Democracy as Spectacle

-Rajesh K Jha

Exit polls-1

“The spectacle is the nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of sleep.”

-Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

 Since the last two days, country is immersed in the analysis of the exit poll results for the five state assembly elections. Indeed the exit poll results have sustained the interest of people far more than they would when the actual results come in. The television channels, newspapers and a vast array of learned psephologists, political scientists, media experts and scholars were busy analysing the meaning and implication of these exit polls. On closer examination, it would appear that this spectacle of democracy created by media reveals both the pathology of the media as well as democracy as it has come to mean in our country.

Let us examine the importance of the exit polls. For the media surely it helps in grabbing eyeballs for a few days that translates into more advertisement. Other than this, there is hardly any justification for the creation of hype around the exit polls. Just like the artificial creation of demand in a consumerist economy, media needs to create events irrespective of their validity or public importance. Exit polls are no different from the tarot reader or a parrot picking up a piece of paper to predict what lies ahead in future.

Did we know anything about the methodology of the exit polls even after sitting glued to the non stop soothsaying peddled as analysis on our television screens? What was the sample size? What efforts were made to make these samples representative? When were these polls conducted? How was the sample collected? We hardly know anything. Exit polls may have adopted varying techniques and methodologies to arrive at their result but even respectable news channels such as NDTV and others come up with their aggregation of the result giving it the catchy name of ‘poll of polls’. It does not require much scholarship to understand the fallacy of aggregating disparate results into one outcome and make it look more credible.

exit polls tv channles

Does it serve any important social purpose? Knowing the results of the exit polls a day or two in advance serves no useful purpose. It is a huge wastage of national time. Let there be no confusion that it is as useful as the prediction of a sooth sayer about the result of a student who has just appeared for his class XII examination. It can either create headache for him or lull him into complacency. Nothing more. Yes, it does help satisfy the curiosity of the viewers which in itself is a creation of the news channels.

Some of us may point out that a number of exit polls in the past have proved to be accurate. Again, this is an illusion because an equal or more number of such predictions given by the exit polls have proved to be totally off the target in the past. Getting the result correct does not prove anything. We would do well to remember that Paul the Octopus had correctly predicted the outcome of all the matches in the 2010 world cup football tournament. None of the football pundits could match his prediction. In the absence of a rigorous methodology of conducting the exit polls being made known to the people at large, the exit polls carry hardly any credibility. They are no better than Paul the Octopus.

Exit polls paul the octopus
Paul the Octopus which predicted the results of World Cup football in 2010 accurately

The credibility of the exit polls is also a huge issue. Election Commission has rightly put a ban on exit polls before the end of the voting process but Dainik Jagaran came out with an exit poll in the middle of the election for which it is being prosecuted. Even if Dainik Jagarn had not committed this mistake, how do we know that the exit poll results could not be clandestinely shared by any agency with interested political parties which can make use of it through myriad channels of communication available today? The entire idea of exit polls is fraught with possibilities of fraud and misuse without serving any meaningful purpose.

It is also worthwhile to remember that modern democracies have become so deeply enmeshed with media that the priorities of media often decide what passes as the priorities of the democratic process. Media survives on creating spectacle on a continuous basis. The body language of the anchors, the phrases they use, props that are put up in the studio and selection of news all bear testimony to the fact that the focus of media lies in creating and sustaining the spectacle. The issues are important and relevant only in so far as they are capable of embellishing an spectacle. It implies that no issue can sustain for a longer period. The demand and pressure for newness in media and now speed too is so immense that issues become liabilities the moment the sheen of newness wears off them.In its turn, democracy itself is sought to be turned into a continuous display of spectacles. Anything that does not fit the bill of being an spectacle is not fit to be seen as part of democratic process in the country. Guy Debord, the French media theorist would be smiling in his grave to see his prediction about Society as spectacle coming true in India.

At the more fundamental political level, obsession with election results at any given point of time reflects an incomplete, rather misleading understanding of the democratic process. It is true that victory in an election gives control over the state apparatus to a political party which uses it to consolidate and spread its own influence in the society. However, election is just one of the arena of struggle that continues at multiple levels depending upon the world views of contending political forces.

The first past the post system of election also makes it sure that the winner never actually enjoys the support of the majority of the people. A minority view is reflected in the persona of the political party that attains the majority to form the government. In a certain sense, this leaves a solid plank for the opposition to claim that the government of the day may not actually be reflective of the majority opinion. It would be, though, wrong to look at it as weakness of our political system. It is a great check against authoritarian tendencies. It actually lends vibrancy to the democratic process by keeping a channel of dispute open in the public arena which is vital for a healthy democracy.

In a  highly polarised political situation as prevails in India today, elections are imbued with a great sense of possibilities and foreboding depending upon where one is standing. Both the losers and the victors have lessons to learn from the election result. For the winner, the results may either lead to complacency or it may provide it clues for future strategy. The loser, obviously has much more to learn in terms of its policy, strategy and outlook towards issues. In the battle for the heart and soul of people, election is just one event in the long process that constitutes the political landscape of the country.

Looking at election results as the final word on a political party or ideology is short-sighted. It only shows that we have fallen for the spectacle rather than understanding the underlying complex processes driving the body politic.

Watching the result on our TV screen, we the spectators should remember that we are also part of the battle and must not fight shy of taking side, on-screen and off-screen,  of what we consider to be just and right irrespective of the result.

The only way we can  avoid becoming part of the spectacle is to turn our gaze deeper and fight the battle for a better world based on our conviction and values of life.

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