worked for the intended beneficiaries. My concern is that mainstream parties treat reservation as the only thing they need to do and are not particularly bothered about improving the life prospects of dalits and adivasis at an early age — in terms of ensuring the provision of proper schools, hospitals etc for communities that still carry the burden of historical discrimination.

Sir, this question is in particular to the last night show on NDTV… It is an interesting trend in Bihar that post May the Muslim and Yadav vote has consolidated against Mr. Modi… But at the same time every one accused BJP for polarising the elections UP. Yet a section of Muslim voters have for Modi(5% , if I am not wrong)..why do you think this has happened then??
We need to disentangle several issues here. First, the overwhelming majority of Muslims appear to be opposed to having Modi as Prime Minister and have voted against him. But second, a large number of Hindus also feel the same way. The BJP’s leaders in UP used the polarisation card to win over a chunk of those Hindu voters.
  • Jeswanth PadooruBut if the muslims are dreaded about modi being the PM why did 5% of muslims still vote for him??

  • Abhishek BanerjeeSome of them are upwardly-mobile educated middle class people. Some of them are small business owners. A lot of these communities have been traditional supporters of the BJP. See for instance some of the well-to-do Muslims in Gujarat who also support Mr. Modi.

Do you think that a prospective Modi govt would be able to deliver secular and liberal governance? Will something make him stop the Gujarat Model religious polarization by Sangh elements (he was one of them), about which you have written in breadth in your book Gujarat ?
Communalism and communal politics serve an instrumental purpose for Modi. He used it in 2002 in order to turn around what would otherwise have been a difficult election for the BJP. Once victory was secure, the communal agenda remained on low voltage — housing ghettoisatiion, the use of the terrorism card, etc — because he knew high voltage communalism, eg. another riot, would seriously impair his national prospects. On the the national stage, Modi has emerged on a plank that is not openly or primarily communal. He has used the media and the corporate sector to sell the cult of Modi as an administrator and Gujarat as a magical land. His challenge will be to deliver on that front, while also satisfying his corporate sponsors who have funded his campaign to the tune of over a billion dollars. If he runs into trouble on that front, we may well see the return of a more openly communal politics.
  • Senyor SandeepWhat I fail to understand is the lack of seriousness on the part of Indian media when they failed to point out Mr. Modi that he was wrong when he went to the UP and said that there have been no communal riots in Gujarat since 2002 or when we was on “AAP KI ADALAT” and claimed that the children of Gujarat do not know what the word curfew means in the last 12 years, meaning that there had been no curfew in Gujarat since 2002. Both of these information are wrong and various news paper reports have clearly reported communal riots in Gujarat after 2002 and atleast on 3 occasions curfew had been imposed in Gujarat after 2002. The most recent curfew was in Vadodara in 2006. When Mr. Modi makes those false claims, he is either suffering from amnesia or he is not serious about the loss of lives through communal riots. How can the media ignore this observation?

  • Siddharth VaradarajanYou are right. The media gave him an incredibly easy ride. Even Arnab Goswami’s interview ought to have been sharper.

What is the significance of the rise of the AAP as a national party after their strong showing (for a new party) in this election, especially in Punjab and Delhi? Where do they go from here? And where do you think they slot between the center right of the BJP the center of the Congress and the right of the CPI(M) as far as ideology goes?
The AAP ought to strive to be the new centre of Indian politics because the Congress is not doing a very good job at that. But I feel first it must seriously take up the issue of election expenditure. Unless a cap is placed on what parties can spend in elections we will never have a level playing field and parties backed by the rich will always have the upper hand.
  • Roktim RajpalHow well will the AAP fare this time? What factors may work against it

  • Abhishek BanerjeeHow can this cap be placed on parties? Is this a decision of the judiciary, or will they pass the buck to the legislature, where this issue will die.
    Also, “the left of the CPI(M)”, in the original question. Ugh.

  • Siddharth VaradarajanAAP should not try to replicate or replace the Left.

  • Siddharth VaradarajanCampaign finance reform has to be done through legislation but is worth the filing of a PIL since the 1972 Supreme Court order on the subject had elements which the executive has not acted upon.

  • Abhishek BanerjeeAah, that comment was merely correcting an error in my question, I did not mean to insinuate that I think the AAP should take the Left’s space.

