The Ruling alliance’s fire power

BY ninan| IN Media Practice | 09/02/2004
As the new chief election commissioner noted at his first press conference, the NDA government is blowing tax payer’s money to promote its achievements

Reprinted from the Hindu, February 1, 2004



Sevanti Ninan


Governments are incorrigible optimists, they believe unabashed self-promotion will yield electoral dividends. Plagued by the Bofors allegations, Rajiv Gandhi started early in 1989, as early as April when elections were due in October. By charming coincidence, then too it was a minister from Bihar who was given the task of serving the nation through  tireless efforts to get his party re-elected, the now forgotten, but then dreaded  K K Tewary.

In 1996 Narasimha Rao was sold to would-be voters through emotive TV spots. His face would float in and out between images of ordinary men and women discovering hope, with lilting music in the background. His mujhko hai aasha series was not so different from the naya savera of today’s Bharatiya Janata Party.  Mr P A Sangma, today making news for different reasons, presided over this propaganda binge. Towards the end of the 1996 Congress campaign there was even a music video that made its appearance, echoing snatches of the same music.  But neither prime minister made it back to power, nor did the Congress party.paraBut whereas Mr Tewary was memorably credited in 1989 with declaring that credibility is for the cocktail circuit, such ham-handedness would seem gauche today.  So the BJP, less imperious and more skilled at coopting than the Congress, is now trying to reinvent the old game. It deploys money and energy in a changed media world by flooding the media with advertising that the latter must be delighted with. Check out how many of  the 13 full page ads in the Times of India on Republic Day were from the government and the public sector. And "India Shining" pops up regularly across TV channels. This campaign is the Finance Ministry’s bright idea, but other ministries and the public sector are pitching in so that we may well see a couple of hundred crores spent in the next couple of weeks  before the model code of conduct comes into effect. 

Besides advertising, the government’s point men for Operation Re-election, Sudheendra Kulkarni in the Prime Minister’s office, and Ravi Shankar Prasad, today’s K K Tewary, also from Bihar; are reposing touching faith in the government media. DAVP is furiously churning out books and booklets, the Press Information Bureau is marshalling figures on state expenditure by the ministries to be used by state BJP units to make different cases in opposition-ruled and BJP- ruled states, radio and TV channels are being launched with reckless and breathless abandon. All of it has to be in place before the Election Commission puts its foot down. 

Even as Chairman M V Kamath gets a Padma Bhushan, Prasar Bharati has flung all notions of autonomy into the Jamuna and is blithely following government diktats of various kinds. All India Radio will launch its first 24 hour news channel on the 2nd of  April, on short wave, if you please. A terrestrial Kisan TV channel has gone on air, at the local level, half an hour a day, five days a week. On 12 low and high power transmitters for the present, but the service is supposed to be extended to a 1000 transmitters countrywide. A satellite Kisan channel has been launched, courtesy the Indira Gandhi Open University. And All India Radio  is also pitching in with a new farm service on some of its transmitters. The Ministry of Agriculture is picking up the tab for programming on all three.  

Bangalore is getting a classical music radio channel, and Bhasha Bharati, a medium wave national channel on All India Radio has just been pressed into service, offering half and hour of programming each  in all the major regional languages. This is so that Indians can get some programming in their mother tongue, wherever they live.

Meanwhile in DD News there is a change of guard as old government hands get elbowed out by new recruits on contract, mostly from Aaj Tak.  When the price is right, serving the government is not a problem for former denizens of  India’s feisty Hindi satellite news channel. The mantra is positive projection, not overt propaganda. And soft questions to the ruling alliance, harder ones for the Congress and others. On Republic Day finance minister Jaswant Singh holds forth expansively to the Delhi editor of Dainik Bhaskar, he is asked no difficult questions, but it is passes for straight news programming. Right after you get a wonderful, heart-warming documentary on the reconstruction that has changed things for the better in post-earthquake Gujarat. No mention, naturally, of what has changed in post- riot Gujarat.

How does the Opposition plan to counter all this heavy duty fire power?  It cannot tap ministries across the government of India, it cannot use taxpayer money to launch radio and TV channels at will. And it has lost the initiative in framing the issues for the coming elections.  "India Shining" kicked off last year, got ordered off the air by the Election Commission, and reappeared in December. It has already set the agenda for the election debate, which the press has unwittingly picked up, with NDTV’s champion anchors leading the pack. "Kapil Sibal tell us—is India shining?" and so forth.

All that remains is to see whether the BJP is smart enough to follow through on being quick off the mark by knowing where to stop.

Tailpiece: Are we ready to experiment in the coming Lok Sabha elections with a single nationally-televised election debate, American style, that puts leaders of the major alliances together on a common platform to face a panel of journalists drawn from major publications and news channels? True there are many satellite channels now doing their own thing but the effect is dissipated, apart from the fact that party spokespeople participate, rather than leaders themselves.  Here you would have one debate in the final week of the campaign, where an Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi would share a platform and answer questions on issues, enabling the electorate to make up their minds. It would be telecast across the board, on all channels, even broadcast on radio. One organisation would have to take the lead, perhaps it could be DD News? And if Sonia Gandhi and Vajpayee shy away from this, what about L K Advani and Manmohan Singh? 










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