The Election Commission is supposed to ensure free and fair elections, preventing any party from getting preferential treatment in voter outreach. In pursuance of this ideal, says the Commission, it has stopped the biopic ‘PM Narendra Modi’, starring Vivek Oberoi, from being screened in theatres until voting is over on May 19.
A level playing field is indeed essential. But I cannot see how a biopic on a party leader provides an unfair advantage. All parties could have made films glorifying their leaders, and planned to release these shortly before the 2019 general election. None did so. If they saw no advantage in doing so, why claim that the BJP has obtained one unfairly?
Shooting for the Modi biopic started one and a half years ago. The aim was unambiguously to aim for a theatre release just before the 2019 election, making the film very topical and hence increasing box-office collections. Everybody in the film world and politics knew the biopic was being made.
This gave plenty of time for every other party to follow suit. None did so. The very good reason was that elections in India and other democracies reveal no evidence that a biopic will boost a party’s vote. If indeed there was such evidence, dozens of such films would have been made in the past in all democracies, including India.
The cost of a quickie biopic, made without expensive stars, is peanuts compared with the staggering sums spent on every election. The Centre for Media Studies estimates that spending in the current Indian election will be Rs 50,000 crore ($7 billion), more than was spent in the last US presidential election. Parties have splurged on every sort of communication and media channel to reach every corner of India. None has thought it worthwhile to spend on a biopic.
The producers of the Modi biopic claim that their film is entirely commercial, with no political motivation. This may or may not be true. What is true is that no other party has thought it worthwhile to make films as a propaganda medium in election campaigns.
In 1998, John Travolta starred in a film called Primary Colours. This was a thinly disguised tale of the sex scandals that had threatened to wreck Bill Clinton’s run for US president in 1992, and showed Clinton in a terrible light. Some analysts thought this would be the final nail in Clinton’s coffin during the Congressional hearings to impeach him for his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. Other analysts predicted that the film would worsen Democratic losses in the mid-term Congressional elections in 1998.
But the film had no negative impact at all. The Senate, with its Democratic majority, refused to impeach Clinton. The Congressional elections produced no net gain for either side in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, the Democrats actually gained five seats, the first time since 1934 that the president’s party had gained seats in a mid-term election. Far from getting hurt by the film, Clinton emerged beaming.
That holds a lesson for all. The unwarranted advantage for the BJP lies elsewhere, in TV and radio broadcasting. Government-owned Doordarshan has a very limited audience in urban areas, private TV channels dominate. But Doordarshan continues to have a monopoly on terrestrially broadcast TV (from ground-based repeater stations) which reaches more remote rural areas lacking expensive dishes, cable connections or set-top boxes. This gives the ruling party a stranglehold on rural viewers, and the scope for political slanting is massive. When private TV can broadcast by cable and satellite, banning it from terrestrial broadcasting is ridiculous. Yet that absurdity has continued for decades. This misuse started in the era of Congress hegemony but has continued under every subsequent government.
A similar misuse afflicts radio broadcasting, which reaches more families than TV, and hence is the chosen vehicle of Narendra Modi for his Mann ki Baat interaction with voters. The government’s All India Radio has a monopoly on radio news. Dozens of private radio stations have paid huge sums for spectrum, but cannot broadcast their own news and political analyses. They can buy news capsules from AIR, but this merely reinforces the AIR monopoly. When private TV can carry news and analysis, the ban on private radio is absurd. This misuse of public radio is also a Congress-era invention, adopted happily today by the BJP.
Instead of banning supposedly partisan films, the Election Commission needs to turn the spotlight on the arrant misuse of public radio and TV. That is where an unwarranted advantage has been institutionalised, and cries out for reform.