In this open season against the media, the prime minister has chosen to weigh in by describing the “Modi wave” as a “media creation”. It is almost as if all the opinion polls, roadshows, speeches, interviews and public reactions have been choreographed by the media to prop up the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. The last time I heard a similar accusation was, ironically, before the Delhi assembly elections in December when Arvind Kejriwal was described as a ‘television studio’ phenomenon. Truth is, both Modi and Kejriwal have simply used the modern media weaponry much better than their rivals.
Kejriwal’s style was almost guerrilla-like. Facing a resource crunch, he timed his high-profile interventions to match the demands of prime time 24x7 television. His much publicised dharna at Rajpath, for example, was designed to ensure that he monopolised the airwaves. Modi, on the other hand, has gone the carpet bombing route, using a mix of big money, high-end technology and traditional political messaging to convert his entire campaign into a giant event management exercise.
The Congress, which now laments Modi’s use of money power, perhaps had the same cash reserves at its disposal. It’s just that Team Modi has made better use of its election war chest. Did anyone, for example, stop the Congress from exploiting the available 3D technology to reach millions? If Modi could have high-quality camera units accompany him for every rally, why did it take so long for the Congress to play catch up? If Modi chose to convert his nomination procession into a made-for-television extravaganza, what stopped the Congress from doing the same with Rahul Gandhi in Amethi? And, if Team Modi could dominate the social media space, what prevented the Congress from striking back? Indeed, on sites like Twitter and Facebook, it is AAP that has offered a more resolute challenge to the Modi spin doctors than the Congress, whose leader is not even on social media.
It would also be easy to blame a flawed advertising campaign for the Congress’ woes. The fact is, political advertising is only as good as the product on display. A beaming Rahul Gandhi claiming to have built a new India was never going to match with the reality of 10 years of wasted opportunities. A Bharat Nirman campaign in a period of high inflation and low growth was only going to invite rage and cynicism. By contrast, the Modi message worked because he didn’t have to carry the baggage of being in power in Delhi, he could simply spin a dream for a rosy future. Even the media planning for the Modi campaign was a step ahead of the Congress: Notice how intelligently they used sporting events like the World T20 to target a core youth constituency.
The Congress and AAP have also argued that a large section of the media, under the influence of the corporate class, has taken sides. It’s a serious accusation that deserves attention. There is enough reason to believe that corporate India doesn’t want a UPA 3 government at any cost; shedding their inhibitions a number of business leaders have openly batted for a Modi-led government. Media barons sharing a platform with Modi at his political rallies is a troubling sight as is the growing tribe of senior journalists who have abandoned any pretence of neutrality in their desire to hop onto the Modi bandwagon.
Across television channels, every move and statement of the BJP leader has been tracked with an unbridled enthusiasm. The coverage on some networks has had a certain breathless frenzy to it, almost as if Modi is a world cup winning captain riding to glory on a team bus. Scepticism has given way to cheerleading, a flaw which is a consequence of a growing lack of professionalism within the media.
But the conspiracy theorists need to accept certain news realities too: Modi today, like him or not, is box office. TRP-obsessed channels will gravitate towards someone who is gaining eyeballs, not because there is a sinister quid pro quo but because ‘Brand Modi’ sells. If, when their rallies clashed, most TV channels preferred to stick to a Modi rally while keeping Gandhi’s speech on mute, the editorial choice was almost entirely based on who is seen as the newsier speaker, not because there was a preconceived agenda against the Congress leadership.
As a charismatic public orator, Modi is at ease with the television camera. By contrast, Gandhi comes across as almost collegiate. For example, Gandhi’s interview with Times Now in January this year was an unmitigated disaster where he was shown up as woolly headed and grossly under-prepared. In his subsequent soft focus interviews, he appears more like an edit page writer sermonising on the idea of India rather than a combative politician ready to take the battle into the opposition camp.
Modi in his interviews, on the other hand, comes through as a tough, no-nonsense leader, helped in no small measure by the fact that no interviewer has chosen to aggressively cross-question him on obvious holes in his arguments. The choice and timing of interviews has been strategic: Done entirely on terms that are favourable to the interviewee. In the process, Modi has successfully managed to control the political narrative with the media failing to seriously interrogate the Gujarat model. That doesn’t make him a ‘media creation’, it only makes him a very clever politician. And makes journalism at times, sadly, descend into cronyism.
Post-script: While Manmohan Singh laments the media playing up the Modi ‘wave’, he might pause to consider why he has almost stayed away completely from the media for the last five years. If the prime minister of a country with hundreds of news channels remains in silent mode, why blame a contender for occupying the space you have chosen to vacate?