About 10 days ago, in the middle of the uproar against the AIG bonuses, President Barack Obama went on Jay Leno’s ‘The Tonight Show’. AIG had used the taxpayer’s bailout billions to make those obscene bonus payouts to the very blacksuits that had caused its collapse and brought the US economy to its knees. Under the circumstances, it was extremely brave of Obama to be facing cameras anywhere, least of all on ‘The Tonight Show’, where Leno has the uncanny ability to blindside the best.
Obama cannot be unaware of the growing impatience of a nation craving for a dollop of good news amidst the gloom and that even his ardent supporters are starting to be skeptical of his good intentions. His ratings have started taking the southward slope. Obama realises that revival is a long way off and all he can offer his people in the interim are plans and platitudes. Plead with them to persevere. That’s why he wants to engage his people even at the risk of sounding like a faith-healer’s stuck record. The alternative – of cutting all communication with a nation during its worst crisis – is fraught with even greater dangers.
Brilliant as he was, Obama on Jay Leno made me wonder about two things: What our politicians don’t do and what our news channels won’t do.
What our politicians don’t do
Indian leaders’ direct communication begins and ends with that great ‘tamasha’ called the election. The moment the vote is counted and government formed, they build impregnable fortresses around themselves. No Indian Prime Minister has ever organised a town hall kind of a meeting and took questions from the public in the middle of a raging national crisis or controversy (as Obama did a day before going on the Jay Leno show).
In short, Indian leaders never use the power of news television.
One of the highlights of Obama’s performance on the Jay Leno show was the simple way in which he explained the complex AIG crisis to the layman. Contrast that with our own leaders. When did any Prime Minister ever explain the various stock market scams to us directly, in terms that you and I can comprehend? Dr Manmohan Singh was famously dismissive of the biggest scam that first broke the trust of the small Indian investor in 1992, saying he “did not lose his sleep” over the plummeting BSE Sensex, which, until then, was hawked incessantly by his government as the emerging middle class’ big ticket to prosperity.
Fifteen years of public life since have not changed Manmohan much. He still harbours the Indian leader’s hesitance to connect with his people. A case in point was the nuke deal crisis that threatened to force an early election on the country. The deal resonated favourably, at least with urban India, but all that the PM did by way of reaching out was to shadow box. His media managers would call batches of journalists and give them “background” information. The farthest any PM will go is to try to manoeuvre the media from backstage, not use it openly to put a point across.
The only tool PMs use occasionally is that tired, old and imperial one-way communication format that goes by the name of “PM’s Address to the Nation”. The name has so much “lecture” written all over it that it induces sleep even without being subjected to it. (The American equivalent, ‘The State of the Nation Address’, is different. It is not a speech the President deigns to give, it is a yearly report card he has to give to his people.)
So, frankly, I cannot comprehend why the American media is getting into a flap over Obama’s “over exposure”. Here we crave for some exposure. But the absence of it is not necessarily the problem of the politician alone. And that brings us to the second point: what the channels won’t do.
What the channels won’t do
Let’s assume reticent Manmohan’s DNA suddenly mutates and he wants to go on a late night show to reveal to us the many sides to his personality. Where does he go? Where is India’s Jay Leno Show, or the David Letterman Show, or the Conan O’Brien Show?
That night on the Leno show, Obama created a bit of history. He became the first serving President to visit the sets and, as Jay Leno repeatedly pointed out, added to the stature of the show. So, the point to note is this: When a US President chooses to go to the sets of a show, there is a show to fit the stature of the President (actually there are many). What are the options before an Indian PM?
Look high and low, you will not find a show of equal nature and stature.
The closest you will get to are the weekly interview shows. ‘Seedhi Baat’ on Aaj Tak (Prabhu Chawla is too fast and furious), ‘Frankly Speaking’ on Times Now (frankly, it’s more about ‘Your’ anchor Arnab Goswami than the guest), ‘We The People’ on NDTV (Barkha Dutt can’t be putting her arms around the PM all the time), ‘Devil’s Advocate’ (Karan Thapar puts the guest through the paper shredder and wears the satisfied grin of a Dracula after a bloody good meal), ‘Walk The Talk’ on NDTV (Shekhar Gupta keeps it relaxed and substantive, but Manmohan could be tensed up about how long to walk, which camera to talk to, when to turn and which way to head). And then you have ‘On the Couch with Koel’ on Headlines Today, which may be good for a desperate deposed president (Musharraf), but not for a serving head of state or government.
All of the above might serve their intended purpose as hard political interview shows (except of course the ‘Couch’), but none of them is quite ‘The Tonight Show’. And why do we need a ‘Tonight Show’? PMs can always call press conferences (it’s another matter that they don’t) or hold a town hall meeting to answer peoples questions directly (it’s another matter that they don’t even think of such heinous crimes) or go on one of the interview shows named above (if at all, the show must go to them, they never go to the show).
There’s a reason why Obama chose ‘The Tonight Show’. When a nation is in deep crisis, its leader has to do many things at the same time: Wrestle with the problems and political wolves (which he is doing through the many stimulus packages and his various meetings with Congressmen of all hues), communicate directly with the public (the town hall meetings), and reassure them the nation is in steady hands, hands that are not daunted by the challenges. Obama achieved the last to a great degree on ‘The Tonight Show’. He showed that inspite of the humungous problems he is facing, he had not lost his nerve, that he was relaxed and comfortable wearing the crown of thorns and that in a difficult situation he cannot just keep his wits, but match them with the nation’s best funny man!
That’s a leader you want to leave the country in the hands of.
Of course, late night news shows are not designed to serve as a platform for a head of state, it’s just incidental that Obama used it because it’s there. Late night news shows serve an import function of keeping the nation’s wits in place. I don’t have to expound here on the ability of good humour in bad times. Or at all times.
There are many valid reasons why we do not have ‘The Tonight Show’. The most striking reason is that there is no Jay Leno yet. And then there is no money. The budget of just ‘The Tonight Show’ alone would equal the yearly newsgathering costs of all Indian English channels put together.
Yes, money is a big hurdle. But the bigger hurdle is that no channel is even thinking of it. Perhaps because no channel can see beyond their larger-than-life editors. Perhaps because they cannot share the limelight with anyone. Even with a funny one.
So, if you are waiting for India’s Jay Leno, wait. Forever.