Consumed by the media

AS I SEE IT

Those who live by the media are often consumed by it. In the last few days, as the fast-changing Hindu political soap opera has played out on television, one is left wondering whether the BJP is being bitten by the very hand that it fed all these years. As old resentments and deep-seated animosities are given a ready media platform, the BJP seems almost clueless on how to stop the public bloodletting. For a party which has been the biggest beneficiary of  the news revolution, it’s ironical that the relentless nature of round-the-clock news television is proving to be a double edged sword.

Rewind to 1990 a little after the Ramayana serial on Doordarshan had just made prime-time religion a national obsession. It was the year of  the rath yatra and the rise of the BJP as a political force. As a young reporter tracking L K Advani on his journey to stardom, I was struck with the finesse with which the BJP handled the traveling media. Every little detail of the yatra was meticulously planned and the journalists were provided the kind of professional support which would have done a corporate communication office proud. Advani in his Toyota rath with a support cast of  colourful characters, the rath yatra was a made for media event.

The-yatra itself was well before an assembly line of private TV channels arrived to completely transform the news business. But it was obvious even then that the BJP was well-prepared, almost relishing the onset of the new media revolution. Its leaders were articulate, had a knack of  giving sharp, snappy soundbites, and were even groomed, it seemed, to perform before the camera.

 The results were there for all to see: While Congress campaigns through the 90s seemed chaotic and disorganised, its spokespersons unsuited to the demands of contemporary television, the BJP was a media-savvy, tech-friendly and well-oiled political machine. Covering the Congress was a nightmare: No one, it seemed, had a mandate to speak for the leadership, most of  the information was off record, and what was on record was often too banal to make news. The BJP leadership, by contrast, never hesitated to speak its mind, and its spokespersons were always good value for money in any television debate.

 Winning the television battle may have appealed to the BJP’s new found urban, middle class constituency, the couch potato class that was easily seduced by the glitz of  infotainment. But, unfortunately, India is not a tele-democracy and the real India battle needed more than just fine words to succeed. Talk shows, sms alerts and web activism could never compensate for the harsh realities of  the ballot box. Barack Obama, the greatest political phenomenon of our times, used these ‘new media’ tools to build his campaign, but in the Indian context, there are limitations.

 Take the 2004 India Shining campaign. Its brand manager, the late Pramod Mahajan, was the original marketing guru of  the BJP. He had played an important role in choreographing the rath yatra and, once in government, it was Mahajan again who was the party’s impresario. Mahajan was skilful, but even the most skilled advertiser will fumble if he begins to routinely substitute hype for substance. In the over-emphasis on media management, Mahajan lost touch with the real constituency of  the neta: the voter, a fact that to his credit he readily acknowledged in the aftermath of the 2004 defeat.

That defeat should have convinced the BJP that winning the television battle was not enough to win the election war. But in 2009 too, the BJP’s election seemed trapped in clever soundbites, which may have earned applause from studio audiences, but appeared to lose out in the heat and dust of  electoral politics. Moreover, the Congress by now had also learnt the art of political communication: Its spokespersons this time were no longer old dodderers, but bright-eyed politicians with an eye to the future.
 To be fair, the BJP still remains a more open, accessible party to the news media than the Congress. An LK Advani, whose candour has made him a journalists’ delight, will still be tempted to give an interview to explain his position, but a Sonia Gandhi prefers a veil of secrecy around her actions. A Manmohan Singh as prime minister hasn’t done a single television interview, an Atalji by contrast, often spoke his mind on television. The fact that many BJP members have been former journalists has often made them more amenable to media scrutiny.

But the desire for transparency can also at times become a recipe for anarchy. Remember Uma Bharti’s infamous walk-out from a party meeting that was played out on live TV? Can anyone imagine a CWC meeting being conducted in the glare of the cameras? By erecting a wall of silence around itself, the Congress has been successful in controlling information flow. The BJP’s ‘democratic’ inclinations have given a virtual ‘licence’ to some of its members to air their grievances in public.

Ironically, in its hour of crisis, the BJP has been forced to turn to the RSS, an organisation which has never been comfortable with an intrusive media. The early sarsanghchalaks rarely appeared before the press, gave few interviews, and generally derived their power from their relative inaccessibility.

The English language media in particular was seen as hostile to the RSS’s vision of Hinduvta, and hence was never welcome in the shakhas. It is only in the last decade that the RSS has shown signs of opening up, even though the suspicions about the angrezi ‘pseudo-secular’ media haven’t  entirely disappeared.

Perhaps with the RSS in charge, the BJP will be less inclined to reach out to the media, and it too will revert to being a closed, inward-looking political outfit. The result might be greater internal discipline, but it also might mean less of  the drama and excitement that has accompanied the rise and fall of the BJP. Purely from a journalistic point of view that would be a real pity.

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