Everybody loves a trust vote (Commentary)

July 26th, 2008 - 10:26 am ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Manmohan Singh
By Chitra Padmanabhan
I have a confession to make. As the recent debate on the trust vote sought by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the Indo-US nuclear deal neared its climax and news channels dizzyingly zoomed in on the display board that would announce the results, I caught myself wondering how many runs the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government would score against the opposition. Runs? Dash it, this was a trust vote! So why watch it like an IPL match or a reality show?

I soon got an answer to that question. Trust vote over, Hindi news channels stepped up the entertainment quotient of the event. A popular song “Singh is King, Singh is King” played in the background as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave a thumbs up sign which looked curiously like the hardy native sign of ‘thenga’, usually signalling to the opponent, “You lost, take that”. Repetition was the order of the day.

Other channels started a ‘rate the debate’ contest, inviting viewers to SMS their order of five speeches chosen by the channels: vox populi as a revenue model. In newsrooms journalists debated if Lalu Prasad’s speech had matched the TRP ratings of an IPL match.

I wasn’t so off the mark treating the news coverage of the trust vote debate as entertainment. Not that the Lok Sabha TV channel which was broadcasting the proceedings live was indulging in any histrionics; it was a straightforward telecast of a significant debate to decide whether the elected representatives of the Lok Sabha reposed trust in the Congress-led UPA government and the nuclear deal it had signed with the US government.

Except, a trust vote in the age of 24-hour news channels is different. Everything must seem to be entertaining, dramatic and sensational. Thus every moment, every movement, every diversion, every involuntary action holds out immense promise for being exploited.

For viewers, TV brings the world into the drawing room but makes it equally distant for them - they watch frames they are not part of, in a space with many distractions. Thus the channels’ formula of packaging news as entertainment to tackle the viewers’ distraction with their own distractions to ride the TRP wave — much like a radio channel’s ad which has a man in a manhole singing like a lark. ‘Because, those who listen to the channel are always happy…’

Our news channels have perfected the art of extracting the surface excitement of an event and delivering it as a pure adrenalin rush. The core context often stands isolated because it requires delving into. And that is not suited to the style of creating a flurry of images, which contribute to the excitement.

Nothing exemplifies this more than the dramatic episode of the three MPs raining wads of rupee notes totalling one crore (Rs.10 million) on the central table of the Lok Sabha as proof that they had been bribed to vote in favour of the government.

High noon in the evening! Though news channels led with sombre headlines about it being the worst day for Indian democracy when the dignity of the House was compromised, the zest and frequency with which shots of the cash kept getting repeated made it clear that sheer fascination for the visual magnitude of all the money had won the day.

That instant when the wads of currency were released from the bag into full view virtually assumed the status of a revelatory moment. Money speaks in a forked tongue all right.

An expert commentator on TV jokingly (we hope!) said he wished he had some of that money. My neighbour got caught up in serious calculations - “Wouldn’t one crore need a gunny sack at least? Those bags looked so small.”

In the evening, as television announcers continued to dolefully announce a black day for Indian democracy with a feverish gleam in their eyes, the stock market revived, much like that ICU patient, the UPA government, as described by the leader of the opposition, L.K. Advani. The stock market revived due to the fall in oil prices but also, we were told, due to Manmohan Singh winning the trust vote. Corporate India perked up enough on screen to hope that reforms would be implemented fast.

News channels and newspapers (the following day) debated if the chic western attire of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who was present during her brother Rahul’s speech in the Lok Sabha, signalled the arrival of new, globalised India.

Did someone say something about a black day for Indian democracy? It’s clear that everybody loves a good trust vote.

(Chitra Padmanabhan is a Delhi based journalist. She can be reached at chitrapadmanabhan@yahoo.co.in)

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