DEVAKI JAIN | 19 MARCH, 2017
The Planet of the Demagogues
NEW DELHI: The Global trend in electoral outcomes reminds of science fiction movies. There is an upsurge of demagogues coming in as national choice of leader from East to West, North to South. What accounts for this phenomenon is a question that has been addressed but needs to be addressed even more.
Observing the journey of the recent elections in India one striking explanation is the role of television. That television screens, across all brands, and languages , want to project persons who are in the news as famous , or the crowd puller of all crowd pullers, film stars , it has often puzzled many of us why television screens, across all brands, and languages , want to project these demagogues with such intensity ? Because this -- the styles , speeches, the body language of the demagogue is pure theatre.
The demagogue harangues and pacifies, shouts and cries , gets his piece of cake.
The gestures of the arms, arms always spread wide open , embracing one and all, head turning almost like a wound toy, to the right and then to the left , to include the crowds on every side.
Then the sudden anger with the regime the demagogue is fighting, and using long arms forward , with a threatening shake, - “we will punish these thieves and frauds, who have robbed you”! And then, “No more will that be allowed...”is just like an act which has been frozen and whenever it is played, it is played in the same theatrical mode .
This theater is as gripping as an event with one of the most famous of film stars. Every channel wants to show that. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a big favourite.
US President Donald Trump's theatricals also mesmerized the media, especially the TV channels during his elections. There was of course the sour commentaries, the ridiculing but like the old man river, the channels went on showing "the Donald”.
And he gave much material . Entering the podium clapping his hands, then all the audience claps their hands ,a gimmick that had an effect .Then the abuse of the opponent, the threatening arm with the hand raised and index finger pointing.
Then the outrageous and untruthful statements about some categories of people -, large massive body presence . These theatricals , the body language and the outrageous allegations added to the spice on TV in the USA .. which of course we also saw on TV channels all over the world .So different from earlier images of political leaders in the USA , and there fore so gripping .
These men as a result of TV over attention began to emerge as super heroes , making ugly and outrageous attacks on the past and waving a fist towards the future .
We had seen such speeches from earlier Revolutionaries, and also from dictators in the past , but this time their drama was accompanied by the extraordinary spread and presence of the TV, the visual live media. It was mesmerizing .It was different , it was a promise of revolution ..it gripped one and all . T V gave these men their wings
There are two significant wheels to this chariot , perhaps unique to India ..The teeming millions, and without regular employment, so available at any time .It is something to note and watch .Even the smallest skirmish on a street , even the appearance of a third ranking “celebrity” can produce numbers , which would be considered a mob in the west .We are so populated that it requires no effort at all to have a 100 000 or as it happened with the recent elections in the state of Uttar Pradesh, half a million people in a political rally .
The other is the Television . A TV is an essential good and is the center piece in even the worst of hovels , within a garbage dump . We see T V Antennae every where , on tops of shacks made of tin,in squalid lanes in the slums , not only in Mumbai but in small towns, and villages.
As we drive in Mumbai passing through the slum Dharavi , made famous by the film Slum dog, or in Delhi as we turn into Jawaharlal Nehru University and see that little mountain which is covered with shacks, at the gate, one notable feature is that every shack has a dish, every little window - even if there is no roof - has a dish.
Watching television is one of the biggest, most widespread, most deeply embedded activity amongst the masses in India. Sometimes it is not the only the entertainment in the evenings, but also during the day time. Mornings for housewives, afternoons children return and evenings for the men.
Often the men in those slums are daily wage workers, often unemployed and glued to the TV... remember the interviews of the rapists in the film, Indias daughter? ( the story around Nirbhaya the woman who was raped in a bus)? All the men and the boy , met at watching TV sessions in their hovels, while drinking ??
So we the public , especially the masses are bewitched by these demagogues – a dreadful arrival on politics .
Happily for the citizens of the US , there are newspapers like the New York Times that are standing up despite threats and abuses.In India , hardly any media house has the financial and social power to stand up.
In fact, newspapers are folding up due to lack of finance, and media houses including TV channels are buckling under the pressure and accommodating the new politics .
Where do we go from here ? Food for thought and international networking .. as in a smaller way demagogues are gaining in many other countries as well. Alas!
(Devaki Jain is a well known economist and writer)
Cover Photograph: Trump-O-Matic” by MarkBryan, 2016