Friday, August 19, 2022

Foot-in-Mouth Spin Doctors

Recent issues with comments by some political party spokespersons have put the BJP in a spot. It is, therefore, necessary to rein in the spokespersons to toe official lines carefully, as well as observe the limits laid out by the laws of the land

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The recent Nupur Sharma issue had created super­heated steam that blew the boiler room apart in the BJP offices. It should not have been, and could have been avoided, had there been some rules laid down by the party for those manning the frontlines. While being street-smart and being able to think on one’s feet are essential public engagement skills, it is also imperative that the spokesperson uses language carefully and sticks to the laws of the land and the boundaries defined by the Constitution.

It is not enough to find a smart person, it is necessary to put the person through a hard and exhaustive process of training. While existing seasoned politicians make the best spokespersons, these people are needed more urgently by the party to solve bigger problems, to generate bigger ideas. Therefore, they are not available. In other countries, especially in the US, people outside the party can become spokespersons, though the contract they have to sign is exhaustive and scary.

In India, the basic idea of a spokesperson is to sell the party’s ideologies—in case the party does not have any stated ideology, then to create one—defend all the actions of the party, even if the spokesperson is not in agreement with any of them, and to generally stay engaged across all platforms.

What must be understood is that the spokesperson may provide spin to an issue and pull the narrative to a different direction, but he/she cannot create party policies or guidelines. The spokesperson simply puts oftentimes vague party defences into smart words and makes it sound authentic enough in a retort.

In all this, the spokesperson can never overstep the law. That is the Durand Line one has to remember.

At the same time, national and regional political parties today take their official spokespersons seriously and vice-versa. Similarly, the media and the general public take the comments of these spokespersons very seriously, believing those comments to be the verbalisation of the actual thought processes of the party’s leaders. In any critical juncture, spokespersons have a critical role, and in this they should know the horizons they can access. That is why all should be made aware of the Lakshman Rekha they cannot cross.

More importantly, though, these spokespersons will have to be made aware of the laws of the land and the intricacies therein, plus the simple fact that whatever the stature of the spokesperson in the public domain, the final authority on matters of policy and the lines that the political party should take is left to the leaders, those who formulate policy.

In no case should these spokespersons be allowed to overstep their authority and make comments that are either not in consonance with the party line or go beyond Constitutional boundaries. No freedom of expression at any level exists for these spokespersons.

Even as we think that maybe it is possible that a set of general guidelines be formulated for spokespersons, the BJP has come out with a set of guidelines.

This is what the party said:

The BJP directed its spokespersons not to stoke any further hatred on public platforms. It issued directives to the party’s spokespersons, saying that only authorised spokespersons will be allowed to go on TV debates and other public platforms to put forward the party’s view. The party has also told spokespersons that they will not insult any religion in any manner. They have also been told that they should use restrained language while debating, and not get provoked. In debates and public platforms, the party has asked its representatives to focus on BJP’s renewed shift to its schemes, and those found violating the principles of the party will face action. Spokespersons have also been asked to be aware of the topic of debate as well as the party’s line on it.

Fair enough, but there remain two problems. The first is that the party’s line in certain matters of urgency—and this applies to all parties—is often not available to the spokesperson in the initial moments. That is where his/her spin techniques must be applied. He/she must not antagonise the viewer, as well as steer the discussion to safe ground as soon as possible. Managing this is difficult for two reasons—first, the spokesperson may not be agile and experienced enough, and secondly, it is possible that he/she gets carried away by the flow of the discussion/debate.

The second problem emanates from the media itself. The noisy, chaotic and often crude “debates” on Indian television are not designed to process and deliver a new item. Neither are they designed to discuss and analyse. They are specifically designed to create an atmosphere of chaos and a quarrel, no less, which seems attractive to Indian viewers. They are more like a street brawl between two badly behaved groups.

Under such circumstances, defending the party policy in clear, pointed and measured tones becomes difficult. The fate of the spokesperson is a cornered one, especially like in the issue where the Prophet Muhammad may have been misrepresented. It is, therefore, necessary to have some control on the media, or not allow any official spokesperson to be present in such channels.

Of course, that is easier said than done, considering the fact that all channels today, in any language, engage in such obscenities.

Then there are social media platforms, which could spread fire faster. Here, the spokesperson can use his/her judgment and be precise and polite, without having the immediate pressure of rebuttal. At least the laws of engagement—don’t kill the messenger, for example—may be observed on social media. It is certainly not imperative that the spokesperson reply to an allegation immediately on social media. He/she can refer it back to his/her party boss and get a formal clarification before typing out the answer.

In any case, television debates—if these obscene quarrels can be called debates, that is—are avoidable by the political parties. There is no urgency in this. Nobody will die if there isn’t a spokesperson present. In fact, if there is, there actually could be casualties.

Hence we talk about a training process. Frankly, this is not too far-fetched. A training process in this can be undertaken, in which not just political imperatives, but also the legal boundaries are clearly defined and taught. One has to remember that religion is a touchy subject in India and off-hand comments can lead to major public problems. We have seen this on many occasions, and almost all parties have been at the receiving end of such reactions at some time.

The idea is to differentiate between an election-oriented speech by a political leader and a comment by a spokesperson. Even the leader’s speech has to abide by certain Election Commission guidelines. These same guidelines can be applied to the spokespersons. That would help create a better atmosphere.

This is very different from a spokesperson of, say a multinational company, where maybe he/she is handling the launch of a product in conjunction with a PR firm. This is dealing with stakeholders and the media. And in this, control can be exerted and a pre-screening is possible. This freedom is not available for political parties.

That is what makes the job of a political spokesperson so challenging. He/she should be ready to defend the indefensible. So it is difficult to define the responsibility of a party spokesperson when he/she is not a member. As we have seen before, free speech is not an option.

Also, a stated line of the party can be muted for days, even months for a proposed alignment in the cards. If this information is not available to spokesperson, then a huge embarrassment is due. We have often seen this from unprepared spokespersons, creating enough mirth. Hence, frequent meetings with bosses is an absolute must.

Finally, the spokesperson should be one who, at that point of time, holds no political ambition. Such ambition will make his/her comments sound biased, even widening faultlines within the party, and this is hardly desirable.

Therefore, train and train the spokesperson, never allow him/her off the leash. A good lesson learnt in the recent past.  

—By India Legal Bureau

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