Sir, The UPA had its inclinations towards USA, do you think , NDA government would change that association ?
The original opening to the US was made by the NDA after the 1998 Pokhran tests but this was taken to its logical conclusion by the UPA. Of course, objective circumstances have since intervened and the relationship between the two countries is quite complex today. My sense is that Modi will work to untie some of the knots which exist, particularly on the economic front, and also come closer to the US in military and strategic terms

Sir, we are on course to becoming a liberal society, do you think NDA coming to power will be hindrance to that?
Liberal values — tolerance towards a different point of view, respect for cultural and artistic and literary freedom — were already under attack during the UPA years and the Congress did not do much to defend them. So I am not at all sanguine about what will happen under a Modi administration.

Sir, after you quit Hindu, everyone is waiting to know your future plans
Well, I have joined a research centre — the Center for Public Affairs and Critical Theory — in New Delhi and am writing all over the place! But am also exploring the possibility of a new media venture — finance, of course, remains the primary obstacle!
  • Senyor SandeepHow about call for online donations just like how AAP gets its election funding?

  • Harsh VasaniSo soon saddahaq is going to have some competition by Mr Varadarajan 🙂

Sir, with the current form of Television news medium debates and discussions… do you seriously think if there is any value in it…. cause what i see is that same panel comes for the debates and discussions in almost all the channels and what they do is instead of making a fruitful discussion or debate shout and make the same opinions over and over again repeatedly…do you see any other medium in whcih this trend can be reversed…???
I couldn’t agree with you more! Gone are the days of panels with 2-3 talking heads where everyone had the time to develop an argument rather be monosyllabic or noisy. The problem also is that all channels insist on bring party political representatives on to most panel discussions, and these folks simply don’t allow a proper debate. You should also know that the reason channels have switched to these kinds of shows is because it is a much cheaper way to fill airtime than to send reporters ought to remote places to actually get news!

  • Jeswanth PadooruVery well said sir, I am being too sick of them these days….I am seriously looking for an alternative to emerge…

  • Abhishek KathurojuWould an online medium for debates work better? Like the one SaddaHaq has, where a participant gets an opportunity to post additional arguments only when his previous arguments are sensible and get voted up

Re: your comments about an impartial Indian media house with a coverage on foreign issues; what would it take for Prasar Bharati to function with the degree of autonomy that the BBC enjoys? Some form of the licence fee that the UK television customers pay?
I am afraid this is a lost cause because even if there were financial autonomy, PBC does not have the DNA to be truly autonomous and governments would find a hundred ways to wield influence. Let me ask a counter question here. Do you know which is the most independent TV channel in India today? it is RSTV, or Rajya Sabha TV. The reason: it is “owned” by the chairman of the RS, who is the Vice President of India, who is a non-party person and who also doesn’t have a “boss” that he reports to. That is why some of the boldest, frankest discussions can be seen on that channel.

How great a possibility is it that the EVMs can get rigged?
I do not think there is a serious possibility at all.

Sir,The way media is celebrating the exit polls,Isn’t it bit on the higher side ? As most of the agencies admitting that their sample size was 1000-1500 voters,what is the relevance of such surveys other than stealing those prime time hours ?
going by past experience, exit polls appear to overstate the BJP’s tally by around 20 per cent. Anyhow, let us see, chand ghante aur, meri jaan!

Do you think Congress, UPA dividing ANDHRA Pradesh into Telangana and Seemandhra was pure opportunism ? Should there have been a better consensus ?
I rather liked the last option of the Srikrishna panel but matters had gone too far thanks to the ineptitude of the Congress. Such decisions are best taken on the basis of consensus or at least widespread public consultation and debate where the fears and concerns which are legitimate can be be properly addressed.

Thank you, Mr. Varadarajan for answering all our users’ queries, and even extending the time of the Townhall by ten minutes. You have been very kind and sporting. Folks, thank you for your engagement, but Mr Varadarajan can only afford so much time!

I will have to sign off now folks, thanks for the great questions!

A big thank you to all our users!

For the 16th, i.e. the Verdict Day, we have a series of Townhalls coming up, starting at 12:30 PM. Please do visit Townhall tommorow for SaddaHaq’s post election analysis, and other engaging events!

Apologies to those whose questions could not be answered due to paucity of time.

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This entry was posted on May 15, 2014 by in Indian Politics, Media.



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