Six weeks, thousands of registered political parties, 97 crore eligible voters. India’s General Election of 2024 was the biggest in history. It was also a template for a post-truth, post-climate change democracy. With summertime temperatures climbing to 45 degrees and higher, campaigning and running the election machine was extremely challenging for political parties. A stifling media environment with legacy news channels and most newspapers held captive by the ruling establishment and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government added to the uphill task for all Opposition parties.

We in the Opposition — struggling to breathe in the limited space India’s Modi-fied democracy allowed us — were not the only ones trying to cope. The hapless Indian voter was also desperately trying to keep herself informed and aware as she determined her franchise. What were the issues and themes that resonated with her or her fellow citizens? What was the truth behind the battery of data and the information blitz coming her way from the BJP and the government? In a media environment of compromise and negotiable facts, how does one delineate right from wrong? Simply put, how do you get the other point of view?

There was a time when this was easy and simple in India. That was also an easier and simpler India. There were honest, no-holds-barred debates and discussions on news television. Newspaper reports were trusted — they were bipartisan, if not neutral. Speeches and manifestoes of all major political parties were laid out threadbare. Today, India has 5,500 daily newspapers and 230 news channels, and yet the independent voice speaks in hushed tones. Encouraged by craven media barons, most publications and virtually every network have turned into brazen cheerleaders.

What is this doing to political communication in what is still the world’s largest democracy? It’s putting power in the voter’s hands, literally! The mobile phone has become the most potent election weapon — the ultimate medium of outreach and empowerment. That India has the biggest national YouTube audience — 46 crore people — is, in a sense, an indictment of the country’s formal or “Legacy Media” landscape and its fading credibility. Digital media and independent platforms rewrote the rules of political communication in Indian elections. To take one example, Ravish Kumar, a prominent and gutsy newscaster, was edged out of the NDTV network after it was bought over by a pro-BJP business tycoon. Today, Kumar runs his own YouTube channel. It has one crore subscribers.

There are many other former and formal journalists who have followed that route. Perhaps even more exciting — or sobering, for old-style media — is the new breed of citizen journalists. Very often Dhruv Rathee gets lakhs of views in the span of four to five hours; His YouTube feed has two crore subscribers. He’s no trained journalist — just an engineer with a nose for research, a flair for prose and a hard-hitting style that conquers even his home-video skills.

Festive offer

Prime Minister Modi himself is not unknown to this format. With two crore subscribers on YouTube, he’s the most followed politician on the platform. But unlike television and 9 out of 10 newspapers, where friends and officials can “manage” the competition, digital media isn’t an opinion monopoly in India. Not yet. The past year has seen the emergence of the “politician journalist”; largely, Members of Parliament from the Opposition who have devised a new strategy to challenge Legacy Media. Rather than send articles that are rarely printed on editorial pages and give interviews that are cut to caricatures — or appear on channels where they would be shouted down and crowded out by biased anchors and other establishment proxies — they have set up their own platforms for direct digital outreach.

The tech is rudimentary, it could even mean shooting or recording videos on mobile phones. But the uptake has been fascinating. The disintermediation of political communication, reaching voters directly and bypassing distrusted go-betweens, is exciting. It revolutionized election communication, with virtual engagement taking the place of large public meetings that are not always feasible in the summer heat. Recently Kapil Sibal, an erudite lawyer-parliamentarian and former minister, launched his own YouTube channel. He says he intends an easy conversation that brings him to the “doorsteps of Indian citizens”.

This was the big story of the India Election 2024 — a digital insurgency that has upturned the mechanics of political communication. Maybe it’s the future of politics in our unequal world.

The writer is MP and leader, All India Trinamool Congress Parliamentary Party (Rajya Sabha)

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