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TV Increases Influence in Campaign for India's General Elections - 2004-01-30


India's two main political parties are gearing up to face the increasing influence that television news channels in the country could have during general elections expected in April. And as the parties start poll preparations, using the electronic media to make their pitch is a top priority.

Multiplying news media outlets are attracting the notice of politicians here in India in the run up to elections, expected in April.

At one recent workshop in New Delhi, leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party came from all over the country to get quick lessons on how to handle the electronic media. BJP leader Arun Gupta came from West Bengal.

"We were given the idea how to dress, how to talk, how to present ourselves, be presentable and other things, how to talk body language," he said.

There were only a handful of news outlets at the time of the last general election in 1999. Since then, TV news channels have proliferated not only in Hindi, but also in regional languages, giving television a wider reach than ever before.

Political parties feel this could add a new dimension to India's vibrant election campaigning that gets under way in a few weeks.

India's parliament is to be dissolved next week. Election dates have not been set, but are widely expected in April.

Traditionally, India's electoral battles have been fought in towns, villages and streets as candidates crisscross the country to address scores of rallies and party workers spend weeks in door-to-door campaigning.

But alongside these public meetings, political leaders are convinced that television will make a major impact on voters. Among them is Ajay Sharma from BJP's media cell in Himachal Pradesh.

"Definitely BJP is apprised of the fact that television and electronic media, or for that matter even radio, will take a very important role in this particular election," said Mr. Sharma. "The media management has to be proper."

Few Indian politicians have learned the skills to face the camera. And so party managers are teaching them the basics, how to control emotions, give the right sound bite, give the right message.

The opposition Congress Party is the BJP's main rival. It is also gearing up to take on the challenge of the electronic media, and has conducted a training program for its media managers. The Congress Party says it is encouraging its leaders to be seen and heard more on chat shows and discussions on TV.

Congress Party spokesman Anand Sharma says television will play a key role in getting the party's message across. But he says that in a democracy of more than one billion people, the party is not underestimating the role of direct campaigning.

"We have almost 700 million voters, and still the old style of campaigning when we talk of public meetings, people would still like to see and hear their leaders in person and their candidates … so that still matters," he said.

At the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Professor J.S. Yadav says studies show that the role of the public meeting in election campaigns has been declining since the 1970s. Elections rallies have reduced both in size and number, and the media is becoming more important. He says in urban areas television could play a decisive role in helping political parties make their pitch.

"Old classic form of campaigning will be more in the rural, tribal area," he said. "Urban areas sitting in the drawing room they [people] will get all the messages and they will be informed about various issues through television."

Using modern technology is a relatively new feature for Indian election managers. But they are learning to use it to their advantage. During regional elections held in December, candidates launched their own websites to attract urban voters and transmitted campaign slogans via mobile phones and e-mail.

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