CNBC TV18 Column: Blection Campaign – Being Offensive gets Noticed

This piece on the Indian Elections and the declining standards of behavior appeared in CNBC-TV18

AS the second phase of elections comes to a close, one thing is certain, this is the dirtiest election on record. The number of senior politicians who have crossed the line to be obnoxious while campaigning is higher than ever before. In a way, it seems that the politicians know one truth – the worse your behaviour, the higher the coverage. And, politicians with their innate sense of  upping the coverage they get in the media, play to the gallery.  The question is whether their gutter mouth utterances will win them censure from the electorate, or votes?

Among the issues have been the rampant otherization of minorities, and the terrible misogyny out on display. Maneka Gandhi, the incumbent Union Minister for women and child development, has been caught on tape coercing Muslim voters to vote for her, or find her doing no work for them in the next Parliament. In a speech in her constituency Pilbit, she has suggested that there will be a gradation of villages by the percentage of votes for the BJP. The higher the votes, the better the better the benefits accruing to them. She has been suspended from campaigning for 2 days – for violating the EC’s model code of conduct. But that suspension coincides with the end of phase 2 campaigning, where politicians anyway hold their silence till the voting ends.

Maneka Gandhi is not the most offensive of those suspended by the EC – that dishonour belongs to Azam Khan of the notoriously misogynist Samajwadi Party. He has gotten suspended for 72 hours for commenting on BJP candidate Jaya Pradha’s innerwear being khaki. The male politician’s obsession with what lies beneath continued with the BJP Kerala leader PS Sreedharan Pillai targeting Muslims in his election speeches. His assertion that you can tell a Muslim by ‘removing their clothes’ is not just offensive, but also ignores the fact that 50% of Muslims are women – who may not be circumcised. For him, women don’t exist. He is still campaigning.

Also suspended for two days is UP CM Adityanath who said ‘they’ have Ali, ‘we’ have Bajrangbali. The EC was not amused with the word play. BSP supremo Mayawati too faced the EC’s ire for her appeal to Muslims to not vote for the BJP, and vote for her alliance. 

Those who are noticed are the big fish. Politicians who get national media coverage, and whose utterances can be used to shock us, still. There are many more who fly under the radar, covered only by regional channels, with little digital footprint, that escape unscathed, ready to spread more venom the next day. I have heard Tamil speeches that are offensive to the core, speeches from the Hindi heartland – especially against Mayawati – that cross all lines of civilised behaviour.

There are three main reasons why politicians behave badly. The first is that they can get away with it – because everyone else behaves in a similar manner. The second is that one of the guiding principles of the media is that ‘man bites dog’  makes more news than ‘dog bites man’. Therefore featuring a politician frothing at the mouth, being offensive, attracts more attention than a politician talking about how his or her policies will improve all our lives. The third is that in many political parties, bad behaviour is a sure sign of promotion. Adityanath hasn’t begun speaking this way in this election. He was always like this. And it has paid dividends for his career.

Unless political parties decide that they are going to show zero tolerance on hate, misogyny and personal attacks, there is little chance of us getting better candidates, or a better election campaign. Given, the intense competition to garner eyeballs, it doesn’t look like this censure is going to happen anytime soon.

As media and social media gain more hold on our lives, the tendency for politicians who want to go viral with bad behaviour will increase. It isn’t that there aren’t politicians who don’t adhere to the norms of acceptable behaviour. Nirmala Sitharaman (BJP), for example, took a break from campaigning, to visit Shashi Tharoor (INC) in hospital, where he was recovering post an accident on the campaign trail. This extremely lovely gesture, though captured by the media, has little chance of going viral. Had Ms Sitharaman made offensive remarks, that would have been carried by the media, and shared by social media users, ad nauseum. Genuine niceness gets ignored. And this also tells you why people want to behave badly – they get noticed.

With the rise in complexity of elections, it is impossible to cover the whole country through direct campaigning. The media acts as a window to the elections, and from the window what we get see are a set of men and women who don’t deserve to be in the public space.

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