Andrew Brietbart, noted American conservative commentator and editor who died in 2012, had once this to say about media manipulation: “Feeding the media is like training a dog. You can’t throw an entire steak at a dog to train it to sit. You have to give it little bits of steak over and over again until it learns.”
Why start with an anecdote about media manipulation in an article about Arvind Kejriwal? Because, as I hope to show, the AAP supremo is currently the only politician in India who understands new media (keeping Narendra Modi in mind) and uses it admirably to his advantage.
Though the media’s primary objective is to remain as hunter-gatherer of facts, one of its major roles now is to shape narratives — partly a result of evolution and largely driven by technological advancement. And how is the narrative shaped? Not always, but it is frequently done by exaggeration, distortion, fabrication and oversimplification. Media manipulation has become the new normal where news cycles are decided by not what is important but what readers are clicking on.
The circumstances present a unique challenge to politicians. More so in a heterogeneous, multilingual, gigantic democracy like India which is on the cusp of a huge socio-economic upheaval. Right now, if one aims to become a pan-Indian leader, there are only just two ways of doing it.
One, the leader must harness an ideological concept that transcends the barriers of state, language, culture and makes him instantly recognizable. Or two, the leader must tirelessly manipulate the media to stay relevant.
Narendra Modi crossed the boundaries of Gujarat by proposing “acche din” for supporters. Whether or not he has succeeded so far is a separate question but rivals (within and without) failed to stop him because he sprang an idea whose time had come.
His challengers, therefore, must also spring an equally acceptable axis around which a narrative can be spun. It could be reservations because the fragile post-Mandal equilibrium seems to have run its course. From Patidars to Patels, ‘reservation’ issue cuts across all divides. Or it could even be about prohibition, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta pointed out in a recent column.
Nitish Kumar, who has of late been touted as Modi’s challenger in 2019, has already jumped onto the prohibition bandwagon. Bihar is now a dry state. Clearly, he has chosen the first option.
Equally clearly, Kejriwal seems to have chosen the second. The Delhi chief minister is a master at staying on top of news cycle. How does he do that? By running frequent campaigns in media, both old and new. And most of these are relentless, virulent, venomous harangues against the prime minister. He sees Modi’s invisible hand in every ticking of clock.
The Prime Minister still enjoys high approval ratings. A 16 March, 2016 poll shows 74 percent people still approve of Modi’s performance as PM, unchanged from the finding of an end-November survey.
Making Modi the target of his diatribes, therefore, serves two crucial purpose for Kejriwal: One, it gives him free publicity and ensures his relevance in national media and two, makes him a de facto challenger for the Prime Minister’s post in 2019.
Consider the brilliance of the tactic. Aam Admi Party lacks a national presence. Kejriwal has little influence outside the borders of Delhi’s middle-middle-class. Recent bumblings over odd-even 2 which left even some of his staunch supporters disgruntled has added to his challenge. The Delhi chief minister, ever wary of changing mood, has already suggested that it can’t be a permanent solution.
Punjab is an important test but he cannot keep all his eggs in one basket. There are other mass leaders in India who also aspire for the 7 RCR chair. Congress is vastly weakened and Rahul Gandhi is a meme of a challenger for the prime minister’s post but ruling out a party that has ruled India for six decades since Independence is a folly. This clever media manipulation, however, has ensured that Kejriwal’s name is always in the mix when mention is made of Modi’s successor.
Kejriwal had been smarting after having to expel Jitendra Tomar, a minister in his cabinet, over a fake-degree row. His targeting of Modi is a smart move. After all, the prime minister has provided no documents to prove that he did complete his BA from DU and PMO has so far stonewalled all queries. Smelling blood, the Delhi CM is firing several tweets per day and is even trying to put pressure on media by suggesting that they are “ignoring this raging controversy”.
An RTI query has been raised and PMO is expected to come up with a response but for now, even if we take it for granted that Modi has no BA degree to show, it is hazardous for any Indian politician to hijack a seat on moral high horse over fake degrees. And for Kejriwal, even more so.
The ‘corruption crusader’ did expel Tomar under pressure but at least two other AAP MLAs, Bhavna Gaur and Surender Singh, have been accused of furnishing fake degrees or incorrect information about their educational qualification.
A complaint was filed against Gaur for “forging educational certificates” and misrepresenting facts in election affidavits. Singh, while admitting that he made a mistake in affidavit, has failed to produce a degree.
There have been similar accusations against members of all parties. Congress president Sonia Gandhi allegedly faked her degree of studying English in the University of Cambridge. Subramaniam Swamy, who even took the matter to the Supreme Court, has said he has letter from Cambridge proving that Ms Gandhi never studied there and that she didn’t study beyond fifth standard.
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has also faced accusations of “exaggerating his qualifications”. Fingers were also raised against Union HRD minister Smriti Irani for “furnishing false information”.
These are just some names among many more. Point is, though furnishing fake degree is reprehensible and wrong, it seems to have little effect on a politician’s career prospects. And it is plain rich when somebody like Kejriwal whose own party has been embroiled in similar controversies, raises finger at others.
As a political ploy, Kejriwal’s tactic is bang on. He is continuing a strategy of media manipulation which has so far given him rich dividends and holds the promise of serving him even in the future. Problem arises when the AAP chief tries to project himself as the sole custodian of honesty in Indian politics. The slip is showing.