‘Channels and editors were arm twisted’

‘Channels and editors were arm twisted’
Says Aam Aadmi Party leader and political analyst Yogendra Yadav while deconstructing Narendra Modi’s “perefectly executed” election campaign in this revealing interview with PARANJOY GUHA THAKURTA and MOHAMMAD GHAZALI
Posted/Updated Thursday, Jun 26 18:36:53, 2014
 

 

An academic-turned-politician, Dr Yogendra Yadav is an important ideologue of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). He has also made his mark as an astute analyst of Indian politics. However, his first foray into electoral politics was disastrous: he contested the 2014 Lok Sabha elections from Gurgaon in Haryana and ended up fourth, losing his deposit.
 
Yadav, by his own description, is “interested in the promise, practice, and prospects of modern politics”. A senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in Delhi since 2004, he has been actively involved in survey-based studies of Indian elections and the Lokniti network of scholars. He has co-authored Crafting State-Nations: India and Other Multinational Democracies (John Hopkins University Press 2011), and other volumes on democracy and electoral politics, besides writing many academic papers and journalistic articles in Hindi and English. Yadav has written school textbooks and has served on several policy advisory bodies. He was awarded the Malcolm Adishesiah Award (2008) for contributing to development studies and was the first recipient of the Global South Solidarity Award (2009) given by the International Political Science Association. Yadav is a former member of the University Grants Commission and the National Advisory Council, appointed by United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
 
In a conversation that lasted nearly two hours, Yadav outlined what he thought was unusual and unique about the role of the media in the recently-concluded general elections. The first part of the interview, below, focuses on how the media helped “market” Narendra Modi whereas the Congress was unable to market a “bad product” in the form of Rahul Gandhi.
 
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (PGT): What were the unique and distinctive aspects of the role of the media in the recently concluded 16th general elections? In what way was the role of the media in these elections different from what it was in the past?
 
Yogendra Yadav (YY): It has been suggested, somewhat loosely, that the media swung this election. Many analysts, especially critics of Narendra Modi, have suggested that the media was responsible for his victory. I don’t buy this simplistic, and rather extreme, thesis. Even if the country had lacked a fourth estate, the Congress would still have lost this election. The party had a very bad product to sell and the people knew it. With the Congress having lost its moral legitimacy, the Congress-led UPA government appeared weak and directionless. Looking back, the elections tell us that governments that look directionless, that seem weak and immoral, lose at the hustings.
 

Once you began looking beyond the ruling Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was obviously the next big player around with viability and visibility. It appeared to be a party leading an alliance that could have a go at forming the government. So, to that extent, it is unfair to say that the media swung this election for the winning party. However, if the question is reformulated to ask whether the media contributed significantly to the kind of victory BJP won in this election, the answer has to be “yes”. The media contributed significantly to the fact that after 30 years, one party, and a party with a smaller pool of winnable constituencies than the Congress, got a majority on its own.

 

PGT: The BJP got over 31 per cent of votes, which translated into 282 seats—first-past-the-post, winner takes all. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which it leads, got a little under 40 per cent of the votes—38.5 percent, to be precise—but that translated into 336 seats. As you said at a recent seminar organised by the Foundation for Media Professionals, had these elections been held in 1952, when there was a very small media in India, and not in 2014, the BJP would still have won, the Congress would still have lost. However, the media has had an important role to play in increasing the margin of victory of the BJP, in terms of its vote share. You have been a political scientist and a psephologistfor decades. You know how a relatively small increase in vote share can translate into a large number of seats, depending on how votes are concentrated.
 
“You can easily credit 4-5 per cent of the BJP’s vote share to the effect of the media and this would mean anything like 80-100 additional Lok Sabha seats.”
YY: Absolutely. In that hypothetical case of 1952 that I spoke of, BJP would have been the frontrunner—I am not saying they would have won, but they would have been the frontrunner. In our electoral system, once you cross a certain threshold, every small increase in vote share begins to yield a very rich harvest of seats. The BJP would have touched that threshold on its own, but it managed to cross that threshold by another 5-6 percentage points, where each percentage increase brought them—I guess— about 15-20 seats. My sense is that if the BJP had finished 5 per cent lower in terms of votes, they would have been at least 80 seats down. Roughly speaking, this is the effect that you can attribute to the media.

PGT: So, you take the view that the media may have played a very important role in ensuring that the BJP’s vote share reached 31 per cent plus, instead of hovering around 25-26 per cent?
 
