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India's New Spin Doctors

Political parties get in touch with image builders to manipulate the media and create marketable netas

India's New Spin Doctors

If you've never heard the word "spin doctor" look again at the nearest photograph or television image of your favourite politician. Is he sounding a little more articulate than you remember? Are his clothes set off better against his surroundings and do his eyes gleam with a new camera-friendly sincerity as he announces noble schemes for the upliftment of the nation?

What you see are "doctored" netas, phantoms conjured up by the efforts of relatively unknown image builders of political parties. These image builders or "spin doctors" manipulate media images, publicise friendly opinion polls and sponsor articles, advise leaders on what to wear, in short create marketable political commodities.

Take the following examples. The United Front seen as disorganised, pulled in several directions and weak seeks to create a positive image. So it decides that "federalism" and "local identities" will be its catch-phrases, that its leaders will be seen united in smiling embraces or implementing locally beneficial programmes. "Some of these characteristics are true," says a psephologist, "but some are consciously popularised in the media through friendly journalists."

The Congress, hemmed in by negative images of destructive and geriatric power-seekers, bringing down governments at the drop of an interim report and associated with long-dead icons, seeks to re-invent itself. So young Doon School technocrats like Jairam Ramesh are appointed as joint secretary, relatively young women like Margaret Alva and Ambika Soni turn up at press briefings and V.N. Gadgil's hearing aid is jettisoned. With Sonia Gandhi as star campaigner, the Congress begins to project that it has a natural right to rule India. And the BJP, beset with the stigma of communalism, seeks to bolster the image of Vajpayee as a not only moderate but also humorous statesman, a benevolent patriarch of the Indian (not Hindu) Undivided Family who when not swathed in colourful "safa" is reported addressing vast and diverse rallies in a presidential style campaign.

So who are these new image managers? They could be professionals from the corporate sector such as the firm Perfect Relations or computer-savvy young politicians like Visvajit Prithvijit Singh and Ramesh or "friendly" journalists like T.V.R. Shenoy, Sudheendra Kulkarni and Balbir Punj, or party spokesmen like Jaipal Reddy. Journalists like Cho Ramaswamy or even party insiders like Sitaram Yechuri have been known to double as image consultants and though the Indian "spin doctor" may not be as easily recognisable as his western counterparts he still plays an increasingly crucial role in crafting what the public sees and believes of the '90s politician.

In the '80s before the word "spin doctor" entered the lexicon of journalism, Cho had become Tamil Nadu's first and only spin doctor. He used his magazine Thughlaq to prop up the image not only of MGR but also of BJP leaders like Advani and Vajpayee, besides SJP leader and former prime minister Chandra Shekhar, Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy and AIADMK supremo Jayalalitha. In the creation of images, Cho is known to be a past master and has often been derisively referred to as CBC—Cho Broadcasting Corporation.

Whether in popularising the view that the DMK-TMC alliance is strained or in giving space to RSS ideologue S. Gurumurthy, Cho's magazine is of crucial importance in the manner in which politicians are perceived by the public. Journalists are known to first discuss their stories with Cho who then provides them with a "spin" which is picked up by the mainstream media.He is found in many platforms simultaneously. While assisting the TMC in formulating its agenda he also plays host to Vajpayee at a major reception at Chennai. In Tamil Nadu, the media can be described as "the World according to Cho".

At a time when politics operates with the mass media in its face, "you need professionals who can help you manage the media as effectively as possible, given the high costs of advertising and the need at the same time to reach a huge and het-erogenous constituency," says Balbir Punj, editor of Business and Political Observer , who describes himself as a journalist sympathetic to the BJP. Punj, it is rumoured, has always been close to the BJP because of his RSS background and today is a key campaign strategist. "Although I have no formal relationship with the BJP, I do advise them, they consult me. Sure the media is often misused by certain people and this is not correct. But on the other hand, there is also the need to educate the voter, the need to communicate quickly in a short time within a budget. Today every gesture, facial expression is registered." Says Sudheendra Kulkarni, another saffron-leaning journalist: "Most of our efforts are all in-house."

Punj along with Shenoy and Dinanath Mishra are supposed to be the BJP's "spin doctors" and comprise the group that advises the BJP on managing the media. "Perhaps some of us do more than spin doctors do," says veteran journalist Shenoy. "We throw up ideas, we help in formulating tactics, we decide on what issues are to be taken up. But I certainly don't go to journalists and tell them what to write. I like to take issue with certain oft-used words. For example, why is the uniform civil code not considered secular; why is communal a bad word?" But Shenoy says image makers cannot invent or create anything, they can only consolidate. The BJP already has Vajpayee, the attempt now is to consolidate his appeal.

