Cross-media currents and the ground realities

Today there are basically three schools of thoughts in terms of analysing and understanding political currents. Even though each of these ideas might not be diametrically opposite to each other, they are definitely at variance with each other to some extent. The next electoral battleground of India will be shaped by an inter-play between these three schools of thoughts.

  1. New media and social media are a microcosm of India today and therefore can influence political choice and can bring about “change”
  2. Traditional media, owing to its historic presence, has a deeper understanding of the politics and can influence the political currents due to its larger reach and presence
  3. Ground realities are independent from any superficial-external influence, therefore India votes on its own innate wisdom which is largely unfathomable from red-forts

At the outset, let me confess that for a long period of time I have belonged to the 3rd category and have almost always dismissed the intelligence of Twitter/social-media, TV studio debates and newspaper columns. Let us take a closer look at these three phenomena starting from the last.

Indian political scenario after Nehru has been riddled with surprises. In the 1967 elections, no political pundit, no newspaper columnist and no politician either had fathomed that the Congress party would lose 6 major states; Madras, Kerala, Orissa, West Bengal, Bihar and Punjab. It may sound preposterous today, but in 1971 a great number of pundits and analysts believed that Indira Congress would lose because almost all the top Congress leaders had deserted her and had formed the Nationalist Congress (O). After all, the party was in a decline and had lost many seats and states in the 1967 elections when the party was yet undivided.

Indira Congress won a landslide victory in 1971 elections. Unknown to the political pundit, secretly, the Indian voter had fallen for just two words from Mrs Gandhi, “Garibi Hatao” (remove poverty). Ditto 1977 elections. Despite emergency, most political analysts believed that the motley crowd of Janata Party would be hardly any competition for Indira Gandhi and her charisma.

Similarly in the 80’s, barring a few notable exceptions, most pundits believed in perpetual continuance of the Rajiv Gandhi dispensation. Rajiv had won a historic 400+ majority in 1984, how could electoral defeat and Rajiv Gandhi exist even in the same room? Many analysts, pundits and newspapers alike had to bite the dust as the results of the 1989 elections started pouring in from the DD studios.

Vajpayee led NDA coming to power in 98 and subsequently losing the 2004 elections were equally dramatic events. A vast majority of political creatures in India were left stunned by both 98 as well as 2004. Even the latest edition in the saga, the 2009 elections had an element of surprise. Not many (if any) had fathomed that the voting public would give such a big majority to Congress and UPA. Now, if you rewind back to the post-election era of May-June 2009, you will realize how every newspaper and news channel was busy predicting the total revival of Congress party. We were even told that by 2014 Congress would be in a position to win a majority on its own. How completely off the mark that prediction has come to be, is seen to be believed.

But dear Watson, where is the pattern?

At the outset one can easily say that Indian elections have almost always surprised the onlookers. It seems the Indian voter’s wisdom is truly, remarkably independent. In reality that is only a half-truth. If you take a closer look at all the above mentioned electoral scenarios, a certain pattern emerges. (Looking for a pattern in randomness is after all the job of a self-confessed electoral analyst, isn’t it?)

It seems the conventional political wisdom is about one cycle behind the voters’ wisdom. In 1967 when conventional political wisdom suggested a strong Congress performance, the voter gave a contrarian verdict. By 71, the political creatures were adjusting to the political reality and expecting an Indira loss, but the voter had moved ahead to give her a thumping majority. In 77 when conventional political wisdom had accepted Indira’s leadership in totality, the voter went on to reject her. Ditto 1989 with Rajiv Gandhi. In 1998, when pundits believed it would be impossible for BJP to ever come to power as shown in 1996, the voter showed why he/she is ahead of the curve. Similarly, in 2004, when political wisdom suggested Vajpayee’s invincibility, Indian voter showed he has different thoughts on that matter.

What is clear from the above illustration is that the Indian voter is always one step ahead of conventional political wisdom. By the time political wisdom would have adjusted to the voters’ reality, the voter would have already moved on to the next idea.

Equation 1

Political Wisdom = P

Voters’ Reality = R

Time Scale = T

Thus, Equation 1 is PT = RT – X



Where ‘X’ factor defines the ability of the voters’ reality to remain ahead of the curve, thus at any given time voters’ reality is a combination of political wisdom of that time and the X factor.

