Narendra Modi, who had agreed to be Madhu Trehan’s first guest on the Facebook Talks series on the Indian election on Monday, fled the field and Arvind Kejriwal got a head start. And we always thought that the Sangh Parivar were the masters of the internet. Actually, they were, ages ago when Kejriwal’s flashmobbers were still in short pants. Maybe they feel a bit slow now.
The Talks series is a ripoff of Google’s Hangouts. The election show is a cobranded venture between Facebook, Trehan’s Newslaundry and NDTV — social media, internet media, traditional TV. The buzz is that NDTV put off the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate but equally, it may have been Modi’s known discomfort with interviews where the question paper is not leaked in full. Newslaundry offers to reveal all after the series ends.
Trehan offers a non-invasive, low-decibel alternative to talk show hosts who sound like a Stuka in a power dive. There’s humour, too: “After the break, we’ll talk about… no, I won’t tell you.” And then: “Welcome back. You choose your viewing well.” It worked with the soft-spoken Arvind Kejriwal, whom she dubbed the “Manoj Kumar of politics”. Not so with a querulous Mamata Banerjee, who tried to score by disparaging the media. She went on about “paid newspapers”.
Well, actually, she did exactly the same thing with the Stuka of Stukas, Arnab Goswami, whose Mamata interview had a huge “exclusive” logo hanging over it, as shiny as a gold biscuit. It was 24 hours after the Facebook Talk, but such technicalities need not deter Times Now.
Goswami had a firmer grip on his guest and was able to make her come clean on the Modi question. He was frankly amazed to hear the third front being disparaged as “a tea party, a tea break, a lunch break”. But a question posed by Trehan about Singur elicited a Silent-Spring-on-speed diatribe about the “torture of nature causing global alarming, er, warming”. Then Banerjee digressed into a mystifying plan to nurture talent banks which would bring back PIO youth, bearing sacks of black money. No Hangout ever featured such amazing stuff. The copy is better than the original.
In another successful ripoff, India News has swiped a programme name from India TV and made it fly, or at least chug. Last year, Chunav Express was a standard India TV election news programme covering the assembly polls. Now, in the hands of India News, it has become a concept programme, in which reporters ride the rails, talk to passengers and try to suss out the coming election.
The romance of the rails beats the regular off the beaten track coverage that every election brings, like NDTV’s Roadside Republic.Nothing new here, though. It’s a cheat that used to be popular with reporters from the time when their bosses sent them out into the wild rather than to talking heads in the cities. To find out how Jasidih would vote, you took a train that passed through. The passengers would tell you on the way. No need to get off, unless you were sorely inclined.
The cheat is actually hard work — you have to work the length of the train to build sample size. And it works only on variegated trains that offer a social spectrum from 1st AC down to the unreserved general compartment. The train that India News took this week was on the Delhi-Simla route and middle class from engine to caboose.
Predictably, the passengers were riding a Modi wave. They all got their news from the same TV and internet channels that we journalists watch. When the programme works those long-haul trains with names suggesting youth, sweat and revolution, when its camera reaches the part of the polity that travel cross-country with platform tickets, maybe we’ll see other, more interesting stories emerging.