Saturday, October 15, 2011

Who’s bigger? Message or Messenger?

By Swapan Dasgupta

If the solitary purpose of the Jan Chetna Yatra being undertaken by LK Advani was to demonstrate that the India of 2011 is markedly different from the India of 1990, it could be described as an unqualified success. Whereas in 1990 the Somnath to Ayodhya yatra was cut off in full flow at Samastipur on the orders of the Bihar Chief Minister, Advani’s fifth yatra had the satisfaction of being flagged off from Bihar by a friendlier Bihar CM.
In an ideal world, major political undertakings — irrespective of the loftiness of the cause — should not be pursued casually. For the BJP, there were other, less exacting ways of demonstrating that Nitish Kumar has been extricated from the clutches of the evil Lalu Prasad, and that 21 years is a long time in politics.
Advani must have kept in mind the experience of the Rashtra Suraksha Yatra of 2006 which was a casualty of mass indifference. The yatra had been suggested as an angry response to the blasts in Dasashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi, an issue that agitated the public mind in 2006 just as corruption does today. Yet, the yatra was a monumental flop not least because it lacked focus. Its objectives were five-fold: to safeguard national security; to defend national unity; to rescue governance from corruption and criminalisation; to save parliamentary democracy; and to protect the aam aadmi, garib and kisans.
So generous was the embrace of the yatra that an adventurous soul may well have smuggled in the demand for a Bharat Ratna to Sachin Tendulkar. No one would have noticed it, and least of all party functionaries who approached the yatra with the same sense of foreboding as the soldier who rode in the charge of the Light Brigade. But at least, it would have resonated with the “youth”—a slippery commodity that refuses to be re-inducted into a party it deserted sometime between the capitulation in Kandahar and the images of Bangaru Laxman extending his hand towards a wad of currency notes.
On this anti-corruption yatra too, the organisers have tried to inject a youth quotient by recording a theme song that had the party leadership wanting to emulate Herman Goering and reach for their guns at the mention of the word ‘culture’. Even Advani was compelled to concede during his gush-gush interview with NDTV’s Barkha Dutt that the song was best kept away from the ears of rural India — an indication that the messaging was wrong yet again.
The BJP, it would seem, has not taken sufficient care with the larger messaging of the ongoing Jan Chetna yatra. There is no point complaining that the media has been wilfully mischievous and has highlighted the footnotes rather than the central theme. During the 1990 yatra that redefined the ideological agenda for the next 15 years, the media also tried its utmost to focus on trivia.
Those with memories may recall how the offer of a bowl of blood to Advani made news for a day or two. Others may recall the suggestion of erudite Left-wing columnists that Advani’s focus on Ayodhya, rather than Mathura and Kashi stemmed from caste prejudice: Ram was Kshatriya, whereas Krishna was a Yadav and Shiv was possibly a tribal.
None of these sneering asides made the slightest difference to the central thrust of that yatra against ‘pseudo-secularism’. The question therefore arises: why has the anti-corruption theme of this yatra been subsumed by trivial issues such as the bus getting stuck under a bridge and cash incentives paid to the media in Satna? Most important, why has the central question of the yatra been transformed into the likelihood of Advani becoming the NDA candidate for Prime Minister in 2014?
The answer lies in the undeniable fact that the yatra resulted from a unilateral  initiative by Advani. It is no secret that there were many reservations over the yatra within the BJP and its larger ideological family. The party feared that the yatra would highlight the unresolved issue of leadership for 2012 and point to Advani’s determination to have another throw of the dice.
None of these fears appear to be unfounded. During his travels, Advani connects with a large number of people but the people who observe the yatra or attend the public meetings associated with it are still a small drop in the ocean of humanity in India. Most Indians derive their perception of the political programme from the media, and the message from the media is unequivocal: this is Advani’s comeback yatra, calculated to force a sceptical BJP into acknowledging his primacy. Worse still, Advani appears to have done very little to put an end to the speculation. His interviews are largely focussed on his career as a yatri and he has kept alive the speculation by refusing to rule himself out as a candidate for the top job. The impression therefore persists that the yatra is a facet of a vicious leadership battle in the BJP, not least because the focus is on Advani and not on the BJP as a brand. The public reaction, consequently, is one of amusement, if not wariness.
There was a time when the BJP earned a reputation as the master of spin and a party that is able to dictate its agenda to the media. Alas, the party has lost its sure-footedness. Its messaging for this yatra has been self-defeating.

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