LAST night, for the second night in a row, the
commentariat went apeshit about #MainBhiChowkidar.
Is that the right
response? Will it “resonate” with the people? Is chowkidar the 2019 version of 2014’s chaiwallah? Can the BJP expect to gain momentum because of Modi’s
Such tone-deaf discussions are de rigueur for the propaganda channels whose raison d’être is to help the government of the day deflect attention from the issues concerning voters – farmer distress, say, or unemployment, or the decline in manufacturing, the slowdown in the economy, all of which and more effect the quality of our lives. But after the likes of TimesNow, Republic and various regional channels had done their bit the day before, last evening it was Barkha Dutt, one of the exemplars pointed to as an antidote to the prevalent noise.
Dutt’s program “decoded” the latest slogan; one panellist spoke of how it was a reinforcement of Modi as the guardian of the country; another felt it was preposterous; someone else explained at length why he chose to prefix chowkidar in front of his name; another worthy had thoughts on what slogan the opposition could use to counter this one (which, in case it’s all getting confusing, is itself a counter to something the opposition came up with); and Dutt meanwhile used her extensive Rolodex to learn from BJP sources that this was entirely the PM’s idea, and that there would be a ‘grand unveiling’, and so on.
To refurbish the whole program with a coat of irony, Dutt is one of the senior journalists who constantly, and vocally, lament the “noise” that the right-leaning sections of the media produce.
The episode made me think (yet again) of one of my all-time favorite political books, by an all-time favorite essayist. In 1988 the New York Review of Books commissioned Joan Didion to write a series of reported essays on the presidential election that pitted incumbent vice-president George HW Bush (Republican) against the Democratic candidate, Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts.
In these essays, since collated in the book Political Fictions, Didion argued that electoral politics was not a mechanism that enabled the citizens to make informed choices based on the real issues of the time, but “one designed by, and for, that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life”.
She argued, further, that the citizen no longer owns, or has a say in, electoral politics which has been gradually shaped to serve the interests of a “permanent professional political class” made up of politicians, their operatives, and talking-head journalists, who together concoct for our national campaigns “a public narrative based at no point on observable reality.”
Even a cursory read of political commentary and a few minutes with the TV remote suffice to identify this emerging narrative, and its disconnect with what Didion calls observable reality. The narrative is built around a few tired tropes and electoral pieties. As, for instance:
#1. Narendra Modi is a presidential figure fighting a faceless, amorphous horde.
In actual fact, the “mahagatbandhan’
is a media fiction, a strawman set up only so it could be demolished. At no
time did the combined opposition come together to announce a coming together.
Observable reality is that
the election was always going to be local – each state figuring out the best
combination to defeat the BJP on its particular turf, with the question of
government formation left for after the votes are counted and there is clarity
about which party or group has the most strength in the 17th Lok
But that reality, by
definition, forces the BJP into a state by state fight, each battle focused largely
on local rather than national issues – a contest that doesn’t suit the BJP whose
forte is coming up with one central message and amplifying it through constant
So, the fiction of the “mahagatbandhan”, which can then be
attacked as a “mahamilawat”, to force
the election back into 2014 mode. Ironically, this storyline omits one
important fact: the single biggest gatbandhan
in the upcoming election by far is the BJP-led NDA, a motely conglomerate of
32-odd parties and counting – an inconvenient fact that the commentariat, which
has sold itself on the narrative that a coalition government equals weakness,
#2. The BJP, negotiating from strength, has stitched together a formidable network of local alliances. The Congress, through hubris and arrogance, has failed to match the BJP in this regard, and is therefore falling behind.
In Bihar, in Tamil Nadu, in Maharashtra, the BJP has had to give up seats to the allies. Assume for the sake of argument that the NDA wins all 127 seats on offer in these three states – the upshot is that in the newly constituted Parliament, the allies will be in a better bargaining position when it comes to portfolios, and even when it comes to policy decisions. Simple logic, no? So why is this network of alliances celebrated so breathlessly?
In Assam, where the BJP experimented with its patented brand of communal polarisation by using the “Bangladeshi infiltrator” bogey to justify the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016. Disgusted, its ally the Asom Gana Parishad quit the NDA, arguing that the bill was political suicide. Recently, the BJPs electoral compulsions led to the party persuading the AGP to rejoin the alliance. What was promised to make up for the angst relating to the bill. Will the push for the Bill still stand, or has it been given a quiet burial? Again, no one knows. But yay, alliance — and a further feather in the cap of the master strategist (If Amit Shah’s electoral record since 2014 is milestoned with more defeats than wins, that inconvenient fact is not allowed to disturb the perception.)
But the point should be self-evident – the BJP has been pursuing every possible alliance it can cobble together, cognitive dissonance be damned. That is the observable reality.