YY: Yes. All this is very intuitive at the moment. Unlike in the past, I do not work with exact survey evidence, but my sense is that you can easily credit 4-5 per cent of the BJP’s vote share to the effect of the media and this would mean anything like 80-100 additional Lok Sabha seats—which makes all the difference between the verdict as it could have been and the verdict as it was. Basically, it ensured that BJP could draw almost fully from its small pool of winnable constituencies, compared to the Congress.
 
PGT: What do you mean by a smaller pool?
 

YY: The number of constituencies where the BJP contested in order to win is much smaller than in the case of the Congress. You would still exclude Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, large chunks of West Bengal and bits of the North East and Jammu and Kashmir from that pool. I used to say that you can almost rule out a majority for the BJP because it would have to draw almost 100 per cent from its potential area. But lo and behold, it has indeed drawn almost 100 per cent from its small pool. That is extraordinary— a spectacular and historic feat, made possible by the media.

 
PGT: You speak of the Congress having a “bad product” that it was unable to sell. It is interesting that you are analyzing the track record of a party that has been in power for ten years by using marketing jargon. Many people would also argue that the projection of a personality – Narendra Modi — in these elections as a brand was unique. Do you go along with this view?

 
YY: In one sense yes, in another sense, no. This is not the first time an Indian election has been personality-centric. The 1971 election was completely personality centric—most of Indira Gandhi’s elections were personality-centred. I would say that Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s personality played a very important role in his success in 1999.
 
PGT: What about Vishwanath Pratap Singh in 1989?
“Newspapers likeDainik Jagranand television channels like India TV, Zee News and occasionally, even Times Now, played a role wherein it became hard to tell whether what was being put out was journalism or soft propaganda.”
YY: Yes, to some extent. And in 1984, it was Rajiv Gandhi. So it is not the first time that personality played a crucial role. However, you are right in the sense that,in 2014, for the first time a personality was produced, packaged and marketed in a way that was extraordinary. I cannot think of anything in the history of Indian elections that comes remotely close to the way in which “brand Modi” was launched and sold successfully. I am using market language because that’s the only way of describing what happened. Those involved in selling the Narendra Modi brand had been selling Coca-Cola and other multinational brands until the other day. This is not unique in the history of the world. All over the world, especially in western democracies, leaders are produced, packaged and sold. This is how Tony Blair came to be the kind of leader that he became. “New Labour” was invented with a good deal of market research, with enormous spin doctoring and a perfectly-executed management strategy.  All across Europe and especially in North America, elections are all about advertising, positioning and packaging.
 
In India, this was not the first time marketing agencies were involved in selling a leader. Rajiv Gandhi used them in 1984. He won that election but I don’t think the advertising campaign did very much for him. This was evident when the same agency ran his campaign in 1989 (and he lost). Advertising agencies have now been used for quite a while but, until this election, they had made a marginal contribution in the making of public images. In India, public images have, by and large, been created by leaders themselves, by their persona, as perceived by the public. For instance, Atal Behari Vajpayee was not a media product. His image was carefully cultivated so as to gloss over many potentially embarrassing facts and highlight many positives. But this was not an image created by a brand manager. By way of contrast, NaMo is an image that has been produced, positioned and packaged by brand managers.
 
PGT: So it is a commodification of politics, if you like.
 
YY: Yes, but lest you read a degree of envy (on my part) in an opposition leader, I should begin by acknowledging that Modi’s brand managers did a brilliant job. This was perhaps the most perfectly executed advertisement campaign in the history of Indian politics.
 
PGT: …and in the world?
 
YY: I can’t say that. I guess Tony Blair’s spin doctors did a great job.
 
PGT: But here we are talking about a country of 1.2 billion people with an electorate of over 800 million.
 
“Behind the BJP’s victory was the entire spectrum of the image machine, from the anonymous person who wrote obscenities about Arvind Kejriwal to Swapan Dasgupta’s sophisticated spin doctoring.”
YY: Yes, (a country) with multiple languages, different social and cultural segments, where you have to position the advertising campaign. So it’s a gigantic task. Thus, while I am a bitter critic of NarendraModi, I must acknowledge the brilliant manner in which his team conducted their advertising campaign. The contrast with the Congress campaign is obvious. It is not that Congress didn’t have advertising experts to help it. It is not that the Congress was short of money. The difference was in the final output. None of the Congress advertisements conveyed anything—there were good photographs but the advertisements lacked a clear message. All the Congress campaigns were thought out in English and executed in Hindi and the final product was shoddy. I almost wish I could ask them to take my advice on getting their Hindi right. Sometimes, phrases that makes sense in English have no connect once translated into Hindi.

