Why the 2019 election campaign should be studied by media students
After Mandate 2019, it is now accepted that the Opposition was totally outplayed, outmaneuvered and even outed from the race by the BJP. Unable to answer the question Modi vs Who, Opposition intransigence and sluggishness were in sharp contrast with the BJP’s nimble-footed flexibility, whether in stitching alliances or in projecting welfare programmes. Among the most important factors that contributed to the BJP’s success is also the nature of the media campaign the ruling party was able to mount-one that showcased a kind of strategic and masterful media choreography so far unseen in an Indian general election. The media strategy of the BJP in 2019 was so carefully planned and executed that it deserves study by media students.
Event after event beamed out through media 360 platforms, not just squeezing out the opposition but also invisibilising it. It was politics as media spectacle where image and rhetoric took over from substantive details, where social media trends and mainstream platforms amplified each other in perfect tandem.
Let us look at the salient moments of the media drama since January 2019. On New Year’s Day, the prime minister gave an interview. His choice for interviewer was not a channel or newspaper but ANI, the video wire service which supplies all broadcast as well as print outlets. By choosing a wire service (rather than a single media platform) the BJP ensured this first interview was aired or printed by every channel or newspaper thus achieving an effective monopoly on the media headlines.
After ANI, came a slew of more broadcast and print interviews, some on the banks of the Ganga, others in the prime ministerial residence, always with PM Modi firmly in charge of the narrative throughout the interaction. After the interviews, another spectacle soon unfolded with a chat show at Jawaharlal Nehru stadium with a high profile Hindi news anchor, complete with cheering crowd and rock-concert-like atmosphere.
Indian PMs have never given interviews to film stars before but once again Modi broke with past practice to create a bold new effectively filmed ‘informal’ conversation with actor Akshay Kumar, known for his action-man khiladi image as if to underline the PM’s own image as a daring risk-taking. The soft focus talk about eating mangoes showed off the PM’s softer side, and offset the harsh language heard during rallies.
The glittering roadshow in Varanasi, complete with the Ganga Aarti and rose petal showers as well as the spectacular piece de resistance at Kedarnath on the last day of polling revealed a media strategy that would be the envy of media planners. Imposing scenic views of mountains with the PM in flowing Moses-like robes presented epic images designed to project a personality loftily above the squabbling political fray of lesser mortals. This was an exercise in the politics of seeing when camera angles and visual settings of a certain politician also bolstered his leadership and “distinctiveness”.
When the PM suddenly appeared (but did not speak) at BJP president Amit Shah’s post-election press conference, it served to deflect attention from Rahul Gandhi’s planned press briefing. Instead of the cameras focused entirely on Rahul, now the event became a TV “double window” of Modi and Rahul. Rahul Gandhi was relegated to the second headline.
This master-class in media planning could hardly have been implemented without the media’s ready willingness to play along with the Powers That Be and be the eager cheerleader as Modi played Pied Piper. In doing so, journalism was replaced by riveting and colourful visual imagery, an escapist fantasy where asking questions or sounding any note of difference would only spoil the party. Media as a platform of political spectacle is numbing and unfortunate journalistic surrender. After all, politicians could always argue that the media is only being used because they are agreeable and acquiescent.
In conclusion, the 2019 campaign showed the ruling party not only acutely alive to providing the hungry camera with images it could devour but also a campaign perfectly in sync with poll schedule and timings, each choreographed event timed for maximum impact. Every media event led seamlessly to the next, with the best saved for the last. Expert media capture meant that the Opposition was not only made invisible but also reduced in stature: while the gathbandhan appeared in clumps and groups, Modi appeared either in solitary splendor or surrounded by acolyte mediapersons. Campaign 2019 was thus not just media manipulation but media dominance with the element of surprise punctuating the long haul trawl through rallies, eliciting periodic gasps of astonishment and spiking interest from viewers/ voters. For media students, it’s a campaign that would certainly yield a great deal of material for study!
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.