Guy Debord, a French thinker, put out a seminal text, titled Society of the Spectacle in 1967 in which he conceptualised the way the TV screen in particular and the media in general propagated the consumerist culture by way of image saturation. The text remains one of those prescribed for courses in media studies across media schools; some such schools in India do that as well.
However, the treatment in the media since the Indian National Congress ruled out Priyanka Gandhi contesting against Narendra Modi from the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat, elections for which will be held on May 19, 2019, can be explained in a way Guy Debord sought to critique the media in that seminal text. The media, it appears, is aghast that an opportunity to turn the polls into a spectacle is now lost.
Let me enter a caveat. Priyanka Gandhi herself is to blame for feeding into speculations and triggering this appetite among the media-persons when she held that the decision on whether she will take on Modi from Varanasi rested with her party’s president; she probably thought she was being smart when she answered the media-persons at Wayanad and elsewhere. She was not. She pandered to the speculation and thus let it gain credence.
Be that as it may. It would have been a bad decision on the part of the Congress party to have fielded her against Modi and reduced the contest between now and the last phase of polling on May 19, 2019 into a spectacle. It would have been bad for the practice of constitutional democracy as well to reduce a general election to mere image saturation.
Lesson from history
Barring the contest between Ram Manohar Lohia and Jawaharlal Nehru from Phulpur in the 1962 general elections, one has not come across such clashes between titans in our pretty long tryst with electoral politics. Lohia, despite his political acumen and ability to analyse society and politics in India with immense clarity, was also among those who fancied himself to be a leader as tall as Nehru was then and ended up losing the battle in an election when the Congress claims to be the natural choice of the people was rattled for the first time.
The Congress party’s slide that was pronounced in the 1967 general elections (when the party lost power in at least seven states) had, in fact, begun in 1962. The challenge emerged in the form of the fledgling Swatantra Party winning 18 seats in the Lok Sabha. Lohia could have won an election and entered the third Lok Sabha if only he had chosen to contest some other seat; and this he did fighting the by-elections from Farrukhabad in May 1963. The point is his decision to fight against Nehru in March 1962 did not help him or the Socialist Party he led in any way. Lohia lost to Nehru by a margin of 64,571 votes where the total votes polled were 1,92,994. Lohia secured less than one third of the votes polled then.
It is not as if senior leaders across parties have only won and not been defeated in elections. SK Patil, for instance, was defeated by George Fernandes in Bombay South in 1967. While Patil had fancied himself a prime minister material then (and commanded the Congress in Bombay with huge resources), Fernandes had entered electoral politics for the first time and ended up being called the giant killer after his victory. It is another matter that Fernandes was placed third from the same constituency in 1971.
The general elections in 1984 saw a whole lot of giants losing to novices. Atal Behari Vajpayee lost to Madhavrao Scindia from Gwalior, Hemavati Nandan Bahuguna lost to Amitabh Bachchan from Allahabad; these are only two examples and illustrative. And Raj Narain, after losing to Indira Gandhi by a margin of over 2 lakh votes in 1971, contesting the results in the Allahabad High Court, trouncing Indira Gandhi from the same Rae Barelli seat in 1977 and biting the dust later in 1980.
Contest or spectacle?
The point is elections in our democracy cannot be turned into spectacles and leaders of political parties will do a lot of harm to the cause of democracy by reducing contests into spectacles. The Congress party and Priyanka Gandhi ought not to have pandered to such attempts and ought to have dismissed such loaded questions as speculations; Priyanka Gandhi behaved otherwise and let the speculation gather mass for a while. It is certainly evidence of immaturity and signs that she fancies herself as did Lohia in 1962.
After having failed to set up coalitions and having sent potential allies in Uttar Pradesh—the Samajwadi Part, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal—to set up a front excluding the Congress Party and after having failed to ensure that the opposition parties rally behind Kanhaiya Kumar in Beghusarai, the Congress could have avoided the making of a spectacle of Priyanka Gandhi. The party bungled and played into the hands of the media, particularly the one driven by TRP, in lending credence to speculations.Yet, sense seems to have prevailed and the Congress, by deciding against fielding Priyanka Gandhi against Modi from Varanasi, has foreclosed the option that the BJP had to revive its charge of dynasty against the Congress. The fact is the Congress remains a minor player in Uttar Pradesh for now and at the same time is in the reckoning from at least half a dozen seats apart from Amethi and Rae Barelli. It makes sense, therefore, for the party to have decided against fielding Priyanka Gandhi from Varanasi.