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Sparring soldiers

india Updated: Apr 21, 2013 03:54 IST
Zia Haq
Zia Haq

When TT Krishnamachari, Nehru's finance minister, described Feroze Gandhi as Nehru's lap dog, he had found his match. Gandhi is said to have snapped, that since Krishnamachari considered himself a pillar of the nation, he would do to him what a dog usually did to a pillar.

The well-known anecdote shows that India's political adversaries are given to derisive attacks. But they weren't as nutty then as today. (The "lap dog" jibe wasn't about literally calling someone a dog, but a metaphor for a blue-eyed boy. The "dog-pillar" analogy was still deemed civil.)

Political articulation in India is now defined by increasing competition: greater number of voices competing for attention. All too often, politicians cross the line. Like Tony Blair, who would write for The Sun to reach conservative voters, Indian politicians still take to the pen to reach the public. However it is on television that they come alive.

Political discourse isn't one-way traffic anymore because television debates are mediated. Politicians therefore not only have to battle one another but also studio anchors, who may have "opposing news values" (Darren G. Lilleker, Key Concepts in Political Communication).

"The first and foremost qualification is that you should understand politics and your party. If you have not grown and internalised its culture, then you may find it difficult to handle challenges of political communication on a daily basis," says information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari, who led a forceful retaliation during the government's two biggest crises: the 2G scam and the Anna Hazare campaign. In a different era, spokespersons were men of few words but weighty, such as the late VN Gadgil of Congress and JP Mathur of BJP.

Modern political communication theories largely trace their origin to American political scientist Harold Dwight Lasswell, who framed his hypothesis around "who says what to whom via which channels and with what effects".

The element of "effects" may have become far too important. "Politicians are getting used to compliments on how they conduct on TV, such as, 'you looked good, instead of, you made a lot of sense'," says Rajeev Desai, CEO, Comma Consulting, who informally advised late PM Rajiv Gandhi and was Congress' media strategist between 1997-2004.

Increasingly, the media not just reflect a debate but cause it by asking leading questions, according to Desai. The task of a spokesperson has therefore become far more important. Only if there was a little sanity, says political analyst Sunita Iyer. "Too many talking heads, too little sense," she says.