PGT: Would you like to give an example of where you think the language in the Congress advertisements was lacking?
 

YY: Take the Congress slogan Main Nahi, Hum (Not I, But We). It did not work. Or for that matter, the word sashaktikaran or empowerment. Empowerment has a kind of power in English but sashaktikaran is typical bureaucratic language. It has no resonance whatsoever on the ground. I could easily pick up 5-10 phrases used by the Congress that meant nothing to an ordinary person on the street. So the Congress sold a bad product indifferently, without any energy to back it up. The BJP had a modest product to sell. They sold it brilliantly, and they put in all the resources at their command. I suspect the resources were substantial, even by the standards of the black economy of Indian political parties.

 
PGT: Surely the corporate sector’s contribution to the coffers of the BJP would have been substantial?

 
YY: I guess so, though I would defer to your wisdom on those questions… It was absolutely clear that here was a political party that was not short of funds. In every phase of the elections, the BJP managed to book the front pages of every single newspaper in the area where elections were taking place.  That was an extraordinary amount of money to haves pent. Similarly, during the IPL (Indian Premier League cricket matches), on one day, the party booked the entire advertising space. So, on one particular television channel, the only advertisements you saw were BJP advertisements. What stood out was the intensity and the frequency of the advertisements. It helped that they had a message that was simple, short and made sense. Whether it connected with the product being sold is an entirely different question, the answer to which we will discover over the next five years. They (in the BJP) had done a very careful segmented analysis of different sections of the population they were catering to—driven by surveys — and they delivered their message through the right medium for the right kind of segment. I would say, though, that advertising was only the more visible part of the grand image machine of the BJP. In order to understand the machine in its entirety, we must recognize that there was something above it and something below it.
PGT: Would you go along with the view that the BJP’s campaign was more effective and innovative than the others in its deployment of technology, whether it bethe Narendra Modi 3D hologram or the 300-plus rallies that were broadcast live? He had dedicated television crews providing live feed to anybody and everybody who wanted it. Then, there were innovations like making a toll free line available to anybody who wanted to call on a mobile phone and hear everything he was saying live. In addition, there were large numbers of people working for him on the internet, on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. In all these respects, BJP stole a march over everybody, including the Congress.
 
YY: Absolutely, there is no doubt about that. As I said, this stood out as one of the most extraordinary campaigns and may be later, people will write books about this campaign—just the media advertising part of it, and the use of technology. This extended to social media as well, where the BJP’s main competitor was not the Congress, but the Aam Aadmi Party. Even here, they stole a march.
 
The BJP’s election campaign was not thought out over just the last one year. It must have been thought through for the last five years and was only executed in the last year. The BJP used the huge funds at its disposal intelligently, and also used technology to great effect. That is why I think this election could be a watershed… Indian elections shall never be the same again….
 
PGT: When you look at the role of the media in terms of the BJP’s political strategy, what went on top of the advertising campaign, and what went below?
 
YY: As someone who was confronting the BJP and was, in some ways, a victim of it, I used to look at the BJP’s image machine and wonder what it was all about. When I look back, I feel there may be three or four tiers to what we today call the BJP’s media strategy. The top layer consisted of spin doctoring, ideological placements and political positioning. This was not the stuff being done by the advertising gurus. This is where the Swapan Dasguptas or the Arun Jaitleys of the world come in.
 
Spin doctoring did the basic job of making sure that the anger and energy generated in the last two years by the anti-corruption movement could be deflected to serve the BJP. A part of that involved derailing AAP, because this party was the one big problem that cropped up during Narendra Modi’s dream march. Suddenly, AAP comes along and halts this march, Narendra Modi is off the newspapers, off the front pages, for about six weeks (after the Delhi assembly election). So someone thinks, how do we derail them? How do we bring Narendra Modi back? That’s where spin doctoring comes into play. The UPA is already down in the dumps. The name of the game is to delegitimize the new and unexpected rival, AAP. It is hard to challenge the ethical appeal of AAP. Hence, the attack shifts to its governance record. The point is to position AAP as a party that cannot be trusted to govern. That was achieved through political moves and spin doctoring.
 
