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HindustanTimes Mon,21 Apr 2014

Gladiators of political debate are here

Zia Haq, Hindustan Times  New Delhi, July 14, 2013
First Published: 02:39 IST(14/7/2013) | Last Updated: 05:02 IST(14/7/2013)

As 2014 elections inch closer, news-hour television debates and social-media scuffles are becoming louder, meaner, bloodier. A new, aggressive breed of politicians has emerged — more gladiators than spokespersons — going head-to-head on hot-button issues.

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Parties are foisting newer ‘made-for-TV’ personalities. The starchy, poker-faced spokesperson of yesteryear is dead.

Take for instance two of the main opposition BJP’s spokeswomen: Nirmala Sitharaman, a genteel, English-speaking Tamilian who can forcefully defend her party, and Meenakshi Lekhi, a lawyer who many believe propels logic with disproportionate lung power.

“There’s a new challenge every day. You can’t even predict the route a debate is going to take or if it will be open to your views. The challenge is to re-route the debate to make an impact,” says Sitharaman, who the Congress’ Digvijaya Singh had called “gracious” in a tweet.

But such compliments are rare. As developments unfold at dizzying speed, most TV crews hunt for visceral responses. With over 100 news channels, most parties have also expanded their media teams. The BJP has seven national-level spokespersons apart from a battery of 23 others permitted to speak on party’s behalf.

The Congress has unveiled a raft of changes to its publicity machinery, as senior leaders privately admit to losing out to the BJP’s more sure-footed media strategies. http://www.hindustantimes.com/Images/Popup/2013/7/14-07-13-pg01d.jpg

Around noon each day, the Congress’ new communications chief Ajay Maken chats with his countrywide army of 36 media speakers, including eight designated spokespersons. That’s nearly double the talking heads the party had a year ago.

Beginning Monday, the party will deploy seven top leaders, from MPs Renuka Chowdhury to Sandeep Dikshit, to 17 state capitals to publicise the National Food Security Law.

In contrast to today’s heavy verbal artillery, spokesmanship in the ’80s was a staid, one-way affair. Well-known Congress spokesperson VN Gadgil could directly call up the Prime Minister to discuss press matters before meeting journalists, recalls son Anant Gadgil, currently a party spokesperson. Parties have now switched to aggressive corporate-style media management.

The Congress recently added the India head of corporate trainer firm Dale Carnegie, Sanjay Jha, to its list of speakers. Gadgil says his strategy is to use words associated with India’s market-driven economy to connect with the urban youth.

At a recent press conference, he described the BJP as a “call centre of the RSS for product Modi”. Apparently, the remark went down well with party
bosses.

“Today, you have to be accessible anytime and react on anything,” the BJP’s Sitharaman says.

On Friday, as wire service Reuters published an interview of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, his first since being named the BJP’s campaign head, rival parties attacked Modi’s comment that even the death of a puppy in a car accident would pain him. Samajwadi Party’s Kamal Farooqui thundered that Modi had compared Muslims killed in the 2002 sectarian clashes, allegedly under his watch, to puppies.

Modi, usually nonplussed by attacks, sought to clarify his remarks later on the microblogging site, Twitter. “In our culture, every form of life is valued and worshipped,” he wrote.

As part of a new drill, Congress holds a “roll-call” for those set to make television appearances later in the evening. To prime them, the party’s back-end research team promptly furnishes backgrounders, notes and talking points on issues they will pugnaciously debate.

The party has revamped its “media cell” into a broader “communications department”. It has called a workshop on July 22, where five spokespersons from each state will interact with their national counterparts apart from vice-president Rahul Gandhi.

More Congress leaders are aggressively taking to Twitter, such as Manish Tewari, Shakeel Ahmed and Digvijaya Singh, following up on the party’s Jaipur conclave declaration to harness new media.

Ironically, in Jaipur, Congress chief minister Ashok Gehlot has been accused by the BJP of adding fictitious fans on Facebook after a jump in ‘likes’ was traced to Istanbul.

Even Modi, credited with blazing a social media trail, has faced charges of trumping up Twitter followers. In October last year, Status People, a site which has a fake-followers detection app, found Modi’s Twitter account had 46% fake and 41% inactive users.

With television playing an outsized role, many wonder if news shows have vitiated the debate.

“There was a time when parents would tell children to read certain newspapers as part of their broader education. TV channels should also be able to serve a similar ‘must-watch-to-learn’ role. Unfortunately, there is a genuine scope for higher-level debates,” said Sitharaman.

But for now, everybody seems to love a good, high-decibel fight.

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