Is the current state of our voting class same as that of the middle class movie-goers before the proliferation of multiplex theatres?
It is now commonly accepted that Indian movies have changed quite a bit over the last decade or so. Their technical quality has improved. The movies are now better edited and taut. Producers are now willing to experiment with their story lines; the dialogues are less melodramatic and heroes are more willing to use self-deprecating humour. Songs are still essential to a movie’s success, but directors now take care to move the story forward while a song is going on, unlike in earlier times when they served as cigarette breaks.
Back during the times of the loud, garish and melodramatic movies, film-makers used to defend themselves against criticism by arguing that they were only giving their viewers what they asked for. It stands to reason, therefore, that the transformation of Indian movie making has been driven by changes in audience tastes. Closely related to, but distinct from, this dynamic is the emergence of the multiplex.
The Indian audience is not monolithic and its tastes did not undergo a change all at once. Besides, one can hardly make the case that the categories of people who enjoy the old-style movies and those who love the new Indian movies are mutually exclusive. Many viewers are perfectly capable of liking both–as evidenced by the number of people who profess a nostalgia for Amitabh Bachchan’s outlandish movies, but would mock a similar movie if it were made today. Before multiplexes came into the picture, it is entirely plausible that many viewers who would have preferred a different kind of movie if given a choice, went along with their friends to enjoy the old kind of a movie. Of course, there would have been many others who stayed at home, unable to stand the kind of movies made in 1996. Multiplexes provided a channel that filmmakers could exploit, to target a different kind of movie to an audience that had already existed for some time. They could charge higher prices, serve a smaller viewership and yet make a profit. The Indian movie industry has made a transition from seeing their customers as a single mass market to seeing itself serve different segments, of which the multiplex movie market is just one.
The analogy with Indian voting behaviour suggests itself. India is urbanising rapidly, and the electorate is increasingly a literate one. Many commentators have been watching out for signs that voters have changed in some way, but such signs are hard to come by, and we do not yet know just what we should look for. Bemoaning the political apathy of the middle-class is one of our national pastimes, as is expecting young people who do not bother voting to throw out the establishment using street protests.
Could the current state of our voting class be the calm before the multiplex? In other words, could it be that the problem is not that our voters need to change, but that there needs to be a channel through which a new kind of politics is delivered to the new kind of voters? When we think of the middle class voter, we tend to focus on the software engineer staying in Bangalore or Pune, away from her parents, whose political activity is confined to Facebook posts and who has not bothered to register to vote. Or we speak of the low voter turnout in constituencies where upscale voters live. These are the equivalent of people who have stopped watching movies. But what if there are voters who participate in old style politics because they have not had a chance to sample a new style?
Living and working in Hyderabad in the IT sector, I have had the occasion to observe the disconnect between the political establishment and the middle class voter during my daily commute. A flyover that would make the commute easier for all the IT professionals travelling on the road was long delayed in its construction and the Telugu Desam Party decided to stage a protest. However the protest did not seem to involve, and did not make an attempt to reach out to any IT professionals. They seemed to have bussed in a different identity group each day—Dalits one day, the Muslims the next, and so on. It was almost as if the party realised that they needed to reach out to the middle class to make political capital out of misgovernance, but was unable to work out how, and was falling back to doing what it knew best.
Indian politics is ripe for a change in some important and interrelated areas. Politics in India has very little to do with deciding which laws and policies the nation will be governed by and more about getting your man in power and swaying the implementation of whatever laws get passed in your favour. Politics in India is conducted through too many intermediaries and power brokers, and this blunts the ability for the establishment to receive feedback. Political communication in India is not conducted through newspapers, TV channels or any forms of mass media—any discourse there is mostly noise. Instead, it utilises a sort of bush telegraph that is more suited to a time of mass illiteracy.
All of these are channel issues, and these could change if a political party finds a way to reach out to the new electorate in a different way. Of course, the task will be tougher than it was for the multiplexes—the vote of a member of the educated urban middle class has the same value as a rural voter, so there is no way to make a profit by charging the new voter more, as there was in the movie industry. But it is a fair bet that any party or individual that cracks the code would find that the new voters are much larger in number than they expect.
Photo: Meena Kadri