Elections 2024: Need To Vote Certainly

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A rather perplexing phenomenon has been observed in India during the last two elections in particular, that though the uneducated and rural voters exercise their franchise committedly, the urban voters – mostly highly educated prefer to shun casting their vote and then bemoan the verdict. But in 2024, it is crucial for everyone and particularly the minorities’ educated class to come out in huge numbers to vote if they want to ensure their own and their kith and kin’s safety, and safeguarding the county’s constitutional and secular values.

By Asad Mirza

NEW DELHI —The election festival in India has started yet again and with the First phase of the mammoth exercise starting off on 19 April, the political pundits are wondering once again, how the Indian Muslims are going to vote.

If we analyse the election results of the last two general elections, then we realise that at the national level, no Muslim party was able to attract the Muslim voters in a sizeable numbers. Though they proved to be a vote divider and spoiler in many constituencies.

Data available at the Election Commission of India’s website from the Lok Sabha polls in 2019, shows that the ruling BJP won narrowly on 40 seats in the country.

Of its 303 tally, it won by less than 50,000 votes in as many 40 seats in 2019. This is usually considered a reversible margin.

This means that if the margins had been reversed, it would have taken its tally down to 263. Of these 40 narrow victories, 11 were versus the Congress party, and six against the Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party and Biju Janata Dal. Four were versus the Trinamool Congress, two versus the Rashtriya Lok Dal, and one each against the All India United Democratic Front, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Janata Dal (Secular) and an Independent.

Moreover, fourteen of these narrow seat victories were in the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh. Machlishahar in UP has the dubious distinction of electing a BJP MP by just 181 votes in the last elections. Overall, of its 303 seats, BJP won by less than one lakh votes on 77 seats.

Firstly, in view of these facts it should be the strategy of the secular political parties and particularly of the Muslim leaders to focus on these crucial seats and turn the tide against the BJP. If we find them lacking in these efforts, then the community’s intellectuals and experts, who are robustly active on various social media platforms, should persuade the Muslim voters to cast their vote positively on the D-day.

Secondly, the mention of the importance of social media in today’s India, brings our attention to a recent report complied by Al Jazeera on the medium’s importance and how it is being used to spread mis- or disinformation and increasing Islamophobia among the electorate.

India has over 460 million YouTube users, making it the platform’s largest market, with four out of five Internet users in India consuming its content. Increasingly, more and more Indians are getting their news from YouTube, now a day.   

The report says that most often these YouTube channels peddle mis- or disinformation in the garb of news. Some of these YouTube news channels increasingly offer a smattering of disinformation and Islamophobia, often cheerleading PM Modi and his party, the BJP while targeting its critics and opposition leaders.

However, what makes these channels unique is that they claim to be ‘news’ channels, ostensibly claiming to present fact-based reportage. From mocking and attacking Modi’s rival politicians to peddling conspiracy theories about Muslims trying to harm Hindus, these channels often complement the BJP’s own campaign efforts.

These channels, though lesser known than mainstream news channels, have millions of viewers, giving them an outsized role in how the world’s largest democracy is consuming news as India prepares for its national election.

The report further says that for instance, NMF News, which ranks among India’s top 100 YouTube news and politics channels, has over 18.2 million subscribers with over 8.1 billion views. Headlines India, with over 8.83 million subscribers has nearly 3 billion views; Rajdharma News, with its 3.2 million subscribers has nearly 0.9 billion views.

With such a wide reach, concerns abound how such ‘news’ outlets might shape perceptions and opinions, especially during the election season.

Studies have shown that Indians place greater trust in news they view on YouTube and WhatsApp, over news delivered by mainstream media outlets. Already, the World Economic Forum’s 2024 Global Risk Report has concluded that the most severe risk India faces is the fallout from the spread of false information.

The Al Jazeera report further quotes a study done by Narrative Research Lab, a New Delhi-based data lab that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to track print media and social media content. NRL analysed the content across six channels – NMF, Rajdharma, Headlines India, Shining India, Capital TV and O News Hindi – and found that coverage of India’s opposition parties was muted and its leaders were rendered almost invisible. In contrast, Modi and the BJP loomed large, their coverage almost always glowing.

The lab analysed 2,747 videos published by these channels between December 22, 2023, and March 22, 2024. In their findings, the lab found that across all the channels, some of the most frequently used words in the titles were “Modi”, “BJP” and “Yogi”, referring to the hardline BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, while mentions of opposition parties and leaders were used scarcely.

A “sentiment analysis” by the lab found that while “Modi” was used commonly across videos that had both negative and positive sentiments, references to India’s opposition figures like Gandhi mostly emerged in negative phrases.

Sundeep Narwani, the co-founder of the Narrative Research Lab, told Al Jazeera that these channels served a useful purpose as “vehicles” for negative targeting.

Independent journalist Neel Madhav, who co-authored an award-winning investigation into the functioning of these channels for the New Delhi-based Caravan magazine, told Al Jazeera that many of these channels were “an integral part” of the BJP’s social media messaging.

“Very often, BJP social media handles post videos from these channels,” he said. “In addition, BJP sympathisers use the party’s social media apparatus to disseminate these videos among their cadres,” he said, thereby helping the channels amplify their reach and, as a result, generate revenue from clicks and views.

Routinely, these channels amplify Islamophobic sentiments and use anti-Muslim tropes. The Narrative Research Lab analysis also found that there was a spike in the number of videos these channels produced on events like the day the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act rules were announced on March 11.

Another issue which haunts the journalists in this election season is the extra vigil and precaution, which they have to exercise while covering the elections. Based on their past experiences, the journalist in a survey carried out by the US-based CPJ – The Committee to Protect Journalists, which promotes press freedom worldwide, and defends the right of journalists to report the news safely and without fear of reprisal – said they were concerned about political violence, criminalisation of journalism, attacks by other journalists and online censorship, while covering the elections.

In sum these elections are crucial not just in face of the daunting task carried by journalists as listed above, but are also important for the minority community to vote strategically, unitedly, unwaveringly and certainly by ensuring their presence at the polling booths on the D day, to ensure the safety of minorities in the country, otherwise foreboding messages which currently abound on WhatsApp university may turn into a frightening reality.

 (Asad Mirza is a Delhi-based senior political and international affairs commentator.)

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