Media in the Age of Populism

First published in The Pioneer, April 07, 2012

This week, in national defence and security, India has attracted global attention for all the wrong reasons. Consider: India has been dubbed as the world’s largest spender on military equipment

and thus a lucrative paradise for weapons merchants; a controversy related to the Chief of Army Staff General VK Singh’s date of birth which was dragged to the Supreme Court; General Singh’s interview to a national news daily, which sparked a nationwide debate on the issue of corruption in defence deals; and very recently the story of a military drill published in another prominent national daily, which has sparked a heated debate on Dr. Manmohan Singh has plodded through seven years of prime ministership and his media appearances have been few and far between. Sonia Gandhi seems to not care a whit what the media thinks because she has truly understood Indian feudalism. The label of “sphinx” is a well-earned epithet by the most powerful woman in India who habitually refuses to inform even the Lok Sabha Secretariat about her foreign trips. Politicians like Narendra Modi, who has earned enough opprobrium from the media to last a few lifetimes, are still successful in convincing voters of their ability to govern, and more interestingly presenting themselves as victims of a media conspiracy.

Attempts by the powerful liberal media elite at painting him as a genocidal villain notwithstanding, the “strong man” of Gujarat has remained unshakeable. The people of Gujarat have placed faith in him through two Assembly elections and numerous other electoral battles at various levels. Facebook helps him connect with fans and supporters. His staying power has not been diminished by the media, and now foreign media and think tank experts are making their way to Gandhinagar to try and understand the man they earlier sold as a hate object.

Meanwhile in West Bengal, “Didi” sails forth and flails at sundry targets and the media seem to have not made much of a dent in her image. Of course, she does not have her own TV channel like Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha have: what happens in Tamil Nadu politics and how matters are portrayed depends on what channel the viewer has turned on or tuned into. And then there are media darlings like the oh-so-handsome Rahul Gandhi, who despite his inarticulateness and his insufficiencies is portrayed as the “scion” of the “royal family” just waiting to take India into the big league.

Those portrayals did not matter much because he and his party got trounced in Uttar Pradesh. He promised a lot, like others did, in the la-la land of freebies that India has become, but others promised more or promised differently and so the “scion” of another, but local royalty, is now Chief Minister of the largest state in India. Populism and pandering are tried and tested strategies for politicians, and a democracy, as the inimitable Oscar Wilde said, “…means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people”!

In the United States it is not much different. Populism of the “left” variety or of the “right” variety is a powerful ingredient in politics, and whether it is President Obama at the hustings - or as we call it here the “stump” - or Mitt Romney struggling to come across as an “ordinary Joe”, all kinds of subsidies and freebies are promised. The Democratic Party candidates offer the American public support for continuing and unending Medicare, Medicaid, and Social

Security benefits, while the Republican candidates have pledged that there are going to be “no new taxes,” come hell or high-water! Well, they also promise that they are never going to bring any gun laws that will restrict gun ownership, the right to carry concealed weapons, or to use any kind of deadly bullets. Also, in the Republican Party platform there is never going to be a cut in military spending!

Yes, in politics, as in life, winning is everything as the winner takes all - or at least till the next election. Real cost-cutting and long term health and welfare of the country take a back seat because the country is divided along a variety of lines - race, religion, class, ideology, gender, and regional affiliations - and pandering to the “base” has been a strategy so well-crafted and fine-tuned by political strategists like Karl Rove, special assistant to former President Bush, that it would now be considered foolish for a politician to ignore the complicated electoral math of finding the target voting bloc and their pet peeves. What if all this slicing and dicing of the electorate leads the country to the brink of disaster? Does not matter, it seems, because in such political gamesmanship the only mistake one can make is to blink first. Otherwise we can all get ready to fall into the abyss pointing fingers at each other.

Let us take the Indian case — that of Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi. He did win media support for raising train fares, and his promises to modernising the railways, but he was courteously shown the door by the ever courteous Dr Singh, who did the bidding of his coalition partner pulling strings at Writers’ Building. It was a matter of whose job that was on the line — Dr Singh could have said no and lost his job but it seems that he has made up his mind to stay in office whatever may be the shame or the insult to his Oxford credentials. Trivedi’s successor rolled back the fare increases, and Mr Trivedi became a denizen of the Delhi hinterlands, now cooling his heels, and calculating if there is a populist way of coming back to the reckoning.

Thus, in these days of large, diverse, messy democracies the media have begun to choose sides — for they know that just as it is important for the politicians to win office, equally important is it for the newspapers and television channels to catch the people’s attention and to stay in business. It is no longer the days of just All India Radio and Doordarshan, and a handful of regional newspapers calling the shots. It is 24x7, non-stop jibbering and jabbering and cutting through the clutter means that the media have to identify their target audience: based on caste, political affiliation, religion, regional affiliation, language, age, education, or whatever. We have now gone beyond simple demographic data to seeking psychographic and sociographic data to figure out who wants what, why, and when, and who will vote for whom for what cussed reason.

Winston Churchill said that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter,” but he also said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”. Compare Churchill’s observations with that of Mahatma

Gandhi, who said, “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?”. The Chinese seem to have heeded Gandhi’s words, for the party apparatchik have been commissioning a variety of articles and analyses these days to argue why America is on the verge of both bankruptcy and irrelevance, and that democracy is not suitable to all countries. Surely, the authoritarian Lee Kuan Yew governed Singapore for thirty years, and remains one of the most influential Asian leaders. In anarchy-inclined India democracy may have both delayed and denied hundreds of millions not just food and shelter but a sense of self.

Democracy, to function well, requires certain conditions to be met, and it seems that in these days of multiple identities in nation states carved out willy-nilly in the past century the only ingredient assuring the political class of power is populism. God save our nations since the media cannot.

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