The second layer was media management, which is different from advertising. Something very big happened in this election at this level. It would be inaccurate to say that the entire media was bought, which is how some of my colleagues (in AAP) saw it. I do not blame them because, as victims, we felt it.
 
PGT: What do you mean by media management, in this context? Is it about ensuring that particular channels and individuals are favoured with interviews—that these individuals are selected because their political persuasions are already well known? So you know that they will not be asking you uncomfortable questions, including questions about the 2002 riots? Was this an integral part of this media management strategy that you talk about?
“All the Congress campaigns were thought out in English and executed in Hindi and the final product was shoddy. I almost wish I could ask them to take my advice on getting their Hindi right.”
 
YY: That would be a small and legitimate part of the media management exercise. Other parties have done it and yes, the BJP did it. Clearly, the management of Modi’s interviews was an example of this. I remember The Economic Times and The Times of India running front-page interviews that were written responses to e-mailed questionnaires. Someone who knew politically correct English had responded on Modi’s behalf. Narendra Modi may not even have had a look at the questionnaires. If the papers had said these were responses from Modi’s office, that would be a correct description. But these were run as “exclusive” interviews.

PGT: You are saying that they did not disclose the fact that these were not one-on-one interviews?

 

YY: They disclosed it in the fine print, and that’s how I know it. But that’s not something you (should) put out as your front-page interview or as a so-called exclusive interview. There were widespread suspicions that many of the interviews were managed, as only certain “convenient” journalists were asked to interview Modi. All that happened. But that is the smaller part, which is almost legitimate.
 
I suspect that most of the media houses were managed in a more direct and instrumental way by Team Modi— partly by the sheer size of their advertising budget. As you know,a small part of the expenditure can be paid in “white” money and the rest can be paid through other means. I cannot be sure if the BJP used such means, but you cannot rule it out.
 
Television channels and newspaper editors were pressurised and arm-twisted. Pressure was put on channels and editors through the owners of media companies. As it became clear that Narendra Modi was the frontrunner, lots of things started happening. The corporate sector was backing Modi and as that became clear, the tone of media changed. Some of the channels and newspapers acted as propaganda vehicles of the BJP. Some editors-proprietors were even given tickets by the BJP.
 
PGT: Would you like to name some of these individuals?
 
YY: Take, for example, Punjab Kesari, a newspaper that may be considered low-brow by some, but has a large circulation and is very influential in north India. The editor and proprietor, Ashwini Minna, was given a BJP ticket from Karnal in Haryana. I am told he had earlier written some editorials sharply critical of Narendra Modi. But after he got the ticket, the tone of the paper changed. In fact, the entire coverage in the paper could have been called paid news. Newspapers like Dainik Jagran and television channels like India TV, Zee News and occasionally, even Times Now, played a role wherein it became hard to tell whether what was being put out was journalism or soft propaganda. I am not suggesting that in each case, editors or proprietors were coerced or bought. Yet, something was at play that was more than we could see. So there was clear pressure—from managing a reporter to managing a channel, this was done systematically. This was the second tier of media management by the BJP.
 
The third tier was a regular advertisement campaign, which we have already discussed. But there was also a fourth, invisible tier—the rumour mill—this election will go down in history as one in which most effective uses were made of rumours.
 
PGT: Tell us about these rumour and innuendos.
 
YY: These were not spontaneous rumours, which are in circulation in the public domain all the time. These were manufactured rumours. They were carefully designed and placed where they would get picked up and circulated. I can speak of rumours about us (AAP), because we were at the receiving end. In particular, Arvind Kejriwal was at the receiving end. There were all kinds of rumours, and obscene publicity that no one owned up to. There were anonymous trollers, blogs and websites with content so obscene that you could not read it for more than a few minutes. At the same time, the content left an impression on your mind. This was not spontaneous; this was not even the job of a few enthusiastic BJP cadres. It was designed and planned and carried out to perfection.
 
So you have the entire spectrum of the image machine, from the anonymous person who wrote obscenities about Arvind Kejriwal to Swapan Dasgupta’s sophisticated spin doctoring. The entire thing had a design to it.
 
Lest all this gives an impression of a deep conspiracy, I must underline the systemic foundations of this image machine. This was an election in which economic power, social power and media power converged at one point called NaMo. This is what happens when these three most powerful forces of society converge at one point and produce the desired effect.
 
To be continued… 

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