How many elections has the mobile phone witnessed? It began to come into its own about a decade ago, when inexpensive calls and SMS expanded the universe of individual communication to an exceptional level. But its power to intervene significantly in the democratic debate matured only with the widespread availability of the smart phone, and its most potent instrument, the video camera.
The selfie is a benign aspect of the mobile camera. The video amplified this pleasure, eliminating distance briefly but powerfully by transmitting family or friendship experience. It did not take too long before mobile video exploded into a weapon of mass vigilance. Yet another “demtech” revolution has taken place as technology has reinvented democracy once again.
Every such phenomenon needs a name, and “demtech” seems an appropriate invention for the impact of technology on democracy. I hope, naturally, that the word catches on. But what would be appropriate for the video recording as distinct from the still-shot selfie? How about helfie? That is, in onomatopoeic effect, as close to hellfire as we can get — and the mobile video is lighting fires from hell below the feet of politicians.
Our politicians, across all parties, have still not fully grasped the meaning of life in the focus of a 24-hour camera. I have seen, during the present Bihar campaign, citizens rudely displaced by the speeding convoys of thoughtless candidates recording their revenge instantly on their mobiles. This revenge is party neutral, and will certainly play some part on polling day. But this naiveté, to use only the most charitable word, of politicians is not limited to anonymous candidates destined for anonymous careers. Even leaders don’t get it.
It would be unusual if nothing unusual happened in a Bihar Assembly election. But even by the dramatic standards of discourse and behaviour set by the likes of Lalu Prasad Yadav, the video-sight of a tantrik baba kissing a bemused Nitish Kumar on the cheeks was fruity to the point of bizarre. Nitish Kumar is a sober leader, not given to maverick gimmicks. This video was taken in the middle of 2014, when he had not recovered from massive defeat in the general elections, and was probably in need of any kind of psychological reassurance, even from a chap with voodoo propinquities. But the relevant point is a bit askance of what he did.
It is not the phone alone that has become smart; so has the voter. Indeed, of what use is the smart phone without a smart voter? The electorate, for instance, has perfected the art of telling the candidate what he or she wants to hear during a campaign: why risk displeasure when it is so much safer to tell the truth via the voting machine?
Nitish Kumar had absolutely no idea that there was a candid camera in the vicinity and he was being recorded. He was on a private, or even secret, visit to someone who could, hopefully, predict a better future at a time when everything was in shambles. Ergo: everyone present in that room was someone whom Nitish Kumar implicitly trusted. And yet, one individual violated that trust.
Which, in turn, brings us to a dubious aspect of the helfie syndrome. Trust is going to be even more vulnerable to temptation. Trust has always been at a premium in politics. After all, the history of politics is replete with betrayal; and there is no shortage of contemporary evidence either. But when betrayal is verbal, through a leaked story perhaps, you can always limit damage by fudge or denial. How do you deny a camera’s revelations? There is a restriction on mobile phones in many VIP offices because of security reasons since these machines can be converted into triggers for devices. Perhaps restrictions will be extended because VIPs want their conversations to remain secure as well.
The most encouraging fact about democracy is that it never gets easier. It is not the phone alone that has become smart; so has the voter. Indeed, of what use is the smart phone without a smart voter? The electorate, for instance, has perfected the art of telling the candidate what he or she wants to hear during a campaign: why risk displeasure when it is so much safer to tell the truth via the voting machine?
The phrase “will-o’-the-wisp” has gone out of fashion, for it belongs to an era when England was still a lot of fog sitting on marsh. It means, literally, a phosphorescent sort of light floating through marshy ground; and, metaphorically, something that is difficult or impossible to catch. It is not only candidates who get this will-o’-the-wisp treatment. The large army of third party interventionists is subject to it as well. Paradoxically, this means that it might be safer to predict on the basis of a collective reality than individual enquiry; from the mood or behaviour of an election rally rather than a chat with a person who ends up sparring with his interlocutor.
What should worry politicians, though, is that we are only on the cusp of a mobile phone’s capabilities. If its existing ability is causing disarray, then the fun has only begun.