Ms. Sagarika Ghose, one of the poster children of Indian media’s liberal elite, has penned an article for one of the print newspapers, Time of India. In it, she compares the recently concluded 2019 Indian elections to the dynamics of a Reality TV show – Big Boss (the Indian version of Big Brother). Very clearly, she is unable to fully open up about how she truly feels. So here I am telling you what she really wanted to say.
‘Your father’s life ended as Bhrashtachari No. 1’. ‘PM Modi is like a bride with bangles who pretends to work but does nothing. ‘He (Rahul Gandhi) is running away to contest where the majority is the minority.’ ‘PM needs a tight slap of democracy.’ With its steady stream of expletives, campaign 2019 has played out like Bigg Boss, a popular reality TV franchise that showcases the most obnoxious characters. The worst behaved is the biggest star.! Polls 2019 have been politics as reality TV, bringing out the worst instincts of citizens. (Look at me! I have an opinion and I have a platform to express it) As Hillary Clinton said about Donald Trump, “My opponent was the first reality TV candidate and I was, for better or worse, the candidate of reality.’ (Oh wait, you thought you would have to wait a little longer before I invoked Trump here?)
Bad behavior in public sells (I mean, making sure bad behavior sells well in public is literally all us media people’s job description!). For both Donald Trump and Narendra Modi, the more their outward behavior is denounced by the chattering class, the more their appeal grows as tough-talking He-men who don’t play by politically correct rules. (In case you were dumb enough not to connect Trump to Modi earlier, here, let me be more direct about it) Modi’s targeting of the Gandhi family may seem distasteful to his critics, but on the campaign trail, this reporter saw some of the PM’s most vitriolic comments getting vociferous applause, particularly from young North Indian males. (LOL! Did you just see how I called myself a ‘reporter’?!!? LMFAO!!) Even informed educated folks seem attracted to polarizing intolerant speech. (Just a reminder that I am better than you because I am an informed, educated person, OK??) While a group of Delhi University teachers expressed their disapproval of the PM’s “bhrashtachari” remark about slain former PM Rajiv Gandhi (of the Bofors fame), a bigger group of teachers endorsed it. (And that is the only thing you will ever learn about what was said in that speech that day, or how the crowd reacted to anything else that might have been said)
In the Gujarat Assembly elections of 2017, when Modi accused former PM Manmohan Singh of conspiring with Pakistan to influence the poll outcome, it enthused the BJP’s cadre and gave the party a boost. In the 2014 election when as Gujarat CM, he referred to Shashi Tharoor’s companion as the ’50-crore girlfriend’, his image was hardly dented. The boundaries of acceptable behaviour have been pushed as never before as the Election Commission looks on helplessly. (See what I did there? I very subtly connected PM Modi with the Election Commission being powerless. Because, you know, in the next few weeks, we need a narrative like the ‘EC being powerless’ in order to explain how PM Modi comes back to power again in 2019).
A competitive media demands a constant supply of shock-talk from combative strongmen because it makes for much more exciting stuff than the soft-spoken deliberations of policy wonks. Facebook and Twitter are set alight by shock value. (Alright folks, the last two sentences are actually true.) Ringing condemnation of ‘Khan Market liberals’ immediately bolsters the accuser’s profile as a dangerously edgy wartime chieftain. (Damn, I thought we Lutyens media people were the only ones who were good at creating and propagating convenient labels like ‘Saffron Terror’. But these folks have upped the game on us here!) Rational dialogue and low -profile peacemaking don’t make for viral videos. (Yeah, which is why you won’t see any of that on our channels and newspapers)
That’s why Rahul Gandhi’s stance as love sage may not be in tune with the prevailing zeitgeist. (OK this is the best joke I have folks! Rahul Gandhi as a ‘love sage’!) Today it’s the badass anti-hero who rules, as seen in the fact that the star status of Salman Khan or Sanjay Dutt isn’t threatened by the controversies that swirl around them. (So just in case, my comparison of Modi with Trump wasn’t enough…) It was action man khiladi Akshay Kumar and not the thoughtful Aamir Khan who the PM chose for a recent interview. (You know the guy with the Khiladi image from 25 years ago? The same guy who has been working with the Modi Government to spread awareness on social issues like sanitation and women’s personal hygiene? Yeah clearly that is not a good idea at all!)
So why has the Bigg Boss syndrome caught on in politics? Partly because 24×7 televised politics is more entertainment and less about real issues. Allegations of sexual harassment against candidate Trump, for example, did nothing to dampen his popularity. (Just want to make sure I drill it into your head – this comparison to Trump) In India, prime ministers over the last 60 years have generally been staid, steady hands at the wheel. Modi may not have been too much of a disruptor in the economy given the lack of substantive reforms but he is certainly a disruptor in politics in his refusal to play by any of the unwritten rules of democracy, much to the glee of his supporters. (Yeah, I am totally going to ignore all my own previous comments on how Demonetization disrupted the Indian economy here, because apparently the voters felt otherwise).
The Bigg Boss syndrome is good for netas. When the media amplifies noisy, sensation-a-minute drama, eyes are taken eyes off troubling real issues. By focusing on shock and awe, the politician creates an escapist Bollywood Utopia with all doubting party poopers dubbed anti-national. (What do you think is my true profession – the ‘doubting party pooper’ or ‘anti-national’?) The Opposition is invisibilised and even delegitimised in the spectacle and show of strength. (But don’t worry, we Lutyens media will never be invisibilised or deligitimised. We have a sufficiently big circle jerk in place to ensure that never happens)
When Mamata Banerjee plays the roughly behaved Bigg Boss, TMC’s weaknesses get swept under the carpet. When Mayawati targets the PM’s personal life, her own spotty record in protecting Dalit rights gets lost in the diatribes. Raj Thackeray essays the role of the controversial enfant terrible to generate macho swagger, Navjot Sidhu is a star campaigner because of his ability to be pungently insulting, never mind the substance of his speeches. Badly behaved public figures are more admired than rebuffed. (This is the most important part of the article. Did you see how I made some token criticism of some people not named Modi? That clearly makes me a very unbiased and objective reporter, OK?)
In the 80s, Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray prided himself on the ability to boldly say what others were afraid to utter. Today’s media mahaul demands every politician emulate a Bal Thackeray to score in the political kurukshetra. Reality TV and the Bigg Boss syndrome has come to life in Indian politics. (And we media people will make sure it stays this way)