Does that mean the voters’ reality doesn’t get influenced by the information disseminated by news media? In a nutshell, no, it does get affected but at a subtler level. Conventional political wisdom of any given time is a convoluted web of complex ideas, whereas voters’ reality is singularly simplistic. Indian voters’ ability to surf through this complex web of information and pick the one theme that matters to them is a miracle of democracy that must be marvelled at.

In 1971 dozens of political theories were being floated around. All top Congress leaders of that era, including many doyens of the Indian freedom struggle, had abandoned Indira Gandhi and the Congress party under her leadership was on a decline. Conventional political wisdom suggested that it was a recipe for change. The voters’ reality was simple, they picked the one theme that mattered to them “Garibi Hatao”.

In the late 90’s the one theme for India was “Vajpayee”. In 2004, the central theme for a vast majority of Indians was the debilitating drought and they all blamed the governments of the day for not doing enough. In 2009, amidst all the confusing paradigms of 26/11 terror attacks, increasing terrorism, weak leadership, cash for votes, nuclear deal, MNREGA etc., the Voters’ Reality picked the theme of Manmohan Singh as an honest man trying to balance between reforms and socialism.

The upcoming battle and the new X factor: social media

Today there are myriad concepts floating around among the political circles about the next round of Voters’ Reality. At the top of the heap we have secularism, then followed by corruption and inflation and then there is regionalism and the art of coalition politics. To add to the salad bowl of ideas, we have semi-drought, a slowing economy, joblessness and other factors. Of course, there are also the fringe factors like the Hindutva agenda, the increasing Muslim radicalization, polarization of the society, the hanging of terrorists and the new-found “toughness” of the UPA regime, the FDI debate, DCT & MNREGA et al.

One aspect becomes clear from these myriad concepts: the relatively high unpopularity of the present regime. Beyond that, conventional political wisdom ties itself in knots and has no clear articulations, for pundits want the present regime to be changed but are not sure about the alternatives. Change is the operative word here, for change is in the air.

Amidst this convoluted political maze is the simple idea of Narendra Modi and his no nonsense prescription of governance. This could well become the Voters’ Reality of 2014. If and when that happens, all conventional logic will fall by the wayside. Can Narendra Modi become the “change” that India desires? That is the billion dollar question that needs to be answered.

Most of us often tend to hyphenate political currents into various subsets and formats. One of the primary divisions we have created for our own convenience is the urban-rural vote variance. Then there is the often repeated argument about Indian elections being a sum total of many state elections. Now there is a new phenomenon of the echo-chamber of social media and the much different truth of the real India.

To be sure, many of these divisions exist, but they are not always mutually exclusive as we tend to often generalize. India is moving at a tremendous pace and most political observers are unable to synchronize with that speed. For instance, majority mandates or at least near majority mandates is a relatively new concept in the Indian electoral scene and most political pundits are yet to understand that. In the new millennium, a phenomenal 92% of all elections have produced majority (or near majority) mandates. As is the case with most electoral concepts in the Indian democracy, this is a bottom-up occurrence.

The learning curve of voter wisdom in the state elections is tangentially ahead of national elections. Coalition governments in the states had become a norm in the late 70’s and early 80’s, much before the experiment became a reality at the national level. Today once again the states have shown the way. Majority mandates for better governance models are here to stay. If Congress won 200+ seats in the 2009 general election, then that was not an aberration, but a first step towards replicating the state model at the centre.

It is in this sphere of understanding the political realities that the echo-chamber of social media is ahead of the traditional media. The reason could possibly be the fact that diverse geographical voices get represented in the social media, whereas traditional media is hyper-represented by a Delhi centric viewpoint. After observing the vagaries of social media for six months, I can vouch for two things

  1. Social media is ahead in picking the nuances of any current issue or news headline, whereas the traditional media follows the cue
  2. Social media’s ability to change the narrative is unparalleled

Let me give 2 examples to elucidate both the points:

Case study 1: The Rahul Gandhi Jaipur speech:

Sundays are usually slow-news days, so, when Rahul Gandhi was anointed the VP of Congress party and gave an “emotional” speech in Jaipur, there was a lag-time before it created a buzz. In the evening when the news channels first took up the issue and initiated a debate, there was almost a reverential air to it. Most of the news anchors were seemingly in awe of the young prince; some of them were supposedly so overcome that they had even cried.

