If there was ever any doubt about the class interests of the Indian press it was safely laid to rest on 1 March, when newspapers devoted vast tracts of their editions to coverage of the Union budget, presented in Parliament on 28 February by the Finance Minister, Mr. P. Chidambaram.
As usual The Times of India (TOI) provides the most vivid example. The Bangalore edition of the paper had a special introduction at the top of the front page which, besides blowing its own trumpet in its customary manner, acknowledged that Chidambaram's challenge now was to help "large swathes of India" to "shake off their shackles," "because if India is to be part of the Great Game, every Indian must have a ticket to play."
Fair enough, as certain news anchors on television put it. But going by the rest of the coverage, spanning 17 broadsheet pages, the TOI's concept of "every Indian" does not extend below the great Indian middle class. Under the banner headline, "A whole new ball game," with a sub-head that announced, "PC takes growth as given, pitches for Bharat," there was a column tagged "Where you gain, where it pains," informing readers about the implications of the budget for the taxpayer, investor, consumer and businessman (sic). Among the gains for the consumer because peak customs duty on non-agricultural products had been reduced was the likelihood that various items, including diamonds and imported pet food, would cost less than before.
The strip across the top of pages two and three, offering detailed calculations on what the budget would mean "for you as taxpayer," featured four prototypes - the lowest on the income scale earning 2.5 lakhs a year and the highest one crore per annum.
Views that matter
Among those whose reactions to the budget were quoted in the paper were five Bollywood celebrities and seven business leaders. Of the five Bangaloreans whose views were sought on what the budget would mean for the city, three headed companies (a private hospital, a bank, a consultancy firm), one was a chartered accountant and the other a college student.
Hirani was featured on a page ostensibly dedicated to figuring out what the budget would mean "for the many Indias." The sub-head declared, "We bring you slices of the different Indias that live within the physical boundaries of this country." But the top story was a mood piece datelined Sivagangai, the Finance Minister's constituency, based on interviews with sundry folk encountered in the lane of Kandanur town where his ancestral homes are located, and local Congress workers in the district headquarters.
The three other stories on the page documented reactions to the budget from members of the Confederation of Indian Industry (although the auto driver who took the reporter to the CII's "hub" at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi did get a mention), students and faculty of educational institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Management and the Indian Institutes of Technology (Lucknow University was the lone ranger in this elite company), and assorted chartered accountants and tax consultants. So much for the many Indias!
Three pages were devoted to what the budget would mean for the investor, two to what it would mean for "quality of life" and one to what it would mean to "the global Indian." There was no special page on what the budget would mean for, say, the farmer even though suicides by farmers in distress have been in the news in recent times and virtually the entire media created the impression that the focus of this "election budget" was on Bharat, agriculture, the farm sector, Farm Inc., and so on.
Interestingly, despite this overall impression, the TOI report on what the budget would mean for agriculture was headlined, "No plan for agricultural revival." And the paper's editorial, titled "Off target," concluded that Budget 2007 failed to address not only growth and inflation but also rural uplift.
In fact, the editorial was more informed and perceptive than most of the reports, in some instances contradicting assertions in the latter which appeared to take stated increases in allocations at face value. For example, the report on budgetary provisions for education, headlined "Education gives, quota takes away," said "Education, from primary to higher, has got top marks." But the edit pointed out that while the enhanced allocations were noteworthy, they did not bring India "anywhere closer to spending 6 per cent of its gross domestic product on the sector" and asked, "With the country's literacy levels comparable to, in some cases, lower than, sub-Saharan Africa, is the government serious about tapping the country's demographic dividend?"
Similarly, while the report on what the budget had in store for the health sector was upbeat ("P. Chidambaram gave a booster shot to prevention."), the edit said the allocation of just Rs. 15,291 crore for health "overlooked its role in driving people into indebtedness in rural India" and, in fact, commented "-so much for inclusive growth, which does not factor in the impact of one sector on the rest."
The edit also regretted that economist Amartya Sen's stress on the importance of converging growth and welfare goals had not "rubbed off on policymakers," drawing attention to the shocking levels of malnutrition and slow pace of poverty eradication in the country. According to the edit, if the opportunity to use the additional revenues generated by high growth to create lasting physical and social infrastructure are frittered away, the government cannot claim to be committed to inclusive growth.
Yet, a report in the same paper, headlined "PC is now politically correct," stated that "For a regime which has been accused of not living up to its aam aadmi ke saath pledge, P. Chidambaram on Wednesday gave his Congress colleagues and restive UPA partners enough talking points to claim that their heart still beats for the poor."
Be that as it may, the poor were certainly conspicuous by their absence from budget coverage across all six English newspapers published in Bangalore. Even though most papers claimed that the focus of the budget was on agriculture ("Advantage Farm Inc." and "Agriculture top priority, gets major share" - The New Indian Express; Budget: Focus on farm sector" - The Hindu; "Focus on farm, social sectors - Deccan Herald) no farmers or even agricultural experts were asked for their views.
