Get a crowd, declare a revolution
These days, everybody uses numbers. Each week, crores of rupees are spent on advertising on television on the basis of TRPs. These are television ratings that are supposed to provide an indication of how many people watch each television programme. At the India Against Corruption rally, the leaders of the movement tell us that they have received overwhelming support – as much as over 90 per cent perhaps – from the people of India who have texted and mailed them to say that the movement should go political. But somewhere in the cacophony, we lose sight of the total number of texts, mails and tweets. A percentage is only significant if you know the size of the total universe. If 90 per cent of the people are in favour of a political party, that’s great. But what is the actual figure for support? Is it 10,000, one lakh, or even, one crore?
The critics of India Against Corruption play a different sort of numbers game. The media decided that the Anna Hazare movement was not really as revolutionary as Arvind Kejriwal claimed when attendance at the Bombay protests numbered a few thousand. India Against Corruption’s best hope of regaining the overwhelming media support that it had once enjoyed lay in turning out the numbers for its recent Delhi protest. When the crowds – on the first two days, at least – fell well below expectations, the TV channels turned their backs on Kejriwal, Bhushan, Bedi and the rest.
In contrast, no matter what you think of Baba Ramdev and his views, there is no doubt that he is attracting more people than Arvind Kejriwal. On Thursday, August 9, he claimed that 40,000 people had turned up at the Ramlila Ground to participate in his agitation. The police disputed this figure but even they conceded that there were at least 25,000 people there. Judged purely in terms of numbers, this makes Ramdev’s a more successful movement than, say, Arvind Kejriwal’s.
But should we judge things only in terms of numbers? We all know that India has the second largest population in the world. Over the last two decades, our people have become increasingly connected to each other and to the news. In contrast with the Western world, newspaper readerships in India are at an all-time high. Internet penetration has increased faster than anyone had a right to expect. Television now reaches every corner of our country. The mobile phone revolution has achieved in a single decade what fixed-line telephony could not manage over several decades. And now, if the government has its way, even those below the poverty line will be given mobile phones at subsidised rates or even, for free.
All this means that the universe for TV programmes or political movements in India is so enormous that, for any numbers game to have any meaning, we must have some sense of the numbers quoted in relation to the total population.
Let’s take the recent TRP controversy, for example. You may or may not accept the NDTV case that the ratings are rigged and that the system is corrupt. But even if you don’t, you have to agree with the TV industry when it says that you cannot come to conclusions about the nature of TV viewing in India on the basis of 38,000-40,000 households. So vast is the geographical dispersion of the TAM sample that in some cities, the system covers only one English-viewing household. And if the householders have gone out that night, then the system will claim that nobody in that town bothered to watch any English channel that day. This is why ratings for Hindi channels are controversial but those for English TV channels are almost entirely meaningless.
And yet, such is the power of numbers that crores continue to be spent each hour on the basis of these dodgy figures.
So it is with politics and people’s movements. Those of us who have lived through politics over the last two or three decades will remember the massive rallies that have paralysed Delhi in the past. Even if you exclude the rent-a-crowd mobs trucked in by political parties, there is no doubt that the likes of Mahendra Singh Tikait and the Left have easily managed audiences in excess of 5 lakhs per rally.
Seen in that context, the figures produced by Ramdev do not seem terribly impressive. The India Against Corruption figures seem even less startling. The home ministry has claimed that when the movement was at its peak and there were rallies and fasts all over India, the total number of people ever gathered on a single day never exceeded two lakh – and that is, if you aggregated every protest in every corner of India.
So, I sometimes wonder at the wisdom of the media in deciding whether a movement has mass support only on the basis of the size of the crowd. Does it really make much difference whether 7,000 people turn up or whether 25,000 protesters attend a rally? In the total context of India, these figures are so small as to be meaningless. Even if Ramdev attracts 40,000 people as he claims, this number pales in comparison to the crowds of around 15 lakh, who have thronged Delhi to join protest rallies in the past.
So it is with the Internet and with Twitter. Anybody with some experience of Twitter will know that a group of say 100 people acting in unison and retweeting each other’s tweets can easily create a storm. When you look at Twitter timelines the sound and fury seem to leap off the screen. But in the context of the entire Twitter universe – forget the rest of India – these storms do not amount to much more than powerful expressions of opinion by a tiny minority.
I have no idea what the total figures for Team Anna’s sms polls or Internet referendums are. But Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan seem to think that the numbers they attract are a suitable representation of the whole of India even though their samples are self-selecting. For instance, early in the life of the movement, when Prashant was asked whether he believed that there should be a debate on his draft of the Lokpal Bill, he said there was no need. The draft had been on the Internet for several months and anyone who wanted to make changes had already been given the opportunity.
It would be a mistake to play down the popularity of the Internet. The HT site, for example, gets up to 9 million unique visitors every month. I am prepared to concede that the India Against Corruption site may have got even more hits. But should decisions about laws that will affect over a billion people be taken by a self-selecting sample of even 12 million people with no electoral legitimacy.
None of this is to detract from the sincerity of the India Against Corruption movement or to pour scorn on Baba Ramdev – though I must admit to being very scornful of TAM and its TRPs. My only point is that in a country as large as ours, a numbers game makes no sense unless you look at the larger picture. Because there are so many of us, it is not difficult to mobilise people or pockets of opinions. But let’s not make the mistake of believing that 40,000 people at a rally or even a few million hits on the Internet represent India.