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Notes from the campaign trail – 1. Not So Strange Bedfellows

– by RAJEEV GOWDA

Growing up in a family of freedom fighters and politicians, I’ve seen an election or two. So I thought I’d reflect on how campaigning has changed over time. One worthy topic is the changing relationship between politicians and the media in urban India.

Let’s begin by acknowledging some trends: 1. Media outlets have exploded, whether print, audio, television, or Internet. 2. Lok Sabha constituencies now have nearly 2 million voters-making it impossible for a candidate to reach them all through door-to-door campaigning. 3. The Election Commission, in its questionable wisdom, has curtailed banners, posters, loudspeakers blaring slogans, and many of the traditional features of our festival of democracy. 4. And the EC, in its zeal to crack down on overt expenses, has driven expenses underground in an unfortunate encore of the license permit raj.

Out of this ecosystem has emerged a symbiotic relationship between politicians and the media. This is remarkable because politicians and the media traditionally share a tense, uneasy, quasi-confrontational relationship. Sort of a you-scratch-my-back, I’ll kick your behind kinda thing. After all, how many politicians can you name who are married to journalists? You can just imagine the spouse running straight from bed to the copy desk with an expose! Not done … the two professions codes of conduct just don’t gel.

So, what’s this symbiosis then? Well, the media is looking for stories to carry. At election time, (for that matter, all the time) the more interesting and juicy the story the better. Candidates are looking for media coverage. That’s the only way to reach out to larger numbers of urban voters. And candidates subscribe to the philosophy that there’s no coverage that’s bad coverage. That’s because the challenge for netas is to build name recall first and a favorable impression next.

The best part of this symbiotic arrangement is that the coverage is free. The media makes its bucks through the increased TRPs or readership that comes at election time as urban voters tune in-before half of them tune out and turn off on election day. The candidate only has to spend money on a public-relations savvy team.

So this time we saw a lot of PR-type innovations-every one of them worthy of a photo op and a news feature. From humble bicycle rallies designed to paint the candidate green, to photo ops of candidates being the common man, eating masala dosas at local, but world-renowned, eating joints. Walks in parks, and walks for women’s safety. Motorcycle rallies, travels and chats on public buses. Serious intellectual engagement with youngsters to craft a youth manifesto. Koffee with kandidate at lokal upskale kafe. Piloting autorickshaws. Worshiping with the devout, of all creeds, just so long as the divine day falls within the campaign period.

Many of these events are mere gimmicks, but some are certainly genuine. The problem, of course, is that the less gimmicky, the less likely the chance of coverage. Yet, the candidate has to get the nuance, the tone right. Else the event fails.

The desire for media coverage also led candidates to eagerly agree to debate one another on TV channels. In Bangalore, these debates were civilized and helped voters see how remarkable and smart politicians really are. The debates didn’t delve deeply into issues but hopefully they will evolve that way. They are a welcome change, and I’ll dwell more on that in another post.

The key point to note is the willingness of candidates, whether veteran victor or cocky challenger or impetuous independent, to come out and participate-because the debate’s media coverage would enable them to reach out to people in an inexpensive and attention-grabbing way. Great for the pols, great for the press, great for the people. Whatta deal!

Of course, you know that I am astute enough to also observe downsides to the relationship between media and candidates. But that topic too we’ll reserve for another day. I’ll be right back after a commercial break. Stay tuned.

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  1. On the campaign trail « Business Government and Society @ IIM-B

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