Giriraj Singh’s first response after making despicable comments about Congress president Sonia Gandhi was not an apology but an expression of indignation delivered with misplaced candour: he thought what he had remarked to reporters during an informal chat would be “off the record”.
Sadly, for the minister and Narendra Modi loyalist, it wasn’t. One TV camera remained on, recording for posterity the footage of Singh’s racist remarks, including the loud guffaws with which they were received — by the (I’m assuming, mostly male) reporters who were present.
Utterances by Singh or by other politicians — such as the senior MP Sharad Yadav’s recent comment in the Rajya Sabha about dark-skinned women — offer frequent peeks into the Indian mindset beset as it is with chauvinism, sexism and gender insensitivity. But the other thing about such controversies involving Indian politicians is their complete disconnect with the changing media scenario where what you say, innocuously or otherwise, is always on record.
A TV channel, which is a conventional form of media, may have recorded Singh’s comments but it is really the media in its newest and emerging forms that catches politicians off guard. Such as the countless owners of camera-equipped phones or the millions of people with instant access to social media platforms such as Twitter.
Last month another minister in Modi’s government, Gen. VK Singh, tripped when he, rather ill-advisedly, shot out to his over 390,000 followers a string of cryptic tweets after he officially attended Pakistan Day celebrations hosted by Pakistan’s high commissioner in Delhi. The tweets (with hashtags that said ‘Duty’ and ‘Disgust’) seemed to indicate that he was not happy about being deputed to represent the government at the event — an interpretation that Singh later countered but not before facing a bout of avoidable controversy.
The thing about social media such as Twitter is that it’s basically a free-for-all arena where what you say or do is always out in the open — something that those in public life, especially those new to using such media are unaccustomed to.
In 2009, Shashi Tharoor, then a minister in the UPA regime and an early adopter of Twitter among Indian politicians, cracked what should have otherwise been an innocuous joke about travelling “cattle class” on flights but it landed him in a stew with his party, which thought he might have been taunting its austerity drive.
In 2012, when the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s office signed on to Twitter, a model and reality show star promptly sent him a scantily clad image of herself — not exactly something that the venerable PM’s advisors had expected. And many Indian politicians have been caught out on social media when they’ve committed gaffes by tweeting contradictions on the same issue.
Still, the Indian public on social media platforms is probably more forgiving than others are. Last year, when British PM David Cameron tweeted a picture of himself looking serious while ostensibly on the phone with US president Barack Obama, he inadvertently began an internet meme with people posting pictures of themselves mimicking Cameron — the most memorable of them being the septuagenarian actor Patrick Stewart (Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard) who posted a picture showing him holding a roll of wet wipes to his ear with the post: “I’m now patched in as well. Sorry for the delay.”
And in 2011, when British Labour Party MP Ed Balls wanted to search Twitter for a post, he inadvertently typed his name and posted it. His tweet got retweeted by thousands and the anniversary of that particular day is still marked as ‘Ed Balls’ day in twitterdom. Balls, on his part, has taken his gaffe in his stride: he recently auctioned a printed and framed autographed version of the tweet for a fund-raiser.
Such sense of humour may be uncommon among our politicians and others in public life but their bloopers and gaffes are not. And as they come to terms with the emerging media landscape, they, like poor Giriraj Singh, must realise that nothing is “off the record” anymore.
Sanjoy Narayan ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) is the HT editor-in-chief
Also read:Five politicians who shamed the country