In fact, far more space was dedicated by all papers to the impact on and reactions from industry, the corporate sector and the stock markets -- besides, of course, politicians. Apart from that, much of the coverage made it clear that the press as a whole did not approve of the apparent slowing down of the economic "reforms" process and the relative reduction of incentives for business.
The common man
Similarly, while reports and analyses were liberally sprinkled with references to aam aadmi it was not clear who this mythical creature was supposed to represent - the middle class "common man" or the third of the country's population officially acknowledged as living below the poverty line? The inevitable result of such ambiguity, perpetuated over the years, is that many in the middle classes now assume that the term refers to them and even believe that they constitute the majority of the Indian people.
Another common feature of the coverage across newspapers was the gender imbalance. For example, of the seven corporate heads quoted on the budget in the TOI only one was a woman and, again, only one woman was included among the seven individuals whose views from the top were published in the paper. Among the Bangaloreans interviewed there was a little more parity: two women to three men. However, there was not a single woman among the 14 persons quoted on the budget in the NIE. DH had one woman among the seven whose responses to the budget were included in the paper. The Hindu did a little better, with two women among the seven quoted.
Further, the concept of "gender budgeting" is obviously still a puzzle to most journalists covering the budget despite the fact that it has been around since the mid-1980s and was first officially introduced in India two years ago. Although gender budgets - now generally known as gender responsive budgets - are not meant to be confined to women-specific themes, nor to advocate separate budgets for women nor solely to increase spending on programmes specially targeted at women, that is how "gender-budgeting" continues to be presented in the media, if at all. The government appears to be equally clueless, with the current budget document still saying it is an evolving mechanism, with more ministries beginning to review programmes and schemes to ensure that they address women's developmental needs, too.
Sexing it up
Another striking aspect of budget coverage over the past couple of years is that newspapers seem to feel the need to make it entertaining. So, with the exception of The Hindu, most resort to cartoons and caricatures, "clever" headlines and even purple prose to jazz up the pages. The TOI also features "sexy" illustrations and photographs, particularly of female movie and sports stars, whether or not they are at all relevant.
This tendency was also evident in the coverage given to the railway budget presented in Parliament two days earlier. Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav obviously inspired both illustrators and headline writers. The TOI's main front page headline, "Lalu dances down the track," was accompanied by a drawing of the minister playing cricket on a railway track on the beach in the company of Rahul Dravid, Saurav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar and Greg Chappel. The NIE had him as a little boy in shorts and T-shirt playing with a toy train while the headline said "Fair Deal: Lalu jadoo touches poor hearts." DH had the minister's face on the engine of a Garib Rath train and Vijay Times went with the headline "Lalu Ban Gaya Gentleman," accompanied by a cartoon.
And, of course, the references to the minister as a "rustic genius," "shouting promises 2007-08 one after the other a la platform vendor," etc., revealed grudging admiration for a man who has defied the comic image he has come to be associated with (thanks partly to his own deliberate efforts and partly to media that had no idea how else to deal with him) by emerging as the hot favourite of business schools and management students both in India and abroad.
In the midst of all this tamasha, it is not surprising that the fine print of the Union budget was missed - both by journalists and, therefore, by readers. For example, going by most news reports - and even analyses - the day after the budget presentation, ordinary readers would be justified in assuming that farmers' interests had been taken care of and that important initiatives such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) had been expanded and strengthened. The lay person had no way of knowing that the opposite was really the case unless he or she happened to read the very few articles published in the mainstream press analysing the budget from the viewpoint of the poor majority of Indians.
For example, with all the media hullabaloo about this year's budget concentrating on the agricultural and social sectors (to the detriment of industry and commerce, as well as the "reforms" process), it came as a shock to read this in an edit page article by P. Sainath in The Hindu on 5 March ("The growth ideology of the cancer cell"): "If this is a pro-farmer budget, it's scary to think of what an anti-farmer one would look like." A few days later, in the same space, an article by economist Jean Dreze ("Empty stomachs and the union budget," The Hindu, 9 March) made it amply clear that both the NREGA and the ICDS had actually been weakened by the present budget.
Newspaper cartoonists seem to have got the budget picture better than the reporters. Ponnappa's in the TOI, for example, had a dog and a cat scrounging for food in a garbage bin, the former observing, "The Finance Minister has ignored us strays completely! He has only provided for the rich canines and felines pampered by pet foods!" And in Dubyaman II, also in the TOI, one woman said to another, "The Budget used to be a mystery before it was presented. Now it's a mystery after it's presented ... No one has a clue as to what it means." That certainly seems to be the case for the majority of those covering the budget and, therefore, for many of us hapless citizens.