Tele-democracy, Trump and Modi

The latest opinion polls in the US are suggesting a much tighter race for the country’s presidency but the debate in Washington DC, at least, has slowly shifted from “will Trump be the next US president” to “gee, how did someone like Trump get so close to the White House”. This mood shift reflects the belated realisation that the US could be electing a man who is clearly unsuited to the job, someone whose outrageous remarks evoke as much anger as mirth across large parts of the country. It will still take an electoral miracle for Trump to win but in assessing his ascent, one may wish to reflect on a trend which holds relevance for India too: Did the billionaire real estate tycoon get this far because television gave him the oxygen to sustain what has been a made for television campaign like no other America has seen in recent times?

From the day he emerged as a presidential candidate almost a year ago, Trump has been seen and heard across US television networks with 24 x7 frequency. The camera has followed his every move, tracked his every soundbyte with a relentless gaze. Without spending half the money that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has, Trump has been assured constant prime time coverage. As a former reality television star, Trump perhaps knew that if he kept spewing bizarre rhetoric, the giant television machine, in the maddening race for ratings, would lap him up. While Hillary has appeared scripted and rehearsed, Trump has thrived on the sensational. In a sense, Trump challenged the “liberal” media consensus by building an alternate right-wing propaganda machine. It is no coincidence that the rise of Trump coincided with the exponential growth in right-wing television networks like Fox and vocally conservative websites like Breitbart. For much of the campaign, these media groups have been in an endless embrace with a man who was appealing to the more base instincts of the American voter by playing on fears of race, immigration and the loss of jobs to “outsiders”.

It is not just the US, though, where the notion of a “tele-democracy” threatens to skew voter choices. The 2014 general elections in India saw, for the first time perhaps, the principal battleground shifting from the maidan to the media. Narendra Modi’s initial spectacular rise owes much to the fact that he understood and mastered the television game quickly enough. In the build-up to the general elections, Modi orchestrated a series of well-planned “events”, all designed to appeal to prime time television audiences. His oratorical style made him ideally suited for news television: By the end, he was often seen twice or thrice in a single day making a live speech. Like Trump, Modi too romanced the voter through the TV camera lens. The young voter who is exposed to a 360 degree media bombardment seemed particularly enthused by the idea of politics as reality television with right-wing dominated social media and the Internet becoming echo chambers for the noise of an increasingly “nationalistic” agenda.

There is another parallel. In the US, it is only now that the media has put the Trump campaign through a rigorous fact-checking process. For a long time, he was simply allowed to get away with making his exaggerated claims. In the 2014 elections too, Modi’s much-hyped Gujarat model was similarly unquestioned: His charismatic style was seen to be enough to guarantee the eyeballs. When he, for example, claimed that he would ensure five crore jobs once elected to office, no one bothered to check what the employment figures for Gujarat really were. Modi, like Trump, was box office: No mainstream media wants to challenge a telegenic political superstar since there is an incestuous edge to the equation. Moreover, if Modi had mastered the television narrative, his principal rival Rahul Gandhi floundered when put before a television screen. The contrast could not have been more stark.

And yet, where the Modi brand of tele-democracy has scored over Trump is that the former understood the importance of message discipline during a long campaign. Not once did Modi stray from his central message of promising “acche din” through muscular leadership. By contrast, Trump has allowed his rumbustious style to get the better of him by getting into needless personal battles with his opponents. Maybe that is the difference between a pracharak trained in the austere world of a shakha and a buccaneer businessman used to the high life of New York. Another major difference is that while Trump’s populist demagoguery is built around the politics of fear, Modi successfully re-invented himself as a messiah of hope in 2014.

There are, however, limitations to the “tele-democracy” model in the Indian context. Yes, television can guarantee instant recognition, it cannot always decide voting preferences. A Mayawati, for example, shuns television interviews, a Jayalalithaa is openly contemptuous of the media as is a Mamata Banerjee or even a Naveen Patnaik. And yet, they are all formidable political figures. Identity politics, in particular, goes well beyond neatly choreographed television campaigns. A Dalit in the heart of Bundelkhand will probably vote for Mayawati because she represents a caste identity that is distinctive and empowering. In the complex maze of caste and regional arithmetic, television alone cannot make or mar electoral fortunes, especially in the rural heartland (the BJP did, interestingly, make use of video raths to get its message across to “media dark” villages in the 2014 elections).

But as Indian politics gets more “presidential” in nature, where ideology is sacrificed at the altar of individualism, the importance of the media machine will grow in manufacturing hype around larger than life figures. Issues may end up mattering less than well-crafted soundbytes, especially amongst urban middle class audiences. Arvind Kejriwal’s meteoric rise, for example, owes much to the fact that his anti-corruption movement was almost born in a television studio. That the same television cameras now seek to bring him down is proof that the camera is a double-edged sword. Even in the US, the very television “circus” that seemed to be awestruck by the rise of Trump now seems to be gleefully celebrating his likely downfall. The medium may be the message but it can’t be taken for granted.

A desperate Trump has now put a plan B in action: He says he will set up a Trump TV channel, should he lose on November 8. Interestingly, Modi’s supporters had also planned to experiment with NaMo TV at one stage. Indeed, unless mainstream television news restores its moral compass, it will become fodder for telegenic political demagogues and soundbyte warriors.

Courtesy Indian Express

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