Don’t like the results of an opinion poll that forecasts a possible defeat? Ban the poll. Don’t like ‘sickular’ journalists who ask uncomfortable questions about riots? Shun those journalists. Asked to provide answers on how natural resources like spectrum and coal are being utilised? Remain silent and make vague statements on coalition dharma and political conspiracy. Asked why reportedly Rs. 2,500 crore is being spent on a statue? Silence the questioner by calling him/her an “anti- national traitor”.
Politicians today have totally failed to grasp the one ubiquitous feature of 21st century democracy: the power and demand for open and diverse information. No political party today is inclined to fight the information war transparently because all parties believe voters are gullible, purchasable and easy to sway through propaganda. While the Congress believes that suppressing information is the way to fight the political battles ahead, the BJP believes that manipulating information through PR campaigns and spin-doctoring can win voters.
The UPA has long been at loggerheads with the media, starting from Kapil Sibal’s summoning of heads of Facebook and Google, to its latest decision to boycott opinion poll shows on television. The BJP only likes information that eulogises Modi and discredits the Congress. Yet, attempts to control or manipulate are in the end, futile. Information today is like a product or a service, driven by the laws of demand and supply. Restrictions on the flow of information will only open the floodgates of underground speculation and rumours, just as when gold imports were banned, gold smuggling corrupted our entire law enforcement system.
Politicians may try to ban opinion polls, but they cannot silence the power of word of mouth, people-to-people interactions or the entire universe of multi-forum public chatter that today relays information far more powerfully and far more subliminally than any opinion poll. If the BJP tries to silence all anti-Modi voices, subterranean murmurings will only mushroom under its nose, pulling down a personality cult from below, with the invisible yet tenacious grip of underwater weeds.
Nineteen seventy-seven was a landmark year for the media and the voter. In 1977 one party controlled all channels of information, opposition was systematically blacked out, dissenting voices were jailed, and the state’s propaganda machine force-fed information that suited the ruling party. What did the voter do? He threw out that party. Did censorship and propaganda sway the voter? No.
In 1982, with the advent of colour television, the Congress’ success at the Asian Games was everywhere. Rajiv Gandhi as the young steward of the Games dominated television images. But did the new colour TV images help the Congress a year later in Andhra Pradesh? While the ruling party was still celebrating pulling off a technicolour TV spectacle, in a stunning political debut, NT Rama Rao bundled out the Congress in Andhra Pradesh. Did the TV images help? No.
In 2004, the NDA’s Shining India dominated the media and billboards. A massive PR campaign extolled the virtues of the Vajpayee government. Did this mega media effort carry the NDA to victory? No, in fact it carried the NDA to defeat. For over three decades, the Left in Bengal carried out sustained propaganda. But could this save the Left once a political alternative became available? No.
Thus it is futile to think that controlling the media or manipulating will influence the voter — in fact, it is a supreme insult to believe that voters are such fools that they will view the results of an opinion poll or dumbly view a PR campaign and immediately alter their voting choices. Honestly engaging with information flows requires that the politician respect the voter, which he sadly does not.
Yet, the Indian voter has repeatedly demonstrated his rationality. If winning elections was simply about a sheep-like electorate responding to symbolism, would a Jagjivan Ram have failed where a Kanshi Ram and Mayawati succeeded? Kanshi Ram built a Bahujan movement, created a lexicon, gave his constituency an identity, showing that voters opt for a detailed plan of action rather than remain content with simply a ‘Dalit’ symbol. More so today, the voter relies on a myriad social interactions and diverse channels of information to make the most rational choice from available options. It is a choice in which the media is one — only one — determinant. Yet, politicians are convinced that the voter is such an idiot that he will vote according to propaganda or platitudinous ‘rural-speak’.
The UPA has issued an advisory on how the media should cover the PM’s speech on Independence Day. The BJP often provides multi-camera clean feed of Modi’s rallies to TV channels, including shots of the crowd and main speakers. On both sides, politicians believe this is to correct the media’s possible ‘biases’. But no amount of advisories will rescue a PM if he has been written off by the voter and no clean feed supply will create a wave in favour of Modi, if there isn’t one on the ground. Conversely, no amount of negative coverage by the media will dent a PM who enjoys real goodwill, and no amount of negative coverage by the media will stop a Modi if he is genuinely popular.
The Soviet Union collapsed in spite of its monopoly on information; hard-line Islamic parties in Pakistan do not get more than 10-15% of electoral support in spite of their noisy TV preachers. Suppression and manipulation of information are both pointless in a society empowered by constant information. In fact, such attempts soon become obvious to the voter. There’s no denying the power of the TV camera, but even more powerful is the power of the human eye.
Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor, CNN-IBN The views expressed by the author are personal