TV changes the rules
You will have heard all the usual stuff about television and the election. You will have been told that TV focuses on superficialities, that it does not reach the masses, that TV debates are an irrelevance etc etc.
I don’t want to get into all of that. But there’s one way in which TV has changed the rules of electioneering. And I find that it does not get enough credit for that.
In its own way, television has made politicians more accountable. In the old days, politicians said what they liked at public meetings, in rural areas, secure in the knowledge that these speeches would never reach a wider audience.
They also believed that it was entirely acceptable to say different things at different stages of the campaign, arguing that nobody would remember what they had said a month ago.
Television has changed all that.
The most striking example of this transformation is the furore over Varun Gandhi’s speeches. Only a decade ago, these speeches would hardly have become a national controversy because few people would have heard them. When journalists would have asked Varun about the inflammatory content of his utterances, he could easily have denied saying anything provocative or offensive.
In the television era, this is no longer possible. Every word that politicians utter on the campaign trail has the potential to reach the widest possible audience. No longer can politicos tailor their speeches to suit each constituency and no longer can they be irresponsible in the seclusion of remote villages.
But there’s been another change as well. Politicians are now haunted by anything they say. They can never deny having said it and each time they change their minds, TV will run clips of their old statements to show how their positions have now altered.
We have been seeing this most clearly in the controversy over Manmohan Singh and Prakash Karat. Only a few months ago Manmohan was claiming that the Left treated him like bonded labour and tearing into their policies. Now he is bending over backwards to say that he has nothing personal against the Left and inviting his old enemies to support the UPA again.
Similarly, Prakash Karat went into this election ruling out any kind of support to a Congress-led government. Now he has had to backtrack and say things like “Let’s wait for the 16th before deciding.” Once upon a time he would have got away claiming that his position had not changed. But in the TV era everything is on record and is instantly replayable. So Karat finds it hard to credibly deny that his position has changed.
The biggest loser in the later stages of this campaign has been Nitish Kumar. Despite being a BJP ally and running a government in partnership with the BJP in Bihar, Nitish has managed to suggest that he is entirely secular. He has got away with this because the print media have never scrutinized his record closely enough to look for the contradictions in his position.
TV has not been so forgiving. Early in the campaign interviewers from Headlines Today and NDTV got him to criticise Narendra Modi on the record. Nitish even denied that he would share a stage with Modi under any circumstances.
This made the shots of Narendra Modi fondling him on stage at the NDA’s Ludhiana rally even more damaging to Nitish’s image than they would otherwise have been. TV was quick to replay the footage from all the old interviews when Nitish had publicly expressed his disdain for Modi’s brand of politics. When the Bihar chief minister later tried to claim that he had been a victim of some political version of date rape, nobody was listening.
In the US, politicians have learned that they are always under scrutiny. No matter where they go, there is somebody with a mobile phone who can shoot videos of their utterances and actions. Indian politicians are still grounded in the old reality and do not realize that the rules have changed.
Perhaps after this campaign they will come to terms with the power and omnipresence of television.