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Might of viral vigil

- Once uttered, nothing can save you

I was only joking my dear

Looking for a way to hide my fear

What kind of fool was I

I could never win

New Delhi, March 24: From veteran Sharad Pawar to rookie Dev, many public figures could well start humming Rod Stewart’s I was Only Joking in this election season as they dodge ricochets from bloopers that are yanking them into primetime space that sedate words probably will not get them to.

The British rock star’s 1977 hit was about love but an unrelenting traditional and social media glare, powered by mobile phone cameras and recorders, is exposing campaigning politicians to unforgiving scorn like never before.

Union agriculture minister Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party today claimed he was speaking in jest at the weekend when he advised party supporters to use the multiple phases of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections to vote twice.

The BJP was desperately explaining that prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi remained the focus of its campaign after what the party suggested was merely a mis-tweet by its president Rajnath Singh highlighting the party more than the contender for Prime Minister.

Actor Dev, the Trinamul Congress candidate from Ghatal, was discovering that cracking jokes about rape can attract outrage from bloggers as far away as Anchorage, Alaska, within hours of a comment possibly made unthinkingly. Dev this evening tweeted an apology.

In an interview to the newspaper Ebela, when Dev was asked whether he was enjoying his campaign as the Trinamul Congress candidate from Ghatal and the buzz being generated by his presence there, the star said: “Enjoy...! It’s just like being raped, yaar! You can shout or you can enjoy. Nothing more than that. Anyway since I am here now, I must get the job done.”

After he was blasted in the virtual world for insensitivity, Dev tweeted: “Im new in politics. My heart is clean. No offence meant 2 any1. I respect Maa, sis al women brothers. Dint mean 2 hurt any1. SINCERE SORRY.”

“The problem, from the politician’s perspective, is the intense media scrutiny he or she is today under,” said Dilip Cherian, who advises politicians on communications. “It’s unsparing, and that scrutiny is only going to get more intense.”

The intense media scrutiny is influencing politics in manners unseen in India before, nudging parties into projecting faces compatible with this glare and forcing politicians to develop shields and weapons to counter the assault.

The search for faces that the media glare falls favourably on may have aided celebrities ranging from Nagma (Congress) to Dev (Trinamul) win tickets over the claims of more battle-worn politicians in their constituencies.

But the unrelenting focus also carries risks — a single misstep can affect public perceptions in a manner unthinkable a decade earlier.

“Politics is increasingly influenced by media — and media by politics,” said Ratnesh Dwivedi, who teaches communications at Noida’s Amity University and has researched on political communication. “The lines between private meetings for party workers on the one hand and public speeches on the other are (getting) blurred, because everyone carries phones with recorders. So if you make a mistake, you’re exposed online in minutes.”

AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal told supporters at a closed-door Nagpur fundraiser earlier this month that some journalists were “paid” to project specific political perceptions, and he would “jail” those guilty if he came to power.

But his statement was recorded on a mobile phone and broadcast online and on television, drawing comments, criticism and comparisons with the Emergency in 1975 when media houses were gagged.

Pawar, too, may not have realised that his address to party supporters was being recorded and would attract controversy the way it did.

The Election Commission today said Pawar had “prima facie” violated the model code of conduct by asking party workers to vote twice after wiping off the indelible ink. Pawar has been issued a notice.

“Politicians cannot speak a single word in public today without taking into account its consequences,” Dwivedi said.

One of the reasons politicians are more exposed to getting singed by gaffes is that their mistakes are being tracked by specialists, Chennai-based political perception expert Satish Isaac said.

“It’s not as innocent as it seems,” Isaac, who has worked with multiple politicians on their communications strategy, said. “The single biggest task of a communications team hired by a politician or party is to track down every mistake or loophole in a speech or statement by the client’s rival politician or party.”

The moment the team identifies a mistake, or an inconsistency in an argument, it highlights it on social media, Isaac said.

“Your first task once you find a mistake in a statement by your client’s rival is to make it go viral online.”

Next, Isaac said, the team co-ordinates with public relations firms to try and leverage a story surrounding that gaffe. “You make a plan — get it in one newspaper on, say, Monday and then in another newspaper, with a slightly different angle, two days later.”

But not all controversial remarks are gaffes, Cherian said.

The constant scrutiny by traditional and social media has made politicians keen to stay politically correct, Cherian said.

“But ultimately, their aim is to win votes, and that’s where a political communication strategy comes in,” Cherian said. “I tell the politicians I advise to push the envelope and make sure they say things that aren’t staid and stale, while making sure they don’t overdo it.”

The persistent media glare has also allowed fleet-footed politicians to recover from mistakes faster than they may earlier have, the specialists said.

On Monday, Rajnath tweeted an image that said: “Time for change, time for BJP,” with his photo next to the text.

With the BJP ridden with differences and speculation rife over multiple factions within the party, the tweet led to whispers over whether Rajnath was shifting away from the party’s slogan till now: “Time for change, Time for a Modi government.”

But those whispers went viral on the micro-blogging site, and Rajnath tweeted again within an hour, clarifying that the Modi-centric slogan remained the party’s campaign theme.

Ironically, Rajnath’s hasty clarification of loyalty to the Modi theme came just a day after a seemingly embarrassed Modi himself posted a tweet urging supporters to refrain from slogans comparing him to Lord Mahadev.

“When you make speeches and statements day after day, you will make mistakes,” Cherian said. “The only real shield is to be smart enough to have a ready explanation, retaliation or apology to defuse the controversy.”


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