Last week Rahul Gandhi took a personal jibe at the Prime Minister while criticising his demonetisation move, referring to him as a practitioner of “TRP politics”. The BJP hit back, terming Gandhi himself a “champion” of TRP politics. This ‘TRP politics’ is an interesting concept meant to imply that a politician’s actions are primarily motivated by a desire to cash in on the headlines and keep her or himself in the news, instead of the noble intention of national interests. The more one looks into the state of global politics, the more occurrences of active TRP generation become apparent and mainstream, especially at the nexus of media and a rising populist tide in politics.
Populism has been on an ascent globally – the appeal of it no longer disputable after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. As their self-styled advocates and mouthpieces, populist candidates have a special interest in maintaining a close connection with the people and their grievances. Populists frequently project themselves as the ‘true’ representatives of the people – the only ones who can restore the sovereignty of the people back to them by replacing the ‘corrupt elites’. They frequently invoke an idealised homeland from the olden days (e.g. “Make America Great Again”) that is typically rooted in emotions as opposed to facts.
The present model of political coverage through 24/7 news channels has been changing the way politicians communicate with voters. Simultaneously, the rise of social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, has opened new channels for unmediated communication between politicians and citizens. While mass media in the form of news channels and newspapers is based on journalist intermediaries and a relatively passive audience, social media evolves from like-minded peer networks. Professional news outlets work well for distributing official statements to a large audience, however Political scientists find that politicians are turning to social media to bypass media institutions with its journalistic gatekeepers and connect much more directly with their target audience. Voters who are inclined towards their stands treat social media avatars as authentic representations and trust it more than news commentaries. One only needs to look at the Twitter accounts of right wing politicians like Nigel Farage of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Marine Le Pen from France’s National Front or Geert Wilders of Netherlands’ Party for Freedom to find how they closely follow issues of currency and tweet strategically to speak to their target voters’ resentments. They use the legacy and new media forms to create a kind of “Snapchat personality”, as Nicholas Carr refers to it – “one that bursts into focus at regular intervals, without demanding sustained concentration”.
The best way to keep oneself in limelight now is not to inform, but to provoke. The more visceral the message, the more likely it is to get circulated, hash-tagged and liked. Populist messages tend to be personal and sensationalistic in nature, which makes tweeting is especially well-suited to these short and acerbic statements. No one exemplifies this more than US President-elect Donald Trump. Referring to his social media clout, Nicholas Carr writes, “A natural-born troll, adept at issuing inflammatory bulletins at opportune moments, he’s the first candidate optimized for the Google News algorithm … Exuberantly impolitic, such messages attract Trump a vast web audience … while giving reporters and pundits fresh bait to feed on”.
Elements of such messaging are oft employed by less populist actors as well. The case of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his charismatic personality cult is an interesting one in this regard. One of the main reasons he commands a high popularity among majority of Indians, in spite of a modest delivery of campaign promises, is his ability to engage with them directly through frequent speaking engagements in live-televised rallies, radio talks and tweets. He is able to enjoy a wide traditional media coverage of his official as well as ‘direct’ messages while simultaneously steering clear of press conferences and television interviews – the inconvenient, ‘mediated’ aspects of legacy media. As the popular, sitting PM of a majority government, he does not need to provoke to get noticed, and indeed keeps himself away from controversy — which is left to his party members. Little wonder that his opponents like Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal also attempt to take side of ‘the people’ to attack him and his policies, albeit with less success.