Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Unknown

By Swapan Dasgupta

The concerns of the ‘Beltway’, it has long been recognised in the United States, rarely determine the outcome of electoral battles—although they are paramount in other times. For all its other charming attributes, the Delhi Establishment—which includes a heady mix of politicians, lawyers, editors, bureaucrats, socialites and those whose sources of livelihood are an enduring mystery—has never accepted its creeping irrelevance during election season when power shifts to the hoi-polloi and regional elites. This may be why power conversations in the Capital have an unreal feel about them these days and often verge on a blend of wishful thinking and paranoia.

Earlier this month, at a very convivial dinner hosted by someone who knows all the ‘important’ men and women in public life, I overheard snatches of a conversation between a media veteran and a European ambassador. The exchange centred on the one topic that seems to be driving all political conversation in the Capital these days: Narendra Modi.

Having debunked the Gujarat Chief Minister as intolerant and authoritarian, the media stalwart told the diplomat that Modi was using his corporate clout to effect sweeping editorial changes in the media. He specifically pointed to one multimedia group where large-scale editorial changes are being whispered in conspiratorial tones over subsidised booze at media watering holes. “That’s all Modi’s doing; and this is only the beginning”, he informed the ambassador who, if was gullible, would probably have included the gist of his conversation in his weekly despatch to his ministry.

If I imagined that this was the inebriated mutterings of a man who is inclined to conspiracy theories, I was wrong. Another journalist with a glorious track record of battling the Gujarat Chief Minister who seemed to be losing out in office politics was told by a well-wisher friend that “Modi must have had a word with the management.” And on TV earlier this week, I was told by both the anchor and a co-panellist that Modi had become the darling of the media, not least because he knew how to flex his corporate muscle. My feeble suggestion that a man who had been relentlessly pilloried for the past 12 years qualifies better as the khalnayak rather the matinee idol was brushed aside as partisan apologia.

The point of these anecdotes is not to examine whether, despite the UPA Government’s generously endowed Bharat Nirman campaign, the interloper from Gandhinagar has run away with all the good reviews and favourable publicity. Yes, everything Modi does is news: all his speeches are telecast, dissected under powerful microscopes and his supposed departure from the lovey-dovey “idea of India” commented upon. But equally, every slip invites collective media fury on a scale that often seems excessive, especially when compared to the generosity and indulgence reserved for the ‘royal’ Gandhi family. Modi may have reason to complain about an ingrained editorial bias against him but he is certain to be delighted that the electronic media has given him a platform to reach out to voters throughout the country. For a regional leader about whom all-India awareness was uneven, Modi has reason to be grateful to the media for creating a curiosity about him that extends from Kashmir to Kerala. In the jargon of marketing, the media has facilitated an all-India sampling of Brand Modi. It is now up to Modi to either create a bandwagon effect to entice the fence sitters or live up to the demonology built around him.

On balance, the media treatment of Modi since he was anointed the face of the BJP campaign has its pluses and minuses. But in no sense does this resemble a conspiracy based on coercion and arm-twisting. The question, therefore, naturally arises: why is the Delhi Establishment getting so worked up and viewing this election as something that will determine whether India remains democratic or slides into authoritarianism?

The answer lies in one word: unfamiliarity. Modi is not a ‘Beltway” politician. He is an outsider to the charmed and somewhat incestuous world of the Delhi power brokers. Those who are accustomed to being on the inside track of high politics are clueless about how to reach Modi and, more important, influence his decision-making. It is this fear of the unknown that is prompting the detection of conspiracies all around.

Those misguided MPs who petitioned President Barack Obama to keep denying Modi the US visa he hasn’t yet asked for were not wilfully abdicating national sovereignty and requisitioning an American umpire to judge an Indian political contest. They had probably internalised the scare stories of a monumental conspiracy involving big money and multinational corporations to install a man favourable to market forces as Prime Minister. That, in the process, this silly gesture gave Modi a valuable propaganda handle is something that escaped their sense of profound anxiety.

Linked to this is the confusion over how to stop the Modi bandwagon gaining momentum. The CNN-IBN tracker polls conducted by a reputed academic body clearly show that Modi’s elevation has brought immediate gains to the BJP throughout the country (except in Karnataka). It also indicates that the UPA is most vulnerable on account of its economic mismanagement and corruption. In short, if the charms of Modi and the shortcomings of the UPA have crystallised  anti-incumbency at this early stage, will the trend intensify as the campaign proceeds?

Reports from the ground clearly show that the initial Congress belief that Modi would galvanise all sane Indians to fall back on the UPA was horribly misplaced. Modi is going to be a challenger and a more serious challenger than what any other BJP leader would have been. No wonder there is nervousness which, in the coming months will grow into panic. And no wonder there is a last-ditch attempt on the part of the Establishment to change the opponent. Earlier this week, at a media awards ceremony, Farooq Abdullah quite gratuitously proclaimed his gratitude to L.K. Advani for flying high the banner of secularism. The logic was unmistakable: let the UPA nominate its own opponent!

Unfortunately, the great unwashed seem to be in a mood for a pitched battle and not a friendly match. 

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