Debating India


The Bappi Jhappi Mela

Saba Naqvi BHAUMIK & Anupreeta DAS

Monday 29 March 2004, by BHAUMIK*Saba Naqvi , DAS*Anupreeta

TV screens are the battlefields. Spin doctors, the cure. Where’s the good ’ol election fever gone?

A general election in India has historically been a great democratic spectacle. It evoked thunder, light and fury amid bright splashes of colour. The people of the world’s largest democracy were the pivot around whom the entire process revolved. Mass contact, fiery speeches and slogans about poverty, corruption and social change were the stuff of Indian elections. Democracy never appeared divorced from the people. For all its imperfections, the system held out the promise of social transformation and change. But election 2004 is different from every electoral battle of the past. On the face of it, there is the obvious trivialisation of the proceedings.

Filmstars, cricketers and starlets being lined up by the political parties can hardly make for meaningful discourse. Devoid of any focus on real issues, politics has become a performing art with a farcical edge and electioneering is turning dumb and dumber by the day.

The media too has added to the frivolity. Former BBC man Mark Tully who has covered Indian elections for 30 years believes "the electronic media will kill everyone with boredom by the time the results are announced". He is particularly harsh on "the endless manufactured verbal punch-ups on the networks" which generate a lot of hot air but shift the focus from real problems. Media critic Shailaja Bajpai describes this as the first election that is being fought in TV studios. "Politics is now being presented as entertainment," she says. The idea is to create a din-shout loudly and make sure that the opponent is not heard. "Political parties don’t want a serious discourse. They want to keep the debate at the level of the stars, personalities, India shining or not," says Bajpai.

The grand spectacle of democracy in the towns and countryside of India has therefore been reduced to a tamasha in party offices and TV studios.

But this dumbing down is really a result of a deeper malaise.

In a sense, this election marks the end of ideology in Indian politics. As social scientist Ram Guha says: "Today no party stands for anything. No one is in politics for the implementation of ideas or policies. Politicians of the past felt deeply about solving economic or social problems.

Today they only care about getting votes and retaining power. There is a dumbing down across the entire spectrum of political parties from the right to the left." The two main parties are indeed becoming a mirror image of each other. The BJP claims to have risen above Hindutva to fight this election on a development plank with a charismatic leader like Atal Behari Vajpayee at the helm. The Congress, meanwhile, is struggling to copy the BJP’s efficient media management and managerial style. In other words, the Indian voter is being asked to choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Politics bereft of any moral or ideological roots can hardly be healthy for a nation where millions remain unemployed, illiterate and undernourished. That’s why many political commentators describe this as a bizzare general election. Here’s their take:

J.M. Lyngdoh, who just quit as CEC, does not appear to have any faith left in the exercise that he oversaw till recently: "There aren’t any real issues in elections anymore. It’s all being dictated by market forces. The election system has been reduced to a farce where political parties are asking you to choose between Coke and Pepsi."

The CPI(M)’s Somnath Chatterjee has contested elections 10 times and is one of the most experienced parliamentarians: "I have never seen anything like this election. It is a game of non-issues, personal attacks, stars and singers, raths and Bharat Uday. Instead of being a political struggle, elections have become all about event management," he says.

Sham Lal, 92, a legend of Indian journalism, is cynical about the direction Indian politics is taking: "Everything is unfortunate but the issue is that it is happening. I agree that Indian elections are not maturing but degenerating. But to some extent this is the logic of the process of democratisation of a segmented society. The public is also constantly exposed to false propaganda by the media. But the public doesn’t seem to mind being deceived. Public ignorance has also led to this dumbing down."

Are such views a reflection of the general upper-class disdain for the larger public who still continue to faithfully cast their vote election after election? Not really, says social scientist Yogendra Yadav, who believes we have reached a dead end in Indian politics. "The ’90s opened the floodgates to new political parties. You had more new players in the past 10 years than in the previous 40," he says. Yet it is the so-called social justice parties riding in on the Mandal wave that have really failed to live up to their promise. They have no agenda beyond dislodging the old players and giving their caste/creed a share in power. As Yadav points out: "There is an irony in the fact that forces responsible for the democratisation of the country are themselves so undemocratic".

