TV debates can improve only when party spokespersons are hired differently

TV debates can improve only when party spokespersons are hired differently

National and regional TV news debates have made political spokespersons the face of their parties, but many do not have real political experience and it shows.

A man watches a television news report on the confrontation between Indian and Pakistani fighter jets in an electronics store in New Delhi

Representational image | Narayan | Bloomberg

In contemporary Indian politics, there has emerged a very visible political functionary called the ‘spokesperson’. They are found in most national and state-level political parties.

It is not that these spokespersons did not exist earlier. But they were more or less invisible. However, they have become more visible after the emergence of corporate and private TV news channels.

The natural fallout of the mushrooming TV channels was that along with broadcasting the version of the political party in power, they also needed voices from the opposition parties to conduct a ‘balanced’ debate.

From a conservative estimate, there are at least 400 news channels in India. And political propaganda has come to acquire an important place in the lives of citizens because of media hype created by many of these channels.
In this context, TV channels started requesting political parties to send their leaders to present their party’s stance on range of issues. It is astonishing that barring few, most of the political parties obliged.

Earlier, there used to be one spokesperson of the party; now parties have several spokespersons whose main job is to appear on television shows in the evening, especially during elections to defend their party’s position on issues or criticise the government/opposition.

Although they might not necessarily be very powerful within their own parties, many of these spokespersons have come to acquire a larger-than-life public image because they appear on a number of channels regularly and have become the visible face of their political parties.

Also read: Sambit Patra defends himself on India Today, Zee & Ramdev defends Covid ‘cure’ on Aaj Tak

What does it take to be a spokesperson

On the basis of their appearances on national and regional TV channels, one is forced to ask a few questions to the political parties who appoint these spokespersons.
While appointing spokespersons, do political parties take into consideration their basic minimum political education? For instance, what is the length of their political life? Have the spokespersons contested any elections? Have they won or lost any political election from panchayat to Parliament? Or have they even contested an election for a party position? Do the parties factor in whether they have any experience of public mobilisation by interacting with masses at the grass roots level? Do they have any experience of governance at any level?

In a nutshell, do these spokespersons have optimum field experience to defend or divulge the party’s policies, or criticise the policies of their opponents? If they do not have this experience, do they atleast have high educational qualifications, along with public exposure?

These qualifications are essential for a politician to become humble, tolerant to diverse ideologies and viewpoints, and for them to appreciate the hard work done by political functionaries of different political parties.

It is normal practice that no political party appoints a Dalit or Adivasi political functionary as their spokesperson. It is a fact that there is utter lack of self-representation of voices of this vast population in the media. Which becomes more obvious when even on occasions as the birth and death anniversaries of the icons of these marginalised sections, a savarna/so-called upper caste spokesperson sits in studios to put across the party’s version and vision. (added)

Apart from invisible qualifications, what is also needed are several visible qualifications for a person to be appointed a spokesperson of a political party. Nowadays, the basic qualification for a spokesperson is fluency in any language. On TV programmes, spokespersons must also demonstrate how dismissive they can be to leaders of the other parties, especially the opposition.

Spokespersons rely on the data supplied to them by the research team of their political party. However, on the basis of debates on the TV channels, one can easily say that most of them come to studios without any preparations. In my experience, political parties do not send spokespersons who actually know the subject being discussed.

The empirical data collected by mere observation suggests that most spokespersons who appear on TV channels do not have any experience of contesting elections, mass mobilisation, governance, or framing of the policies. There have been cases where one party spokesperson leaves to join another party, only to be appointed as spokesperson the very next day, despite his/her new party having a completely opposite ideology. We have observed psephologists, TV anchors joining political parties and being appointed spokespersons.

Also read: One-liners, facts, passion — Pawan Khera emerges as new-style ‘aggressive’ Congressman on TV

Quality of TV news debates

How does the quality of spokespersons impact TV news debates? We have been witnessing loss of civility and humbleness, high level of aggression and intolerance, use of harsh language etc. in news channels debates. It has been observed in a number of debates that spokespersons are not able to appreciate the views of opposition, becoming intolerant and aggressive. That is why TV debates have become noisy affairs, that do not give any practical solutions to socio-political problems, or enlighten the public in any way.

In contrast, a seasoned politician will never lose his/her cool or temper even when asked perplexing or uneasy questions, or when made to defend the indefensible. This is because they have faced the masses and have borne the brunt of their questions. They have lived in public lives, and therefore have become seasoned to answer questions without losing patience.

If we want political debates in TV studios to be more civil and more productive, then we need the quality of the spokespersons to change in Indian politics. Otherwise, spokespersons can score brownie points against their opponents, the debate as a whole will not help any citizen to acquire any political vision. Similarly, such debate will not give any transparency to the decisions of the government or the opposition leaders. And it will most definitely not be able to provide a practical solution to people’s problems, and be a waste of time, energy, resources, and signify a loss of faith in the political debates on TV channels.

The author is a Sociologist and Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views are personal.

Also read: BJP questions, BJP answers — party’s new social media experiment as Modi govt completes a year