The New Media Heroes
The New Media Heroes

by Jaideep Varma

Within the pun in the headline lies the story of the 2024 elections in India. The largest election so far in human history wasn’t actually an election as much as an attempt of the citizenry and the opposition to wrest the country back from criminal capture.

The authoritarian exercise was being carried in the guise of an election while making a mockery of a level playing field. A large part of the business sector and almost the entire mainstream media participated in this from the government's side. All the governmental sources of information, all the main newspapers, all the major news channels, were most blatantly bought-out - all of them intensely spewing propaganda and fake news for months (along with WhatsApp forwards). This had a big effect on the elections, of course, especially in the less economically advantaged sections of society (60-80% of India, depending on the definition) where people have little energy or time to comprehend anything beyond survival. Meanwhile, the entire law enforcement machinery was being used to throttle the opposition (fake cases, imprisonment, frozen bank accounts - the lot). Even the Supreme Court had been transparently infested as it kept throwing out cases pertaining to a free-and-fair election (like not allowing a tallying of the VVPAT slips with the EVMs). And the Election Commission did not even make an attempt to hide its affiliation to the ruling party.

The mainstream media obviously did not report on any of this but neither did the international media. The most prominent international media houses disgraced themselves (as has been their wont for a few years now) by merely quoting or re-publishing the fake opinion polls (from the transparently sold-out Indian media) that showed Modi comfortably coming back for a third term.

Initially, it had seemed as if the uniting of the opposition would scuttle Modi’s chances of coming back (given that he had 37% of the vote last time around). But with the rearrangement of allies and the largescale unethical buying out of MPs by BJP from opposition parties (who had their own electorally beneficial caste bases), this equation had altered somewhat. The scale of propaganda increased to such an extent that it was not unfeasible that BJP (in the sole name of Modi) would have increased its following, despite its performance thoroughly not justifying it.

This is where the role of the YouTube channels changed this election. A very small section of the media had already resisted for a while - The Wire, Scroll, Newslaundry, The Caravan and a few others, for example. But now, it became akin to a mass movement, going by the pace at which subscriber bases and viewership grew on YouTube and how such material began to be shared on social media. Ravish Kumar and Dhruv Rathee began the noticeable escalation – the two stars of this space, and Dhruv in particular succeeded not just in reaching out to a really wide and young audience but also galvanising them into action especially by taking it to the WhatsApp turf with his #Mission100Crore campaign.

On the other side, the transparently governmental-sponsored YouTube channels, like Beer Biceps (Ranveer Allahbadia) and ANI (Smita Prakash) appeared to find viewers but not enough impact – at least not in organically measurable ways. The post-election analysis by Smita Prakash (called “Samosa Caucus”) perfectly demonstrates the smugness of that enterprise – a bunch of middle-aged men trying to be self-consciously cool (in English), while their thoroughly half-baked pronouncements, often laced with poorly disguised bigotry, renders the assault on our time even more pointless. When the impotence of these channels becomes obvious (when the Modi government goes), their true worth will manifest.

But when the election began, it is the Hindi YouTube entities, those news bloggers and quasi-channels, who distinguished themselves. They fearlessly separated themselves from everyone else, and began to get specific. They didn't just report on reports from the ground, they combined them, connected dots, extrapolated information, and even predicted things. When Prashant Tandon said on DB News the night before the first phase of voting that Modi's first rally speech after that would be like an exit poll, and Modi came out with a rabidly bigoted speech (his worst as PM) - that was the moment when suddenly all of this became more real than anything else.

The YouTube channels did war-time coverage, with urgency and courage. Because this WAS war. A vicious fight to save democracy from emphatic criminal capture. When Prof Ravikant, before the third phase of voting, against all expectations, predicted a rout in UP for the BJP (he actually said they would struggle to get 30-35 seats), it was completely new territory. Some others, like Anand Vardhan Singh, said the same thing - and all of them began to gradually, in varying degrees, converge to this point. This specificity was absolutely crucial - it provided a sharper focus on a reality that so many otherwise were too scared to even comprehend - that BJP was losing in UP, probably very badly. You could actually feel the energy lifting and a spirit of discovery spreading - amongst the viewers as well, while most of these journalists predicted results that ranged between 190 and 250 seats for the BJP (accounting for manipulation as well). Their subscribers and viewer numbers began to rise quickly as well.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that people began to speak more freely about BJP's descent as the election went on. More people appeared to have come out and voted also precisely because of this. Hope is an absolutely essential part of such an exercise - action cannot follow without it (which is why the narcissistic doomsayers on social media do more harm than they realise). Yogendra Yadav (who predicted these same numbers, but also in the mainstream media) is now being feted for getting it right, but many of these journalists did too. Yadav has actually said that if more people had known that BJP was in trouble (since mainstream media's reach is far, far more), BJP would have lost an additional 50-80 seats, probably even more. That is how significant information, and specifically this brand of hope, was.

The CSDS Lokniti post-election study suggests that 1% more of the poor voted for the BJP this time (which means their welfare schemes worked electorally). While 1% less from the lower middle-class, 3% less from the middle-class and 3% less from the upper-class voted for the BJP (these are only economic category breakdowns, the caste breakdown suggests the higher castes voting overwhelmingly for the BJP). Given that they would fall in the category of the target audience of these channels, this seems to strengthen the case that their coverage actually made a difference to these elections.

So, this is to acknowledge the contribution of all these journalists - who, in many ways took on the mantle from Satyapal Malik and Parkala Prabhakar in provocation (whose fiery interviews did have an impact months before the election), but adding much more specificity and authenticity in terms of ground reports - making it all altogether more real. The perseverance of people like Rajeev Srivastava of DB Live and Sanjay Sharma of 4 PM, the sharpness of Deepak Sharma, Prof Ravikant and Prashant Tandon, the anecdotal chirpiness and insights of Ashok Wankhede, the gravity of Abhisar Sharma, Anand Vardhan Singh, Punya Prasun Bajpai and Ajit Anjum, the clarity of Prem Kumar, KP Malik and Vivek Deshpande, the contributions of Neelu Vyas, Girijesh Vashistha, Abhishek Kumar, Bushra Khanum, Shravan Garg, Dinesh K Vohra, Umakant Lakhera, Sheetal P Singh, Meenu Jain, Priya Sahgal, Sandeep Manudhane, Shakeel Akhtar, Vineeta Yadav, Anil Sinha, Girish Joshi, Akhil Swami, Abhay Dubey, Mayur Jani and so many more (including Satya Hindi and Ashutosh, though their propensity to present the "opposing voice" to the “rebel voice” diluted their coverage, as the latter was just establishment propaganda) must be remembered at this moment, as much as our united opposition.

They are heroes of this freedom movement, which is still a work-in-progress, but the progress is undeniable.

Jaideep Varma is a Mumbai-based writer and filmmaker.