Mayawati, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Prasad Yadav all run parties that amount to nothing more than a crowd around the leader. They frequently promote their own kith and kin, something that the older regional parties like the dmk and inld are also guilty of doing. Since some of these parties are now ready to hawk their little fiefdoms to the highest bidder, the energy unleashed by the social justice parties has been tamed.

If the ’90s were the age of innocence, this is the era of cynical coalitions. As Yadav says: "The real threat is not that our country will become undemocratic but that democracy will be emptied of all its content. Nothing substantive is being achieved but elections still keep taking place." Former adman-turned-citizen’s activist Gerson da Cunha adds: "Issues are of importance and people understand that. But in this election we are clutching at silly things. Political parties seem to believe that national issues are beyond the intellectual grasp of most people so they must do a tamasha to appeal for votes."

Politics bereft of any ideology or agenda automatically gets reduced to a circus. And because a tamasha has to be orchestrated, the spin doctors take over. For, this is also the first general election running on PR steam. The BJP in particular is adept at the art of spin doctoring. If New Labour in Great Britain was the result of product positioning, so is the new reinvented BJP on display for election 2004. Political parties also need the middle-man manager whose job is to trade favours and muster support for his party. The spin doctors and political managers are the new-age politicians who are transforming the essential nature of this election.

Arun Jaitley, the BJP’s spin doctor par excellence, agrees that the idiom of politics is changing. In the age of national TV news channels-India has the largest number in the world-it has become difficult to collect crowds in urban centres. The blurring of ideological boundaries has also taken the heat out of the contest and led to waning public interest. Yet Jaitley also blames the media for the trivialisation of politics. "If we release a press statement on a serious issue we will not be covered by the channels and will just get a small mention in the papers. But produce a film star and the picture will be published in the front page of every newspaper," he points out.

Mark Tully believes that this election will determine the extent to which a political party can get away with spin doctoring in a country where most live outside the pale of the media. "It will be interesting to see what response rallies and mass contact gets. We will have to see whether the TV studios will replace the mass programmes which make Indian elections so memorable. Right now no one is talking about fundamental problems like health and education because they can’t deliver."

While it is true that spin doctors manage the show in western democracies like Great Britain and the US, India’s teeming democracy needs a dose of substance over style. Yet there is a great reluctance in the political class to deal with tough issues. Last week, for instance, there was a high-powered gathering of health professionals, voluntary organisations and academics in Delhi. The agenda was to involve the political class on the need to make healthcare a fundamental right. Both the BJP and Congress had promised to send representatives. No one turned up. It was left to the communists to represent India’s politicians. The CPI sent A.B. Bardhan and the CPI(M) was represented by Nilotpal Basu.

A similar incident took place in Mumbai last week. Citizen’s group agni’s chairperson, former cabinet secretary B.G. Deshmuakh, had drafted a citizen’s charter and invited representatives of all political parties to discuss problems of housing, jobs and infrastructure. After promising to send representatives, the BJP, Shiv Sena, NCP and BSP ditched. Only a second-rung Congressman found his way to the meeting. Deshmukh was most upset and he says politicians are not concerned about issues that matter. "The whole thing looks and sounds superficial because this time around politicians have evolved a PR approach to elections. Let them be warned that citizens cannot be ignored."

Yet for all its faults the political class alone cannot be held culpable. The media too stands guilty. N. Ram editor-in-chief of the Hindu is scathing in his criticism: "There is a process of the tabloidisation of the media who are themselves responsible for the dumbing down. The manner in which some mainstream newspapers have been covering the India-Pakistan series is illustrative of this. They want to present everything as a spectacle. There is however still a serious section of the media that deals with real issues."

Indians are passionate about three things-cricket, Bollywood and politics. This election sees the enmeshing of all three. This may make for great TV but is not healthy for our democracy-especially as this election raises many important questions. If the BJP does poorly, will it revert to Hindutva? What will happen to the dynasty if the Congress slumps further? Will the Left and smaller parties be able to reverse economic liberalisation?

India is standing at a crossroad. The outcome of poll 2004 will determine the future trajectory of Indian democracy. Should it be reduced to a circus?


By Saba Naqvi Bhaumik and Anupreeta Das with Smruti Koppikar.

Outlook India, March 29, 2004.

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