Baburam, Gagan and the media image
Electoral campaigns represent, in our modern democracies, one of the moments when citizens are led to reflect on the government, the direction their nation should take, or the choice of the leader of the country. It is, however, impractical that on the occasion of the election campaigns great debates of ideas are conducted. Substantive and serious debates generally do not happen during election campaigns.
It is the image, particularly that of the leader of the party, that matters in this era of communications. It is not surprising, therefore, that political parties use political marketing in order to win votes. The communication techniques used are similar to those of advertising. They are looking to sell a product. An attempt is made to convince the voters by playing more on the emotional aspects than on the contents of the programs specific to the party.
In this sense, they try, in a way, to manipulate the voters by simulation and concealment of information. But why this manipulation? Most leaders are aware about the fact that a large majority of people does not have time to learn, cannot inform themselves adequately or does not want to inquire. It is believed that only a simple message, packaged and well-sold though, has a chance of reaching its target. In other words, the average voters are naive, easy to influence and seduce. The impact of this strategy is observable in all the democracies where the cynicism of voters before the political class is growing and where the rate of voting continues to decline. Politicians are often seen as liars whom one cannot trust.
Faced with cynicism, people hope to see, one day, a political leader who, unlike others, would be a living example of honesty, uprightness, and frankness. They wish to see a ruler who, by his/her charisma, would manage to rally the citizens to the same cause, the greater good and would persuade the people with his ideas that s/he truly believes in.
I have seen such devotion and craze for a couple of leaders in Nepal, whose image has been powerful enough to influence the general voters. I will take the examples of two leaders from contemporary political scenario of Nepal, namely, Baburam Bhattarai and Gagan Thapa, who have been so adept in creating an image that people have either overlooked their flaws or have never imagined they might be into something really sinister.
Bhattarai is one of the guys who started the ‘people’s war’ on the pretext of revolutionizing the social and economic structure of Nepal. In essence he failed in everything but in butchering 17,000 persons most of whom were innocents who had nothing to do with his world view. But ironically there is still a huge mass of Nepalis who still believe that he can be their messiah. I have heard really good-hearted people arguing that you cannot go on blaming Bhattarai for his past. Oh really? So that is the kind of republic we want to establish where we institutionalize impunity, where a guy who has triggered slaughter of 17,000 can go around as a saint. However, quite interestingly, this man has been successful in projecting an image of a Mr Know All, so smart and intelligent as if it is only he who could lead Nepal toward development. He even uses Sanskrit in his lectures at times to show his scholarship so as to create an image of a sage even though his party and movement were instrumental in discouraging Sanskrit education in Nepal.
The next is the case of Gagan Thapa. Recently, I saw a Facebook picture where one of my students was proudly posing with him. This guy has become a kind of celebrity politician, the kind that Condoleezza Rice was when she was the US secretary of state. He is the one who was bold enough to stand by Dr Govinda KC in this fight to regulate medical education. However, very few know how he conducted the FSU business when he was the president at Tri Chandra.
I was a student at Tri Chandra in the year 2000 when Gagan Thapa ruled. I was there to study for my undergraduate in humanities. We had about 300 seats, luckily I got my name on the merit list and I got admitted. However, there were thousands of other students who were not admitted. Gagan and his Robin Hood FSU team would ask them to take classes with cheesy slogans like, “Nyaya Napaye Gorkha Janu, Admission Napaye Gagan Thapa Kaha Aaunu” and would assure the rest, “You will get admitted, don’t worry.” I could immediately see the Machiavellian glow in his eyes, and even though at that time he was not a nationally recognized big leader, I had a gut feeling that this guy will become a minister or even a prime minister one day. Why? Because he knew how to manipulate the students and at the same time create an image for himself.
While I and some others hated his policy of forceful admission, the mass was grateful toward him. However, once in the national scenario, he immediately understood that a greater mass wants regulation in academic system, he changed his association and went for the regulation of studies rather than using political power to influence it. If you are thinking “So what?” wait as the worst is yet to come. The admission fee that the students paid was not completely paid to the campus administration, a part would be embezzled by the Gagan FSU as the students in the waiting list had to hand over the admission fee to the Gagan-controlled FSU that would get them admitted.
I am not here for bashing Baburam and Gagan. All I want to say is do not follow a leader who serves your interest in the short run. Think of greater good. It is easier said than done. However, the experience you will have in the long run would be deeply satisfying. And more importantly, don’t judge a leader from the media image that has been presented to you. The media is just a commodity. It will need interesting stories to sell. It does not matter to them whether it is Gagan or Baburam. The only thing they want is more viewers/readers.
Be on your guard. In this local election you will find many Baburams and Gagans aspiring to win your confidence. However, there will be others who do not have a media name, but are honest and confident. Put your trust in them, vote for them, challenge the stereotypical voting pattern or as Marx would put it, don’t get carried away by ‘false consciousness.’ Think, debate and vote using reason and thinking about greater good. Let us show the hoodwinkers that we are not going to be tricked by media images and other gimmicks.
We do not only value performance but a proper balance of performance, honesty and integrity. We want that in our ideal leaders. I am not trying to present a sad story of pessimism and cynicism. Trust me, there are thousands of such leaders out there, all we need to do is identify and vote, for today and a better tomorrow. It is not just the responsibility of good leaders to convince us but it is also responsibility on our part to separate the wheat from the chaff.