Lost on television

Published : Jul 03, 2009 00:00 IST

After the Left parties withdrew support to the UPA government over the nuclear deal with the United States. News programmes and discussions on television are watched with a measure of appraisal.-MOHAMMED YOUSUF

After the Left parties withdrew support to the UPA government over the nuclear deal with the United States. News programmes and discussions on television are watched with a measure of appraisal.-MOHAMMED YOUSUF

FOR several years I have maintained that manipulating television for political advantage has never helped the ruling party win elections, and election results on most occasions have proved that I was right. The urge to manipulate television was irresistible when Doordarshan was the only channel in India, and even then it did not work.

Against my urgings and pleading, the state television network was ordered to present certain programmes that flattered the ruling party during the historic byelection in 1987 for the Allahabad Lok Sabha seat; Vishwanath Pratap Singh had broken away from the Congress and was the Janata Dal candidate against Anil Shastri of the Congress. The programmes on Doordarshan did not change the result; V.P. Singh won the election.

Later, in the elections to the State Assembly in Tamil Nadu, the same authorities not, I must clarify, the Prime Minister but persons who considered themselves close to him got Doordarshan to do much the same thing. The Congress lost by a huge margin. In 1989, the same thing happened; specially prepared programmes flattering to the ruling Congress were telecast but to no avail. All the short-lived governments that followed did exactly the same thing, and all of them failed.

In 1991, the Congress returned to power on the wave of sympathy following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. One thought that by then the wielders of power the courtiers rather than the Prime Minister himself would have realised the futility of manipulating television, especially when, in the general elections of 1996, private television channels were on air and Doordarshan was no longer the monopoly broadcaster. But the story was the same, and a special campaign was prepared for Doordarshan, which had no effect, and the Congress lost.

Did the government that came to power in 1999, headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and with a clear mandate, realise that manipulating Doordarshan was of no use? Did it refrain from fiddling with Doordarshans programmes when the general elections of 2004 came around? Not at all. It did precisely what earlier governments had done, and with the same result.

One is not sure whether Doordarshans programmes were fiddled with in the latest round of elections; it would be surprising if they had not been, the Election Commissions guidelines notwithstanding. Assuming that they were, this time someone could stand up and say the strategy worked. But the exception always bears out the rule. Manipulated programmes were not what got the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) its mandate. Besides, one has to give some credit to the Election Commissions watchful eye to ensure that television programmes did not openly contravene the guidelines.

One of the major decisions of the Election Commission related to the ban on the telecast of exit polls. To that extent, in a process that saw voting take place in five stages spread over a month, the power of television to influence voters was definitely curbed. There continue to be murky stories of dark deals done and subtly slanted features telecast on different channels, but they remain stories, with no confirmation possible.

All this apart, the fact is that television continues to be a very powerful means of communication if its programmes are not manipulated. It has been my bitter experience, something that has been shared with those at policymaking levels, to no effect, that viewers see through manipulated programmes. The one unforgivable mistake a politician can make is to assume that the voter is gullible. He is nothing of the kind; he watches with scepticism and amused contempt when manipulated programmes are telecast and votes as he pleases, usually against those who manipulated the programmes.

Two examples will suffice: during the last days of P.V. Narasimha Raos tenure, his managers got together to make a series of short films intended to show Narasimha Rao as a gentle, fatherly person concerned about the welfare of the people. The strategy did not work. Again, in the last days of the National Democratic Alliance government, the India Shining campaign was used vigorously in different Doordarshan programmes, within the limits set by the Election Commission, of course, and that did not work either.

The difference in 2009 seems to be that a number of other factors came together to bring the UPA to power, and it was not owing to television. Yet, ironically, television was a factor in a way no one among the contestants or the party strategists realised. News programmes and discussions on issues were clearly watched with a measure of appraisal; and even though the Prime Minister made only one or two public appearances, he featured largely in the comments made in programmes in regional channels and in channels in Hindi and English.

What also figured was the strident rhetoric of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders Lal Krishna Advani and Narendra Modi. Several news channels carried clips of them speaking, generally denigrating the Prime Minister and the record of the UPA government. The telecasts were part of news bulletins but they also reached regions of the country where the assessment of the governments work, and of Manmohan Singh in particular, was different.

I would argue that this situation came about owing to a fortuitous event that preceded the elections: Manmohan Singhs heart surgery, which the television channels and the print media covered extensively. Almost every day, until Manmohan Singh was discharged from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, there was live coverage of the press conferences by the Prime Ministers doctors, and the impact they had on viewers was considerable. They reinforced Manmohan Singhs image of a gentle yet determined man of steely resolve, who was totally committed to the welfare of the country. The comments of the doctors, which perhaps included some unwittingly made on Manmohan Singh as a person, evoked a good deal of sympathy among the millions who saw these news bulletins.

Against this came the barrage of invective from Advani and Modi, covered, again, without any motive other than to report the news. The effect of this was negative as far as the BJP was concerned; viewers gathered an impression, overall, of a quiet, hard-working man who had fallen ill working for the country being abused in shrill and distasteful terms. This is a simplification of a situation, certainly, but in television one needs to value the simple effects a little more than in any other medium.

One has only to look at the classic case of the Kennedy-Nixon debate on television, which was also broadcast on radio throughout the United States. The carefully orchestrated setting in the studio the extra heating that made Nixon perspire; his heavy makeup, intended to prevent just that, succeeding in making him look pasty-faced; he being persuaded to wear a light-coloured suit when the background was also light, while Kennedy deliberately wore a dark suit; their talking standing up, agreed to even though Nixon had a painful condition in his leg that made him shift from foot to foot all these made Nixon look unreliable, artful and devious against the easy, relaxed and cheerful Kennedy. Viewers said overwhelmingly that Kennedy had done far better. What was interesting was that over 80 per cent of radio listeners thought Nixon had done much better.

The point is that impressions make a great difference on television, and today television reaches millions and millions of voters all over the country. Not one of the contestants used the power of the medium as they could have, without manipulating it, simply by presenting themselves at convenient times and saying convenient things. Would that have made a difference? One cannot tell, but a careful use of the medium may well have, and will, no doubt, in future elections.

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