Standup newsman John Oliver is on India’s case again. Three weeks ago, he had castigated the US media for ignoring the biggest election on earth, which was underway in India. And he had correctly diagnosed — by watching Times Now in toxic doses — that Indian TV, a big player in this election, had become “Foxified”. Now that India has been “Modified”, he’s back on the spoor, and it leads yet again to Arnab Goswami’s studio.
Goswami is seen calling the election at the unearthly hour of 9:37 am, from a little window in the middle of the screen surrounded by a ticker, a candidate watch panel, a national tally panel and a state-wise tally panel. They struggle with each other for visual supremacy. And Arnab’s screen, seething with incomprehensible data, is a tiny inset in Oliver’s screen. “I feel like I’m playing a slot machine in a Mumbai casino while high on peyote,” crows Oliver.
Sadly, though, Mumbai relies on matka and beer to deal with its frustrations. But indeed, if gambling were legal, the speculation over seat share and about ministry allocation on TV could have generated huge revenue streams. Headlines Today now has a drag-and-drop make-your-own-cabinet game, which looks highly monetisable. “This is not the most relaxing way on watch TV,” Oliver says, and he hasn’t even seen Rajnath Singh’s victory press conference, in which he attributed “Yes, we can” to Narendra Modi. Accustomed as we have become to the idea that Modi will fix everything, from dissidents to leaky taps, this was a bit much. And what does this do for the fraught Indo-US relationship, anyway?
Okay, perhaps we’re getting a bit carried away. Rahul Kanwal, who is not exactly a Modi-baiter, has cautioned Madhu Kishwar against being “carried away” about Modi. This was when she reappeared on television after being invisible, surprisingly enough, during the days of reckoning, after weeks of tireless proselytising.
So please, be serious. TV is no longer an infotainment medium. It is a player in politics, perhaps more decisive than the social media and internet analytics that parties are so hopped up on, because it has greater reach. Bet Goswami’s weird interview of Rahul Gandhi lost the Congress a big chunk of the urban vote. And during the emotional BJP meet in Parliament, where Narendra Modi remained dry-eyed but reduced his MPs to tears, the camera faded him out and panned to a larger than life portrait of Sardar Patel, then returned to Modi, superimposing the images like in a TV epic. Has Lok Sabha TV suddenly become a little too conscious of its connection to the state? Would its camera have panned so readily to a portrait of Nehru, as it may have earlier?
Fareed Zakaria derided Nehru-Gandhi dynastic politics on Oliver’s HBO show, Last Week Tonight. He said that when Rahul Gandhi, Nehru’s great grandchild, stands for prime minister, it’s “like Chelsea Clinton’s foetus having a child and running…” A bit incomprehensible and possibly non-bailable, but quite graphic. Zakaria also marvelled at Modi’s ability to sell the American dream in India precisely when it is “imploding in America”.
In comparison, the interview he gave to Sagarika Ghose was surprisingly tame. The already jaded comparisons of Modi with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The observation that at the top, the Congress and the BJP have almost no differences on the economic agenda. But there was a very interesting aside about Salvador Allende and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who over-read a 30 per cent-odd vote share as a huge mandate and faced enormous public resistance, thereafter. Or, your term isn’t over till it’s over.