Friday, April 04, 2008


Along with the next generation of politicians will come the next generation in media management. Exactly what does that mean? If you have been watching the news over the past few weeks, it has become quite clear that Rahul Gandhi, as an individual member of the Congress party, is gearing up to become a viable and serious candidate for prime minister in the next elections. The country is, for better or worse, increasingly run through television, and that’s where the focus has shifted.

Suddenly Rahul is headline news everywhere. Let me count the ways: a trip to Orissa and his much publicized de-tour into Naxal area, criticism of the hockey selection process following India’s failure to quality for the next Olympics, speech in the Lok Sabha about the problems facing the education sector, the call for inner-party democracy, modification of the finance minister’s loan-waiver proposal by raising the land-holding limit for farmers in dry areas such as Vidarbha, a visit to Aminabad village in Etawah, UP, where five Dalits were massacred last week — complete with the perfect photo-op of Rahul carrying a child on his shoulders – he’s been busier than most Page 3 people during fashion week!

But this isn’t about Rahul Gandhi. It is about personal media management. This is a real life experiment. If Rahul (or any other variable) appears in the press more, does he automatically become a more central figure in our narrative of Indian politics? Is it really that easy? And how?

The to-do list when it comes to political PR begins with scanning the press. The main point is to attract media attention without resorting to paid advertising. Another key factor? The politician should be in control of what the media is going to say about them. So, the areas of interest that said politician can speak about with some authority are identified. Pick the top few. Education, development, aspirations, economics and the topic de jour is a good way to start. Come up with a definitive line on each. For example, the budget — don’t just praise/condemn, come up with a smart suggestion. Writing articles to win over the arm-chair experts is also recommended. And so on.

But there is one thing to keep in mind. It is the narrative on TV that really matters. It’s something American politicians have long understood, and now we can see signs of a trend emerging in India too. If Hindi news decides you did good today, you have most of that demographic in your pocket, those who agree with their trusted news anchor. Articles like Tavleen Singh’s Sunday Express column, which talked about Rahul’s escapades in Orissa having been designed by an event management company, don’t matter too much, but that is precisely because these PR strategies work.

How? Take for instance the recent murder of a 15 year old girl in Goa. Instead of focusing on the real dangers of that scenario (after all, a rape and murder could have equally taken place if she was not 15 or under the influence of drugs), television went for the emotional jugular – was her mother a bad parent? And Goa officials who wanted to accept no responsibility for the incident encouraged this line of thought. This example might seem very far away from a speech on Indian hockey or a call for more democracy within the Congress party, but the point remains the same. News needs a new narrative everyday. And unlike print, which can wait a few days to frame an opinion regarding news items, TV has to serve up incidents and their ultimate analysis by 9pm prime-time.

This phenomenon is not without precedent. Television was first used for political debate in the 1960s in the US. It took about forty years, but by the 2000s, 'spin alley' was thriving: television would tell viewers what to think instead of letting them come to their own conclusions. And politicians started living for an audience, not for citizens. India has only had cable TV for about a decade, but we are fast learners. And as a relatively immature media scrambles for news, what if this is the lesson other hopeful politicians take from Rahul’s media blitzkrieg? That focused personal PR strategy – not that of a party gearing up for elections or a MP who wants positive publicity – can be highly effective? The more familiar you are on television, the more legitimate you become as a national-level entity. As long as you are controlling what the media can cover about you.

The television generation understands the medium, its power and its reach. And as this generation comes closer to assuming office, it will employ the same medium to reach their goals. The press is certainly free. But that also means it’s free to cover what it wants, and how it wants it. The media is a player in our democracy. The question is: can you play a player?