Sunday, January 24, 2010

NEW MEDIA: IS CONGRESS REALLY A 'LOSER' ALREADY?

Vir Sanghvi has written an interesting column in the Hindustan Times on some of his findings about netizens, based on his experience on Twitter and his own website. "At present, bloggers, visitors to websites and tweeters remain a curiosity for traditional media" he says, adding that the media is making a huge mistake by remaining blinkered and not according them the respect they get in the West.

Sanghvi then goes on to make two more extremely important observations, but fails to make the right deductions from them, for obvious reasons. "There is a growing revulsion over Islamic extremism and fundamentalism" which, he believes rightly, is less because it is anti-Muslim and more because the development is seen as regressive and anti-modern. He also thinks that there is "a hardcore of pro-BJP bloggers and tweeters" who vigorously defend the Sangh parivar, but almost no pro-Congress types who respond to them with equal ferocity.

Why are there no pro-Congress bloggers on the internet? Vir knows the answer but, as almost always, is not vir enough to admit it: There is no space left for them. Everything that they can think of and more is taken care of by mainstream journalists, some of whom whom often sound like official party spokesmen of the Congress party and, as some bloggers like to say, "family retainers" of the Gandhi family. With almost the entire media singing the Congress tune along myriad dimensions and swamping the nation with their enormous reach, there is almost nothing more pro-Congress left for bloggers to add; no one is going to read what he has already read or heard. They have, therefore, simply been put out of business by the likes of Vir Sanghvi, Barkha Dutt, Prannoy Roy, Rajdeep Sardesai, Sagarika Ghose, Vinod Sharma (of HT, not me), Pankaj Vohra, N Ram, Shekhar Gupta; the list is almost endless.

These guys belong to the 'paid blogger' brigade of the old media that still has an unmatched reach in a nation where internet penetration is very low.

Thanks to long years of Congress rule during which Congress-friendly individuals infiltrated into, and took control of, most opinion-influencing organs and institutions that define and shape the Indian state, generations have grown up reading and hearing that the Congress way is the right way for India. Thanks to the media, that line is reinforced on a daily basis. There are strong shades of Gobbelesque propaganda in this, but this fact remains largely concealed thanks to the ability of its numerous protagonists to intelligently gather it cleverly under the 'liberal' umbrella. Their task is made even easier by the fact that people of this generation have a very short attention span. They do not have the time or inclination to look beyond the obvious, or farther than what they have grown up reading and watching at home and school.

That is one major reason why the BJP has failed to attract the millions of Indians who find Islamic extremism repugnant. It axiomatic that that these guys should also detest a political party that appears to be pandering to everything related to it solely to get to or retain power. But, thanks to the 24/7 pro-Congress and anti-BJP bombardment of the media, bolstered by media-magnified sporadic acts of some fringe elements of the Sangh Parivar who mindlessly relish competitive extremism that has few takers, their disgust with the Congress does not translate into trust of the BJP. That is primarily why the BJP's alternate view - political, historical and ideological - sets off the alarms in their minds, making rational analysis impossible.

The BJP is never going to be able to infiltrate the media, Congress-style, because, even if it comes to power, it is not going to have an uninterrupted run there with the kind of brute majority that the Congress enjoyed for decades. Given this scenario, barring one or two journalists of dubious loyalties, no honest pro-BJP and anti-Congress opinion is ever going to get prime media time and space. Even if someone's conscience nudges him/her that an alternate view should be given fair and prominent billing, the demands of business and personal advancement hurriedly bury the thought.

That, to a large extent, explains the rumour that Sanghvi mentions about the BJP employing "a small group of people to scour the net every day and to heckle all anti-BJP bloggers." Sagarika Ghose, who also regularly gets a dose from a number of such individuals on Twitter, has coined a new term, "Internet Hindus", for them and says they "are like swarms of bees. They come after you at any mention of Modi Muslims or Pakistan." To my simple mind, heckling in such manner is hardly a sound political strategy because, as we have seen earlier too, it has the effect of putting off many reasonable individuals. So, if these hecklers are actually in the employ of the BJP, then its strategists are either idiots or in the secret employ of the Congress.

Most likely the hecklers are ordinary BJP supporters who, having found a platform at last where their voices can also be heard by all, overreact immaturely to what they perceive is a biased and one-sided criticism of everything Hindu by media personalities. What those in the media forget is that the onslaught of these guys is nothing compared to what they will be greeted with if they use the exact same words when other faiths are involved. Or may be they do remember what happened to Rushdie, Taslima, Baba Ram Rahim Singh and many others; that is why they choose their words very carefully when they know they will get real vipers coming at them, and not tiny internet bees that cannot sting.

Is, then, the Congress really 'a clear loser on the net', as Vir Sanghvi wants you to unsuspectingly believe, with a twinge of sympathy for the GOP?

Who are the guys who have the largest number of followers on Twitter? Whose posts get thousands of hits? Apart from Shashi Tharoor and Bollywood stars, it is journalists like Sanghvi who have virtually taken over the net too. Should I, therefore, not deduce, a la Sanghvi, that the Congress party has employed them to pre-empt a sleeping, doping, clueless BJP from exploiting this truly free and democratic medium, the only one that it realistically can?

The truth is that 'Congress' bloggers of the old media have become internet bloggers too. They are the ones who have swamped the net, burying any early advantage that the BJP may have gained inadvertently with the help of individual early net birds. The Congress is the clear winner here too. It sure has a great team of tech-savvy analysts.

Sanghvi is moaning because on the net, particularly on Twitter, you can’t hide the rotten eggs that are thrown at you. There is no editor to put them away before anyone sees them. It is not easy for those used to pompously making their point in a paper or in a TV studio to take direct hits from ordinary mortals, often in real-time.

While it is natural for Sanghvi to gloat over the fact that, thanks to the heavy dose of previous exposure and Twitter, journos have quickly gained a huge footprint on the net too, what he has perhaps not yet adequately realised, like the rest of the 'blinkered' media, is that there is a danger here, a real one: an increasing number of Indians are going to get an unprecedented exposure to many more counter views too. Over time, this alone has the potential of unshackling more and more Indians from the carefully crafted and propagated pro-Congress agenda that has largely remained unchallenged till now. But hecklers - some of them, like Sanghvi, are actually hilarious at times - are not going to achieve much beyond forcing semantic modifications.

If the power of the net is to be successfully used to truly democratise, even liberate, India, the counterpoints - pun intended - must intellectually expose and defeat the dishonesty that has got into the very DNA of a large section of India's mainstream media, and cogently communicate alternate views honestly. Constructive criticism is also a very useful tool that can not only help widen knowledge and understanding, but can also, in some cases, lead to genuine introspection. Without taking any names, I must acknowledge that a heartening subtle change is already visible and can easily be seen by those who are willing to. But this is as yet too little and in too few individuals.

Together, these developments, if nurtured properly, can dissolve the growing apathy, even resignation, that is afflicting an increasing number of Indians, and harness it into the hope and involvement that is needed to build a new and truly modern but rooted India that is proud of itself. Now that you and I can make a difference, thanks to the new media, we must utilise this exciting opportunity to do our bit, no matter how little.

Picture: Indian Bloggers Nest
'