Remember how cracking open a can of spinach would instantly bring alive Popeye the Sailor Man, his muscles rippling, his chest taut as the green stuff flowed through his veins and suddenly injected him with enough strength to beat up Brutus, his arch-nemesis and rival for the love of Olive Oyl, to a quivering pulp? It would appear as if Rahul Gandhi has found his version of magical spinach on his mysterious 57-day sabbatical.
He has spoken more in Parliament in one week this past month than he did in all five years of the 15th Lok Sabha. At the time, party spokespersons would struggle to explain the dichotomy between his talk of empowering law-makers and his evident disinterest in Parliament where his attendance stood at a poor 43%. His acerbic taunting of the Modi government with his ‘Suit-Boot Ki Sarkar’ slogan is in sharp contrast to his absolute silence in his previous avatar, when he didn’t ask a single question during House proceedings. Back then his participation in the parliamentary panels of which he was a member was a dismal 13%; today he is hotfooting it from Delhi to Bhiwandi to make an appearance during a defamation case being heard against him, even though the Supreme Court specifically exempted him from doing so. And the man who never hid his discomfort — bordering on disdain — for the media has finally made his debut on Twitter. So what gives?
Basically Gandhi is doing a Modi on Modi. It was the prime minister who first displayed his intuitive understanding of the Media Moment. In an age of hyper-information and shrinking attention spans the 2014 campaign showed off Narendra Modi’s penchant for occupying a permanent place in the headlines. If Gandhi was aloof from the media and believed us to be irrelevant to the electoral outcome, Modi had his own grave misgivings about our fraternity. He saw most of us, unfairly I believe, as personally hostile to him and biased against his politics. Yet he quickly grasped both the value of the visual image and the intimate immediacy of social media, where he has a definite first-mover advantage. He also knew that the mainstream media, which has increasingly begun to use Twitter and Facebook like they were modern-day wire agencies, would never be able to ignore a good story or a powerful picture. Politics, he understood, was not just about the doing, but also about the telling.
During the campaign Gandhi’s strategists dismissed Modi’s superior communications strategy as rhetoric lapped up by TV studios and irrelevant in ‘real’ India. The subsequent decimation of the Congress brought home the bitter truth. Corruption, misgovernance, ineffectual leadership all combined to defeat the UPA. But the refusal to engage with the citizenry or intrigue and attract it in any other way sounded the death knell for his ambitions.
The only other politician who was similar in his deft understanding of the media-driven politics was Delhi chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal. His party’s underwhelming performance in the parliamentary elections may have been more about overreach and delusions of grandeur. But equally his impressive comeback in the assembly elections and his aggressive sweep of Delhi in the polls is at least partly because he remained alive in the public imagination even when the chips were down.
From the inception of Kejriwal’s India against Corruption movement, to his shoot and scoot press conferences, he too understood that Indian politics is increasingly mediated by mass media. On social networking forums the troopers belonged (and still do, for most part) to only one of two armies — either that of the BJP or AAP. The effectiveness of this approach was reflected in how much air time Kejriwal managed to get in the 2104 elections, even as the leader of a regional party he was clearly ahead of Gandhi and second only to Modi, who would have topped the charts even had he chosen to not give a single interview.
Gandhi is now playing catch-up. His tactics are identical in some ways to those of his political rivals. Just like Modi could convert even the most desultory and routine occasion into a moment of showmanship and thus guarantee that cameras would follow him everywhere, Gandhi too is seeking to create events and thus create news. So padyatras, surprise appearances in local courts, a train ride to Punjab, a belated Twitter feed are all characters in a script borrowed from those whose roles have already been hits at the box-office.
Of course the reason that there is space for him to package the old as new is because of the Modi government’s messaging having gone off kilter in the last few months. Its surround-sound has been cacophonous enough to create a disturbance in the communications frequency. Gandhi is stepping into the space left open by these mistakes of the government.
The irony of course is that as Modi, Gandhi and Kejriwal become masters of media literacy — their talking to mainstream journalists may no longer be a priority or a necessity. These days the press is either coming under open attack from politicians or being ignored altogether. When any of these leaders do grant interviews or even meet informally with the media it is usually only with people they like or approve of or with those they think can impact their political standing.
It makes you think of Manmohan Singh. Pilloried by all of us for his poor leadership and criticised more than any prime minister before him, he never understood the idiom of modern communication. But he was still unfailingly courteous and would always be open to meeting all journalists on a regular basis. Today, as our politicians become more media savvy, we — the media — matter less and less.
(Barkha Dutt is consulting editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective. The views expressed are personal.)