Is it any wonder that ever more actors are moving to the political stage in India in recent years and decades? The phenomenon is not unique to India – remember Ronald Reagan – but there is something distinctive about politics and powerplay in India. Think about the cliché: change and continuity. The change is the all-pervasive efflorescence of the media since the early 1990s and the continuity is something rooted in the Indian psyche: ‘tamasha’, or spectacle. Put the two together and you get a semblance of understanding contemporary Indian politics. To be a successful ‘neta’ (leader), you have to be something of an ‘abhineta’ (actor).
If elections can be won by tapping into the age-old attraction of ‘tamasha’ (remember 2014), the corollary is that the opposition can also play the same game and win an election using counter-‘tamasha’. The environment today is such that only those who can play the performance game through the media can hope to survive and thrive in electoral politics, and who better than actors to do this: Kamal Haasan, Smriti Irani, Shatrughan Sinha, Vinod Khanna, Hema Malini, Jaya Prada, Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, NT Rama Rao, MG Ramachandran, J Jayalalitha…the list goes on.
In other words, the situation in India resembles what an academic might call ‘the politics of permanent performance’; you need to be constantly seen to perform, even if you don’t actually do so in work, to sustain support of the people. It works for some time, until another – better? – ‘tamasha’ takes over. Those who gain power by and through the ‘tamasha’ route in the media face the prospect of losing by the same route.
It was Neil Postman, who tellingly argued in 1985 that television has transformed culture into one vast arena for show business in which all public affairs – politics, religion, news, education, journalism, commerce – have been turned into a form of entertainment, or ‘tamasha’. His main contention is that the form of the media includes or excludes the quality of content: rational argument has long been central to print typography, but the form of television and television news excludes rationality since it is essentially a form, medium, devised for entertainment programming. Thus, politics and religion are diluted, and ‘news’ becomes a packaged commodity. Television de-emphasises the quality of information in favour of satisfying the far-reaching needs of entertainment, by which information is encumbered and to which it is subordinate.
‘Tamasha’ has long been one of the defining principles of political communication in India. It took various forms: such as staged satire and poetry in ‘mushairas’ and ‘kavi sammelans’, gossip, ballads, announcements of visits by leaders, processions (perfected by L K Advani’s ‘rath yatra’), street theatre, puppet shows, political verse set to popular Bollywood songs. These forms gained exponential reach and power with the proliferation of the media, including the internet and social media. Claims and counter-claims were equally able to disseminate quickly. Thus, it is no surprise that the opposition Congress also takes to similar idioms to attack the BJP in power: for example, Rahul Gandhi’s description of GST as ‘Gabbar Singh Tax’ after the popular villain from ‘Sholay’, as well as his amusing, funny and entertaining quick-on-the-uptake posts on Twitter on issues of the day.
During the 2014 elections, the Narendra Modi act – or, ‘tamasha’ – was highly effective. Here was a leader who spoke very well (compared to the then prime minister Manmohan Singh), promised the moon, seemed confident of cutting through bureaucratic and political cobwebs, was immensely entertaining, had tremendous confidence in his abilities to transform India, which the youth found attractive. It was a stellar performance across various media forms: radio, mobile, television, print, newspapers as well as holograms that enabled him to appear at public meetings at various locations simultaneously. Cut to end-2018 and the attraction of his ‘tamasha’ has waned. There are already reports of BJP candidates during recent elections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan complaining that people no longer come to his rallies in large numbers. The same confident television appearances that attracted many in 2014 don’t seem to have the same pull now, if not a put-off.
The key question now is: is the opposition capable of putting up a bigger, better ‘tamasha’ than the BJP during the 2019 elections? In 2014, it was claimed that the taciturn Manmohan Singh was ‘Modi’s most effective election agent’; the former’s persona was a contrast reference point that helped sell the Modi brand. In 2019, will Modi be ‘Rahul’s most effective election agent’? Rahul Gandhi’s stall of an inclusive, less-charged and less-divisive India will be pitted against the polarizing and polarized India symbolized by Modi and the BJP. The Nehru-Gandhi has long exploited the ‘tamasha’ in an India where feudal impulses are still influential. The outcome of the elections remains to be seen, but it is certain that ‘tamasha’ in various forms and media will reach a new high.