Says media observer and academic Puru-shottam Agarwal, the manner in which Vajpayee is being packaged by the BJP shows that this so-called "most Indian of parties has adopted the most American of methods. To issue supplements in which Vajpayee is described as handsome, in which fashion designer Ritu Beri professes a desire to dress him in her designs shows that Vajpayee is being sold like a film star." Ramesh says the BJP is planting opinion polls. "Look at the way the BJP has planted the C-Voter poll, with a dodgy methodology, or even sponsored features on Vajpayee. These are straight plants! It is done with the aim to create a certain "mahaul", a certain atmosphere that will influence the emotions of the voter," says Ramesh.

The C-Voter poll which predicted that the BJP would win over 250 seats was released to both the Pioneer newspaper and Jansatta at the same time. Bhaskar Rao of the Centre for Media Studies says he knows nothing of the agency C-Voter. "Either these polls should be carried out by well-known names or they should give some information about who they are. How can we trust them otherwise?" Rao asks. "It is strange," says Agarwal, "that an opinion poll should be given to two different newspapers on the same day. It reinforces the feeling that this is the work of some sort of media manipulation."

Ramesh says the BJP and Congress are both competing for the moderate middle of the electorate. "The Indian voter does not like extremes so our effort is to project a mature, stable party; to remind voters that the Congress is a convenient metaphor for India." Says Visvajit Prithvijit Singh, Doon School educated computer whiz kid of the Congress: "Haven't you already seen a change in us? Earlier we had Mr Gadgil with a hearing aid as our spokesman, now we have got the youngsters."

Yet the ancien regime in the Congress is hostile to the efforts of Singh and Ramesh. Recently, the Congress sacked its PR firm Perfect Relations because the Old Guard was reportedly impatient about being packaged. The Congress-Perfect Relations imbroglio illustrates the limits of "spin doctoring" in India. Says Tarun Deo, director of Polit Bureau, the branch of Perfect Relations that was working with the Congress. "There was a clash of civilisations between us and some members of the Congress. We told them of the boredom factor, the "jaded" factor, the need to counteract Mamata Banerjee and opting for a group of younger spokespersons," says a member of the Polit Bureau team.

 Yet Polit Bureau, hired at the cost of Rs 35 lakh, had been working with the Congress for a month and came up with a series of suggestions which were followed by the party. Before the entry of Sonia, Polit Bureau advised the Congress to project a collective rather than a single leadership. Stability—"a very sexy platform these days," according to Deo—was another slogan that was advised. The projection of Manmohan Singh as a prime ministerial candidate, the need to drop white shirts which fade into the background, the need to be up to date with newspapers—"Can you imagine that the Congress gets its newspapers delivered to it at 5 in the evening?" Deo exclaims—and to be aware of the backgrounds of every journalist who asks for an interview were all followed faithfully by Congress, before the PR firm was summarily sacked for too much publicity.

The relationship between advertisers and political parties are of course very different from PR agencies. Market Missionaries,which recently made a presentation to the BJP, says the leaders are very clear about their "brand", give a clear brief and are thorough professionals. "It is quite clear," says Jagdish Patankar of Market Missionaries, "that we have no say in policies, we are simply there for publicity." But, says another adman, Indian leaders are very feudal, they treat the electorate as their fiefdom, and they are scornful of the media, they have a client-patron relationship with journalists. Every leader here is a loose missile, who doesn't like others telling them what to do.

 "The problem with spin doctoring in India," says United Front spokesman and image builder Jaipal Reddy, "is that the theories of us spin doctors don't go very far." Here the middle class is small, election choices are dictated by elemental passions, leaders don't speak with one voice and society is not literate, or driven by ideas and images or disciplined enough to be responsive to the efforts of the image builders. In the West, Peter Mandleson could invent Tony Blair and New Labour or Saatchi and Saatchi could construct the Thatcher persona. But that was because those are politically advanced middle class societies.

 "Of course, spin doctors exist here too," Reddy says, "but their efforts are limited. Look at the way they are trying to convert the BJP into a Christian Democrat party. But they're failing because in India parties don't speak with one voice. You can package Vajpayee but what about the VHP's utterances?" The UF, for its part, has been described as a group consciously projecting a "regional" and "technocratic" image, with leaders in ethnic dress, preferably seated in front of a computer. Is it true? "There is always an attempt to create an image," Reddy says.

So think when you vote: are you voting for a politician or only his spin doctor?

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