Was P Chidambaram’s Arrest A ‘Planned’ TV Spectacle?
On Wednesday night, TV viewers across India were treated to a spectacle more engrossing than any K-serial. CBI officials turned up at P Chidambaram’s home, scaled the walls to enter it, arrested the former FM, put him in the backseat of a CBI car, with two officers flanking him on both sides, while reporters scurried all around to catch a glimpse of the man.
It wouldn’t have been out of place if an officer had turned to a TV camera and said “Kanoon ke haath bahut lambe hotey hain.”
Scott Adams, creator of the cult cartoon strip Dilbert, was sitting alone in his home in California, watching the live telecast. Megyn Kelly, the star anchor from Fox News, who was moderating, asked candidate Donald Trump why he insults women and calls them names. Trump responded by saying, “only Rosie O’Donnell.”
For the uninitiated, O’Donnell is an actress and a vocal liberal and feminist. To put it mildly, she is not the beloved of the American right, especially white males amongst them. When Trump took her name, Scott Adams almost jumped out of his chair. He saw in Trump a “Master Wizard”, someone who was using the art of persuasion and hypnosis to turn even difficult situations in his favour.
On that day, Adams was to famously predict that not only would Trump win the Republican ticket, he would also become President of the United States.
In the coming days, Adams would go on to identify other tricks of persuasion that Trump used – the idea of a ‘wall’ to keep out Mexican immigrants. Every time anyone would speak about immigration they would ‘see’ Trump’s imaginary wall.
In the Showtime series ‘The Loudest Voice’, we hear how, the then Fox News boss, Roger Ailes, allegedly helped Trump create grand television spectacles. Ailes backed Trump because he believed that TV would decide who becomes the next President, and Trump was a ‘reality TV star’.
We also know, from the documentary ‘The Great Hack’, how Cambridge Analytica helped the Trump campaign by creating thousands of social media memes, which referred to his rival as ‘Crooked Hillary’, with a handcuff standing in for the two ‘Os’ in ‘crooked’
Narendra Modi – The Master of Narratives
But, you will ask, what has this got to do with P Chidambaram’s arrest? Everything, I’d say. If Trump has mastered the narrative of Television messaging in the US, Narendra Modi has done it in India.
And, the television spectacle, created by CBI officers scaling the walls of the former Finance Minister’s house, is part of that overall ecosystem of messaging. The message being sent is that even the most powerful cannot escape the Modi government’s will to weed out the ‘corrupt’.
Never mind, that BJP members or allies who have graver corruption charges against them, are sitting pretty. The objective is to preach to the converted and convince them that this government means business.
The Modi juggernaut has already, very successfully, ‘anchored’ Rahul Gandhi as ‘Pappu.’ This was done through hundreds of memes, videos, cartoons, jokes and directly through social media posts. The image the word conjured up, was of an immature person, a buffoon, a boy who holds onto his mother’s aanchal.
The messaging was so persuasive that Congress party workers ended up using the advertising slogan ‘Pappu pass ho gaya’ to express their joy, when Rahul became party president. In effect, they had been ‘linguistically programmed’ to equate Rahul with the word Pappu.
There are numerous such examples of how the Modi-Shah led BJP keeps its message on point. It might not be a conscious use of the tricks of persuasion, Neuro-Linguistic Programming and hypnosis, but it works in a similar fashion.
Projecting Chidambaram As A Mallya
In the latest case, a powerful series of television images have been created to mark P Chidambaram, and reconstruct him, in popular imagination, as an absconder at par with Vijay Mallya or Nirav Modi. Whether Chidambaram is guilty, or innocent does not matter, when compliant TV anchors have already said “he should hang his head in shame” and that “the nation cannot wait to see him arrested.”
Of course, Chidambaram, himself, made it easy to conjure up this spectacle, by not surrendering for questioning. Some say, he was within his rights to exercise his legal rights. It is possible that even if he had surrendered, the Congress leader would have been subjected to humiliating procedures in the presence of television cameras.
What this incident tells us is that team Modi is in a state of ‘Permanent Messaging,’ as if it is always in election mode. Not only is the Chidambaram episode a great parable to talk about how the ‘venal elite’ are being brought to book by the ‘honest’ Modi government, it also successfully takes down an important figure in India’s politics.
P Chidambaram has always managed to work out electoral deals for himself, despite not having a great popular support base. He is liked by India Inc, who see him as a business-friendly face in the Congress. So, the BJP loses nothing if he is brought down a notch or two.
Congress’ Missed Moment
How could Mr Chidambaram, and the Congress, have utilised this to create their own TV moment? Chidambaram, along with Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, and a thousand Congress workers could have marched down to the CBI office and surrendered.
They could have alerted TV crews and continuously given soundbites all the way. Other Congress leaders could have walked along with Chidambaram-masks on their faces, creating a ‘Je Suis Chidambaram’ moment for TV cameras.
They could have said that the ‘prosecution’ of Chidambaram is, in reality, ‘persecution’ of those who do not fall in line.
But, the Congress party has no clue about the importance of messaging in the world of TV and social media. That is why Rahul and Priyanka didn’t even turn up at Chidambaram’s evening press-conference. The opposition, today, is made up of reluctant politicians, who don’t understand the rules of the game.
(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Managing Editor of NDTV's Hindi and Business news channels. He now anchors Simple Samachar on NDTV India. He tweets @AunindyoC. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)