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9 ways the media brought Priyanka centre stage

By Shiv Visvanathan
Last updated on: May 06, 2014 12:31 IST
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Priyanka Gandhi

'The beauty is that when media says it is real, people start believing it as real. Priyanka Gandhi, from a background image is now a larger-than-life hoarding.'

'From Arvind Kejriwal to Priyanka, this has been a media-determined election. Two forces stand poised, the people inventing new politics and the media inventing its own version of that politics,' says Shiv Visvanathan.

When Harold Wilson, the former prime minister of England, said 'A week is a long time in politics,' he was making a profound observation. As a savvy negotiator, he realised small things can change the alchemy of a situation, coax people to read things differently. Last week, all India heard about was the inevitability of Narendra Modi. The Modi juggernaut was making its final move from Lucknow to Delhi.

Now suddenly, Modi looks tried, his voice seems hoarse, he seems to have lost his mana. He appears vulnerable. The same numbers which gave him a convenient margin now seem to add up differently. They appear to create doubt. A new electoral abacus creates a huge margin of doubt on many calculations.

At first sight, the reader is surprised. Then he realises the Modi phenomenon is being reframed. The media seems tired of the Modi epic and is creating a counterfoil. The media realises Rahul Gandhi might be inadequate, but Priyanka Gandhi can be groomed for the future. Her first interviews are inane, her speeches pedestrian.

Instead of reporting it matter of factly, the media, television, in particular, stages an alternative show. Realising the text needs to be worked on, it creates context as the new content. Media moves are quick, supple and effective. As a critic, all one can do is to unravel the steps in this semiotic act.

As a first step, Robert Vadra has to be sanitised and localised. The focus is not on the young man. The attack is seen as one on the family, the Gandhi family, our first family, our great legacy. The family is still a value while Vadra is seen as an add-on.

Step II, Rahul has to be sidelined, but affectionately. Enter Priyanka, the sister saying fondly 'My brother Rahul looks like Rajiv'. As affection pours down, attention shifts to her. The side show seems more promising than the main act. Presto, the media switches the attention frames. The attention is on Priyanka, the new Joan of Arc.

Step III, the media realises that she has to be represented more tersely, not as a harangue but as a collection of bytes, responses, telegrams and one-liners. The reactive has to be presented as active. Think of this: When Modi reportedly says 'She is like a daughter to me,' he invokes a different protocol of behaviour, a different sanskar, she reads him literally and answers, 'I am Rajiv's daughter'. Quick, abrupt and emphatic. There is no yielding to any weakness.

Step IV, Priyanka has to be presented as more than Priyanka. It is not enough that she is Sonia's daughter. That does not quicken the juices. The minute she is re-projected as evoking Indira, a different halo is created. It is a different aesthetics evoking her sarees, each chosen with a magisterial care, each echoing a craft tradition. It is a different politics because the till-now phlegmatic Priyanka is seen as the next Indira -- the Durga, the goddess.

Priyanka's tiredness disappears as she endears herself to the crowd. The smile, half chirp-half giggle makes her look at home. She is relaxed, enjoying politics in a way Rahul did not.

Step V, the counter-attack begins. The crowd warms up. Amethi and Rao Bareli feel they might lose their use value and exchange value if the Gandhis lose. They could become anonymous areas again.

The Vadra charge is met by the Gautam Adani counter-attack. Vadra's rise to real estate is presented as puny next to the Adani acquisitions which it probably is. Once a comparison of ledgers begins, the game can swing back and forth. It becomes like a score card of points rather than any understanding of cronyism or corruption.

Step VI, the BJP has to be presented on the back-foot. Modi's comments on Priyanka are re-edited to become an object of mockery. P Chidambaram observes that Modi might treat her (Priyanka) as a daughter, but Priyanka might not reciprocate the feeling. Suddenly, the elite in its snobbery treats Modi as an upstart.

Step VII, a reverse of the previous one. Replay Congress as a suave entity but re-run BJP as a touch of crudeness. Luck plays the Priyanka way as Uma Bharti, out of touch with popular culture, compares Priyanka and with starlet Rakhi Sawant. Both are seen as similar for creating spectacles that demand attention. Poor Bharti, it is she who seems irrelevant. The bite is gone. There is only a desperation.

Meanwhile, television anchor Arnab Goswami harangues a Smriti Irani, Rahul's rival on television. When Irani warns him she is running out of fuel, he imperiously remarks, 'Electricity is a state responsibility, one cannot blame the local MP for it.'

Step VIII, the media moves with great speed converting a non-event called Priyanka into a real event. The new battle-lines are drawn with Priyanka leading the charge against Modi. It is a new politics, a new heroics -- the underdog recharged leading the Congress to battle. One can see such scripted variants on many channels.

Step IX, the media moves to target side shows. More useful than Uma Bharti is Baba Ramdev. Ramdev's attack on Rahul is re-read as an attack on Dalits. Rahul dissolves into the background as the politically correct ask for Ramdev's apology followed by his arrest. One then creates a new ambience of politics contrasting Modi's tiredness against Priyanka's freshness.

All one needs are cliches about her poise, her grace or to contend like born-again evangelists that she is a 'natural'. Youth, freshness, poise, grace -- adjectives showered on her like rose petals evoke Priyanka as the next Indira Gandhi. The charisma and message are clear.

The spectator watching the show is dumb-founded. A C-grade play has been re-worked as an A grade epic. The branding is clear. Not Rahul, Not Congress but Priyanka. 'Dusri baar Priyanka sarkar' almost emerges as a second refrain.

Even the Congress appears surprised at the media enthusiasm for Priyanka. She is pretty, gutsy but no one can judge if media is creating an interlude entertaining itself or reading forces on the ground.

Yet, I must confess, the beauty is that when media says its real, people start believing it as real. Priyanka, from a background image is now a larger-than-life hoarding. Only a few critics watch stunned, feeling old fashioned and outdated in today's world. All they can do as grammarians is to point to the logic of what happened -- and watch wryly.

From Arvind Kejriwal to Priyanka, this has been a media-determined election. Two forces stand poised, the people inventing new politics and the media inventing its own version of that politics. These times are interesting.

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