As usual it was the social-media that did the nit-picking. First it was the jokes on the Gandhi family’s crocodile tears and then it was about the serious questions on why he did not bring about change for the last 9 years. Over the next 24 hours Twitter was abuzz, Facebook posts went viral, blogs sprung up, articles were written and a whole new narrative was woven. Unfortunately, this new narrative was far more critical of Rahul Gandhi, but also arguably it was more closer to the actual perception of that speech by real India.

How did traditional media react? It actually incorporated these dissenting voices, albeit as an afterthought. If you analyse the videos of TV studio debates on Monday, 24 hours after the Jaipur session, you will start to realize that they tended to be far more critical of Rahul Gandhi, than on the previous day. Ditto with newspaper editorials; they were more scathing on Tuesday and Wednesday than on Monday morning.

In the good old classical traditional-media-only days, it was quite possible that the overpowering narrative would have been sympathetic towards Rahul Gandhi and large parts of India might even have wept at the sacrifices of the Nehru-Gandhis. Today, wherever one visits; college campuses, railway stations or even the Kumbh Melas; one realizes that the only message that is leftover about that Rahul speech are the residual jokes about crying mommy and daddy. That is how much the message has been changed by the so called echo-chamber!

Case study 2: The Azam Khan resignation:

This is a strange, but true story. After the stampede on Mauni Amavasya at the Kumbh that killed about 36 people (as per official records), news channels did their cursory jobs of reporting from the venue and disseminating information. Beyond reading out news headlines, there was hardly any analysis about the mismanagement of the whole event. Nobody was named and nobody was blamed. Yet, the very next day, Azam Khan, the minister incharge of the Kumbh, resigned from his post leaving many political pundits surprised.

A journalist gave me behind the scenes story in Allahabad. Apparently, a local newspaper had printed some of the tweets about the Kumbh stampede in its morning edition (verbatim translations to Urdu, which sound far more antagonistic). Most of these tweets held Azam Khan responsible for the stampede and where downright aggressive. It is said that Mr Khan went into a fit of rage after reading those tweets and threw the newspaper out of the window. He then went on to immediately resign from the post and also apparently vowed never to preside over any Hindu activity in the future.

From the cases above it can be discerned that social media has not only altered the narrative but also has affected actual change. Social media has possibly become the new X factor that can not only augment conventional political wisdom but also influence it to bring about a change in the voters’ reality.

Equation 2

Social Media Echo Chamber = S

If, S = X (factor)

And from equation 1: RT = PT + X

Then, Equation 2 is RT = PT + S

Thus Voters’ Reality can be gauged by combining the current political wisdom in combination with voices of wisdom from the social media.

In the very likely event that the idea of Narendra Modi actually becomes the Voters’ Reality of 2014, then the role of social media in initiating and influencing this reality would be second to none. Many rhetorical questions about BJP not having any base in states like West Bengal, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh etc., would be answered by the Voters’ Reality. New bases would be built overnight, changes would be affected in no time. The argument of India being a ‘combination of many local elections’ would be turned upside-down. The logical next step in the tangential sequence of Indian voter’s wisdom is to replicate the electoral majorities at the centre for a better governance model. As of today, Narendra Modi along with his echo chamber seems to be the only entity that can fit the bill of that tangential sequence.

The Congress party has belatedly realized the importance of changing the narrative using modern social media tools. Although there are many Twitter jokes about 100Cr (the apparent sum allocated by Congress party for SM endeavour) and how this would again back-fire on the ruling party, one cannot be dismissive about these efforts. Congress party and its handlers already have a significant control over the traditional media outlets, if it manages to acquire/create social media influences too, then I am afraid it can possibly affect changes to the narrative. Some of the moves that the Congress is making are pretty smart; for instance, the acquiring of some seemingly independent talent through the Prasar Bharati route or the rumoured outsourcing of its social media initiatives to a well-known social media brand manager.

The ruling party not only has a war-chest but also has perfected the art of converting liabilities into assets over the years. On the other hand the main opposition party, the BJP has shown many a times in the past, an innate ability to lose its first mover advantage. The BJP needs to have a counter strategy now, without any delay. The strategy must comprehensively address all three factors at play; ground realities, media discourse and social media discourse. It is in BJP’s interest to fight battleground 2014 in the presidential format, for that is the only way by which Voters’ Reality can be synchronised with the party’s electoral fortunes. As a first step, why not set up a nerve centre purely concentrating on the next prime-ministerial election, which also addresses all the three factors together?

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Praveen Patil

Praveen Patil

Analyst of Indian electoral politics and associated economics with a right-of-centre perspective.