Social media has helped make politicians accountable for their offensive comments

The very fact that these statements did not go unnoticed by people and more importantly, there were consequences, makes it seem like a change is in the offing.
Dindigul I Leoni with Karthikeya Sivasenapathy
Dindigul I Leoni with Karthikeya Sivasenapathy
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In one of his campaign speeches, BJP’s IPS officer-turned-politician K Annamalai can be heard threatening his political rival Senthil Balaji of the DMK in Aravakurichi constituency, from where he’s contesting this Assembly elections. Annamalai says, “If I throw him down and kick him, his teeth will fall out.” Referring to his police career, Annamalai follows it up with Baasha-style dialogue - “I have another face” - and says, “Take the video, submit it to the Election Commission. I am not scared of all this.” His statement betrays the fact that he’s aware that people are shooting his speech and there could be consequences.

The video, that went viral on social media resulted in a First Information Report (FIR) being filed against the cop-turned-politician under sections 153 [Wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot], 506 [Criminal intimidation] of the IPC and 66 of the Information Technology Act.

Another controversial speech came from former Union Minister and DMK leader A Raja, whose comment against Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami cost him 48 hours of his election campaign. A Raja, in one of his speeches, had compared DMK’s chief MK Stalin’s political career and Palaniswami using a misogynistic analogy.

Journalist Kavitha Muraidharan, in her opinion piece on Network of Women in Media (NWMI) has written why this was a sexist insult. “It is judgmental, yes, but more importantly, the remark also ridicules pregnancy and childbirth, and the complications associated with them. This was not the first instance of casual misogyny to happen during this election, nor will this be the first election to have such misogynistic tones in campaign speeches.”

And Raja is not alone. Television personality and Tamil speaker Dindigul I Leoni, just days before, had made another sexist comment against women by insulting their bodies. “Women’s hips are like a barrel since they are drinking milk from foreign cows,” Leoni had said while campaigning for DMK’s Karthikeya Sivasenapathy at Thondamuthur. When this video went viral, Karthikeya expressed regret during an interview saying Leoni should not have made the comment. Leoni, however, continues to not acknowledge his blatant misogyny. This is aside from all the casual sexism and misogyny our politicians are so capable of. H Raja’s comments against DMK MP Kanimozhi is an example. Another actor turned politician Radha Ravi, a repeat offender when it comes to making sexist comments on stage, continues to make obscene remarks while campaigning for BJP candidates, most of them not worth repeating.

All three incidents have one thing in common - the availability of video proof of their problematic statements on social media. The very fact that these statements did not go unnoticed by people and more importantly, there were consequences, makes it seem like a change is in the offing. “Now with social media one can’t be anti-woman anymore and seek women’s votes. To that extent there is some change,” begins senior journalist Radha Venkatesan.

Pointing out that DMK leaders hardly ever apologise for their offensive statements or actions, Radha continues, “Why did A Raja apologise? It is because of social media.” She points out that the DMK has not apologised for how Jayalalithaa was treated in the Assembly by party members in 1989.

According to another senior journalist who has been covering elections is Tamil Nadu for over two decades, the rhetoric of speaking against women existed for years. “Only because of social media it has been put under scrutiny. Like how the MeToo movement gained more traction because of the power of social media, so is the case here. In fact, it was worse back then,” she reasons.

Even until a decade ago, when social media was not so widespread, the only way candidates could expand their reach was through television. And in Tamil Nadu, the narrative is already laid bare, with both Dravidian majors having their own television channels, making it convenient for party propaganda. If not for television channel broadcasts and newspaper reports, people would not have known what was being said during election rallies. So how has social media changed it? The invasion of mobile phones and the possibility of any individual capturing and sharing portions from speeches on their mobile phone is a definite thrust in this direction. Of course, this also gives room for comments to be taken out of context. 

“Today, political leaders too are active on social media. This has further escalated the speed at which controversies spread. Even Annamalai’s comment and the response it has received is only because of social media,” she adds. And the same medium is capable of holding politicians responsible for all that comes out of their mouths. “People will have to be more cultured and conscious. It (social media) will definitely change the course of campaigning and political speeches in the near future,” the senior journalist adds.

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