BIG BOSS II-Political style v/s substance

This article is published in the October’2008 issue of the magazine, Management Compass.

The Reality game show Bigg Boss was in the news recently for how politicians were desperately trying to get into it to hog the limelight. Manas Chakravarty, the managing editor of Mint, in an article, in the Sunday Hindustan Times of 31 August reported that hundreds of Republican Party of India (RPI) workers ransacked the office of Colors television channel as their leader, Ramdas Athavale was dropped from the reality show Bigg Boss-II. He also stated that Sanjay Nirupam from the Congress and several other politicians pulled all the strings they could to get in and the UPA tried to persuade Shibu Soren to accept a place in Bigg Boss rather than become the chief minister of Jharkhand. You’re in front of a camera every single minute of the day for three months, it’s every politician’s dream, the analyst pointed out. “They would do anything to get on the show.” Some desperation.

Earlier, an article by Shailaja Bajpai in the Indian express on August 20 revealed that Sanjay Nirupam had stated in his blog that that he had agreed to participate in the show to enhance the image of the politicians through his behaviour in front of 32 cameras. One wonders whether Rahul Mahajan also had similar ideas. If he did, he was not doing a good job of it as by the end of the first week, he seemed hyperactive and desperate to make a good impression. It was best summed up by actress Ketaki Dave on the show on September 1, “Rahul is trying to be gregarious with everyone but is that the real Rahul?” God knows.

Ironically, the same edition of Hindustan Times that featured Chakravarty’s article revealed a reality of a different kind. Actor turned MP Vinod Khanna was praised very highly for the initiatives he had taken to build several bridges throughout his constituency, Gurdaspur. The article stated that embittered by corruption in Indian politics, medical practitioner Narinder Kumar Kohli had stopped casting his vote 20 years ago. He changed his mind recently. In his own words, “I will exercise my right to franchise during the coming Lok Sabha elections only to support him. His contribution in this area in the past one decade has been immense. Vinod Khanna is a real-life hero for me,” said the 58-year-old doctor. He said the BJP MP was doing a good job, even if he was inaccessible. It seemed strange that while politicians were pulling out all stops to come to the limelight frivolously, a former actor and celebrity was avoiding it despite performing so well in politics; style without substance and substance without style.

It seems that some politicians are of the view that just as Big Brother did a lot more for Shilpa Shetty than her acting career, they would perhaps fare likewise just by appearing in front of the camera.

Is it so easy to impress just by being in front of the camera? It is worth looking at perhaps one of the best performing politicians in front of the TV, former American President Ronald Reagan. When he died in the year 2004, Time magazine devoted an entire obituary issue to him. It has some interesting insights about his television performance. The magazine reported that when his career as a Hollywood actor was going nowhere he was hired by General Electric. For $125,000 a year, he would act as host and occasional star of a weekly television drama series for General Electric; for 10 weeks each year he would also act as a kind of goodwill ambassador to GE plants around the nation. As one of the first prominent Hollywood actors to defect to the much-scorned new medium of TV, Reagan revived his acting career. The General Electric Theatre, with Reagan as host from 1954 to 1962, dominated the Sunday-night ratings. But what changed Reagan was his tours of the GE plants. Later, Reagan’s opponents often underestimated him, dismissing him as “just an actor,” an amateur lacking political experience. What they failed to see was that although Reagan had not spent much time in conventional politics, he had gained both skill and experience in what was to become the politics of the TV age, the politics of electronic images and symbols. Reagan once figured that in his eight years at GE, he had visited every one of the company’s 139 plants, met more than 250,000 employees, spent 4,000 hours talking to them and “enjoyed every whizzing minute of it.” He polished his delivery, the intimate confiding tone, the air of sincerity, the wry chuckle, the well-timed burst of fervour. The very fact that he had to make so much conscious effort despite being an actor shows how difficult it is to pull off an outstanding performance on Television.

That apart, one needs to be smart and witty like Shah Rukh Khan, who seems to be in his element in front of the camera not only as an actor but whenever he gives interviews or speaks extempore. Coming back to Reagen in this context, he once turned the tables on his electoral rivals by one witty remark. Reagen was getting on in age and this had become an issue during the 1984 presidential debate with Walter Mondale. His humorous reply “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience..” bowled over a wide American audience and impressed his opponents as well. That one statement made a pivotal role in his victory.. So political performance apart, even TV by itself requires a flair of a different kind. I doubt if even the actor politicians of India can get anywhere near Reagen.

Our politicians are lucky that our audiences are not so discerning. American politicians in general and Presidents in particular have to do well in terms of both style and substance on TV as well as politics.

Since politicians are so desperate to get into the limelight, conducting behavioural interviews on what all they had achieved could make interesting viewing as anecdotes can be very entertaining. They could be pitted against one another or other features could be introduced to make things more interesting. The Times of India with its lead India campaign, has already shown the way on how to detect political talent but that was from among unknown people. This would be more of a performance appraisal of established politicians. The politicians would have their place in the sun and be made accountable on TV with behavioural interviews. It could be a win-win situation for everyone.

An inadequate performance culture is one of the reasons why politicians try to hog attention the wrong way in real and reel life. India Today summed it up wonderfully in one of its recent issues — “The world Bank says that four out of 10 Indians live below the poverty line. You could quarrel with the methodology but there is no disrupting the cause — pathetic governance” Its latest issue, while giving the constituency wise performance and stating that even the constituencies of long-elected ministers and former prime ministers were far below from the top performing ones, has this to say in conclusion: “The landscape is littered with issues of poor governance- from teacherless schools to waterless pipes to a crumbling delivery system for foodgrains. At the assembly level, anti-incumbency is as high as 65 per cent, while it is between 45 and 55 per cent at the parliamentary level. Nothing reveals the sloth in the system that renders even the most voluble politician ineffective better than this study”. On the positive side, the article praises Sharad Pawar alone for bringing about a complete transformation in his constituency.

The public has to act as the big boss and using transparency provided by Television, choose to stay with or remove them, the way people are ejected from the reality game show. The India Today article above thankfully mentions that though MPs are elected to legislate at the centre, they are now expected to monitor everything from bad sanitation in the neighbourhood to public transport in their constituency. The media, in turn, should follow up the MPs using behavioural interviews or whatever feasible manner, instead of just moving on to the next news story. The crisis of Kosi has shown how lack of competence can make things messy. Politicians can face problems of a far greater magnitude than companies and lack of relevant competencies can prove disastrous in preventing such crises or coping with it; Kosi left 2.5mn homeless, 1000 dead and 866 villages destroyed. Looking at it from another context from the scale of problems that politicians may have to face, they are the big bosses and not being able to elect the right ones can cause substantial, unmitigated losses.

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One Response

  1. I follow your blog for a long time and must tell you that your articles always prove to be of a high value and quality for readers.

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