The narrative, though, is
that the opposition is the one putting together opportunistic alliances even at
the cost of forsaking previously stated positions. And the sizeable chunk of
the media pushing this narrative seems completely oblivious of the cognitive
dissonance of their position: On the one hand, you critique opposition parties
for their opportunistic alliances, and in the very next breath you damn and
blast the hubristic arrogance of the Congress and condemn that party’s failure
to put together local alliances in various states. How does that work?
#3. The BJP has come up with slogans that resonate with the public; the opposition has failed to come up with a single resonant slogan.
Is the ability to come up with a catchphrase a testament to the ability to govern? Do people actual vote for a party because it has the better slogan? I’ve never seen any empirical evidence of this, but let that lie. The catchiest slogans in contemporary electoral memory — Roti Kapda Makaan, Garibi Hatao, Achche Din — have all singularly failed in translating promise to reality, but let that lie, too.
Anyone remember Acche Din? How about Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas? Now there is Namumkin Bhi Mumkin Hai, and its corollary Modi Hai To Mumkin Hai. Each of these was launched to considerable hype and extensive debates about effectiveness; most of them have been quietly shelved, and there is no telling what the shelf life of the latest formulation is.
But do even the most random scroll through social media, and you can fill a Rolodex with the number of “opinion makers” banging on about the effectiveness of the BJP’s slogan game, and the abysmal failure of the opposition – read Congress – to come up with a “winner”.
Yoked to this is the related
thread about the ineptness of the Congress/Opposition on the campaign trail.
This narrative goes: The BJP is everywhere; the Congress is nowhere. Modi is
winning hearts and minds; Rahul Gandhi is absent and worse, Priyanka Gandhi has
since her debutante ball at Sabarmati been making programs and cancelling them –
why are they not campaigning, what are they doing, ohmygod how inefficient,
maybe they don’t want to win…
It is nobody’s never mind that almost at the exact minute this conversation was going on, Rahul Gandhi was doing one of his town halls, this time in Bangalore with a group of small entrepreneurs. In this town hall, he among other things addressed the question of GST and discussed what the Congress planned to do if it came to power; he was asked about the angel tax on entrepreneurs and he said he would kill it if it became his call to make, and explained why… All of this is far more policy based statements than you have heard Modi make this year. But you can’t blame the commentariat for not knowing this because none of his events, or those of other opposition leaders, find air time on TV whereas every breath an Amit Shah takes and every trope a Narendra Modi fakes are covered live, then discussed in breathless detail during prime time.
You get the feeling, while reading the commentary and listening to these debates, that the media is no longer content to report what is in fact happening. They have fixed notions of how parties should run their campaigns, and they score the horse-race based on how well these parties execute the media’s idea of a good campaign.
But that is not even the point. It harks back to
Didion’s thoughts – that electoral politics is not a mechanism to enable
citizens to make informed choices, but a monopoly of “that handful of insiders
who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life”; a narrative “based
at no point on observable reality”.
In all of this, who loses? The citizen, who has been systematically infantilised by a media that believes that she has no inclination to delve into issues; that her attention span is so limited that she can only consume slogans; that what the voter wants in the lead-up to what everyone says is the most important election of our lives is platitudes rather than policy; tub-thumping rhetoric rather than a nuanced debate on ideas.
It’s not just that we get the government we deserve — we also get the media, and the narrative, that we deserve.
- A TimesNow poll finds, not surprisingly, that the NDA will return to power. What is notable is that this poll, in common with every single one thus far, gives the BJP no chance of replicating their 2014 performance and attaining majority on its own. In other words, the most optimistic of estimates is that we are in for a coalition government, no matter who wins.
- Prem Shankar Jha believes Modi’s campaign is all theatre, and suggests that the Congress is not doing enough to challenge him on his lack of substance.
- The most notable element in the DMK manifesto is the promise to do away with NEET, the cause of considerable heartburn among the TN student community.
- Srinath Raghavan, one of the better-informed and sane voices on issues dealing with the army and national security, on why Modi’s desire to talk tough to impress his base has come in the way of good relations with China.
- A Print report on how the JD(U) cut the BJP’s planned dalit outreach to size.
- A Scroll investigation into how Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar took advantage of loopholes to hide the bulk of his fortune from electoral scrutiny. (The bits relating to the conflict of interest inherent in his defence deals is particularly noteworthy).
- From The Wire, a piece that goes beyond the hagiography that inevitably accompanies a high-profile death, and examines the real legacy of the late Manohar Parikkar.
- We voted a bunch of blokes into the 16th Lok Sabha. What did they do with this trust, with the time and money you invested in them? The Hindu has a nifty means of tracking the performance of individual MPs.