The perils of cuteifying Manoj Tiwari à la ScoopWhoop

Projecting the Delhi BJP chief as an affable idiot allows him to escape accountability for his party’s communally charged election campaign.

WrittenBy:Chitranshu Tewari
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It’s now clear what the Bharatiya Janata Party’s main campaign plank for the Delhi Assembly election is – Shaheen Bagh.

Over the last few days, the party’s workers and ministers have stuck to the chorus denouncing the ongoing protest against the citizenship law and the National Register of Citizens, often violating the bounds of civilised discourse. Home Minister Amit Shah accused Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal of speaking the language of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan; Pravesh Verma, an MP, made the vile remark that if Hindus didn’t back Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, Shaheen Bagh’s protesters would enter Hindu homes and rape their women; Anurag Thakur, the deputy finance minister, led a campaign rally of BJP’s supporters into a chant calling for “traitors” to be shot dead.

In this context, if you were to interview Manoj Tiwari, what purpose would it serve? Given his personality and background, would it reinforce the BJP’s message and give the voters an exact picture of what the party, and Tiwari, stands for?

Well, no.

On February 3, ScoopWhoop released an interview with Tiwari. He talks about his life, tukde tukde gang, NRC, Big Boss and, of course, the Delhi election. But there’s one line from the interviewer that best captures what public image of Tiwari such media appearances help craft just days before the capital votes: “Yaar MT, aap bahut cute ho!” Buddy, you are too cute!

If you’re a voter who has seen little of Tiwari, it won’t be a stretch to say that in this interview he comes across as an affable, innocent uncle who exists in stark contrast to BJP leaders on the campaign trail. After all, he can hit sixes at ease, doesn’t take anything to his heart and minds if you don’t return his namaste.

Politics is about perception. More than the values and policies political leaders stand for, it is how they come across in everyday life that often dictates their image. They then use this image as an extension of their political message. Modi’s story of a chaiwallah who left his wife for the “sake of the country” projects a selfless and incorruptible leader. Boris Johnson’s cartoonishly dishevelled persona summons the image of an “outsider” who doesn’t live by the establishment’s norms and thus is best placed to take on it. That this public image is quite often far removed from the real person allows the politician to sell unpalatable politics more easily.

Media interviews and profiles are pivotal to this image-building exercise. Away from sound bytes and speeches, they help voters identify with the leader. Come election season and they become even more critical. A single interview can make or break a political career. Remember the interview Kiran Bedi gave Ravish Kumar of NDTV India in the run-up to the last Delhi election?

What the ScoopWhoop interview does, wittingly or unwittingly, is that it makes Tiwari look likeable, without parsing his politics. There are a few questions about issues related to the Delhi polls. Much of the conversation revolves around rather mundane details of Tiwari’s life and acting career or his political positions that are misinformed or plain stupid.

I am, of course, aware that ScoopWhoop is not a news outlet – they shut down their news operation in 2017 – and the interview's objective is more to create shareable, humorous content than to be of journalistic value. But that doesn’t mean one has to profile a politician in a way that only suits his political image. Case in point is our own interview with Tiwari. Although it was recorded before the Delhi campaign heated up and contains enough humour and meme-worthy moments, it doesn’t colour his image. (Subtle plug: pay to keep news free by subscribing to Newslaundry, which is funded not by advertisers, government or private companies, but by readers.)

Tiwari is an entertainer-turned-politician. And like any good performer, he understands how to play the part. The image of the soft-spoken, ignorant, athletic son of the soil is more scripted than people seem to realise. Take his interview with Lallantop. After discussing how donations to political parties above Rs 2,000 can’t be made in cash, an amused Tiwari asks, “Electoral bond kya hota hai?” What is an electoral bond?

Or the Quint interview. Asked about the Delhi BJP tweeting out a video containing frames of Muslims and celebrities such as Anurag Kashyap with subtitles like "har drohi pehchaan tu." Identify every traitor. A seemingly clueless Tiwari responds, “What is it? I don’t have information about it.”

Feigning ignorance is Tiwari’s shtick. When pressed about Tajinder Bagga’s assault on the lawyer and activist Prashant Bushan, the Delhi BJP chief didn’t know the full story and that he would check with Bagga. On Kapil Mishra demanding “traitors” be shot, he saw answered, “Maine suna hi nahi usne kya kaha hai?” I haven’t heard what he said.

We don’t know if Tiwari is an affable idiot, but it is evident that he wants to be seen as an affable idiot. If it can work for Boris Johnson, who has risen to be Britain’s prime minister, why can’t it for Tiwari? Indeed, the public image of the affable idiot who is an outsider is often a conscious brand strategy that needs boosting by the media to work.

That’s what the ScoopWhoop interview does for Tiwari. For someone who must be held accountable for an election campaign that has set new lows for communal polarisation, he comes across as a friendly neighbourhood uncle whose only vice is that he doesn’t know enough. With polling just a few days away, it does a disservice – intentionally or not.

That said, I hope BJP politicians who have been spewing hate on the Delhi campaign trail follow Tiwari’s advice from the same interview: “jeevan pyaar se jio”. Live with love.


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