UPA II: disconnected from media, middle class

Sometimes it is hard to believe that the UPA government, which lurches from crisis to crisis these days, is the same government that won a triumphant victory after a successful first term. And yet, the principal players are much the same. The few portfolios may have been changed but it is the same men and women who took the UPA through its first term who are in charge today.

So, why has the government which performed well enough to win a second term suddenly begun to seem like the gang that can’t shoot straight?

There are many factors that have contributed to this transformation, many of which are obvious. There is, first of all, the problem of voter fatigue and anti-incumbency. A second-term government usually seems a little tired and unable to cope with the discontent that has built up. A second factor is the recession in the global economy. It is easy for a government to seem well-run when things are going well.

But when people find that prices are rising much faster than their incomes and that their homes have depreciated in value, they tend to blame the government.

But there is also a third factor. And nobody in the government seems to be paying much attention to it. Until around a decade ago, the Indian model of governance differed from the British or American model in one important respect. The majority of our voters lived in the villages, the mass media had a limited role and the middle class, though noisy, was politically insignificant. Take, for instance, the protests over the Mandal proposals, put forward by the VP Singh government in 1990. Those protests were much greater than the ones we have seen over the last week on the rape issue. They were even more widespread than Anna Hazare’s movement at its peak. Students actually burnt themselves alive on the streets of our cities. And yet, the government was able to largely ignore the protestors. Not one policy was changed or modified as a consequence of the immolations.

One significant change over the last decade is that we have entered an era of mass media. Our leaders like to argue that the media do not reach the villages or influence the majority of voters. Even if they are right (and I do not think they are) they still ignore the fact that the middle class has doubled in size over the last several years.
As the middle class has increased and as the consumer revolution has created more advertisers, there are more media outlets across print and TV than ever before. Add to this the influence of social media and you have some sense of how much the media landscape has changed since the days when VP Singh was able to ignore the Mandal protestors.

By itself, this is not unprecedented. The way to look at it is to consider than the Indian middle class is now as large as the population of a European country. So, the answer is for the political class to devote as much time to middle-class media as European and American leaders do. This should be easy enough. There are many time-honoured precedents and practices from the global experience that they can follow.

The problem is that our leaders don’t seem to realise how much the media have changed and how middle-class expectations now shape media coverage. In the early days of the UPA, long before Twitter was a factor and before the news channels settled into gladiatorial combat, it was possible to present the Gandhis as barely-visible figures and to package Manmohan Singh as this kindly uncle who was a bit of a bore but who meant well.

Alas, this no longer works.

We have seen one example of this in the handling of the Delhi rape case. Let’s accept that what happened was shameful. But let’s also recognise that no one individual (apart from the rapists, of course) was responsible. The decades of inefficient policing under various governments and a mindset that caused the system to turn a blind eye to people who molested and teased women were responsible. (Many of these molesters have historically been politicians.)

In some ways, the parallel is with the recent school shootings in America. Nobody there argued that the murders were the government’s fault or that the police could have prevented them. But the public mood was one of hurt, rage and bewilderment. Americans wondered how such a thing could possibly have happened in their country. And they wanted assurances that the authorities would take steps to ensure that it never occurred again.

Look at the way American politicians used the media to empathise with a hurt nation and to provide reassurances. Even non-Americans had tears in their eyes when they heard President Obama talk about the murders. There was a real sense that the nation’s leaders were communicating with the people and addressing their anger, sorrow and insecurity.

Contrast this approach with the way in which our government handled the case. The politicians had a simple policy: throw the Delhi Police Commissioner to the wolves. Yes, perhaps Sheila Dikshit should be put in charge of the police force. But this is hardly the time to get into a public fight with the police. It only has the effect of compounding the feeling of anger and helplessness within the population.

As for the home minister, what can one say?

Perhaps he is a good administrator. But judged as a communicator, he comes off as a prize idiot. Does it really make any sense to compare talking to protestors to negotiating with Naxalites? Should we give him an extra biscuit for coming to work on a Sunday as he seemed to think he deserved?

And finally, what of Manmohan Singh? Contrast Obama’s magnificent response to the crisis with Manmohan Singh’s decision to hide inside 3 Race Course Road. When a public outcry forced him to scurry out of his hole, his speech was so depressingly flat that the only thing it achieved was to turn him into a social media joke because of the ‘Theek Hai’ that a sloppy television crew included in the telecast.

Eventually, the message that went out was this: forget about running an effective law and order machine, these jokers are so incompetent they can’t even put together a Prime Ministerial telecast without turning the PM into a joke.

I use the rape crisis as an example because it is the freshest in our memory. But if you go back over the last three years, you will find that nearly every time there has been a crisis or a controversy, the UPA has alienated the media, and their growing middle-class audience.

I don’t think Manmohan Singh and his colleagues do this because they are bad people or because they are arrogant. They do it because they are simply out of their depth in the new age of media and do not realise how much India has changed since they came to office.

Because all of us admired Manmohan Singh so much when he took office it is particularly sad to see what he has become. He started out as the liberalising lion of the new India. Now he seems like a little mouse who is unwilling to face his own people.

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