Monday, August 26, 2013

Congress, Master of PR Management

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are many people dotted all over the country for whom the Congress is indeed the “default party”, as Rahul Gandhi conceded a week or so ago. They vote for the Congress not because they always endorse the policies of the party or are convinced that the Nehru-Gandhi family must always rule India: the vote for the Congress is often a matter of habit, ingrained into people’s minds by family custom or even neighbourhood tradition.

Last week I met many such “default” Congress voters in eastern India. Almost to a man (and woman) they had only question: has the Congress given up the battle for 2014?

The question may strike the hangers-on in Akbar Road as contrived, but to most casual observers of politics it seems a pertinent query. Yes, there is a flurry of activity trying to rectify the party’s inadequate presence in the social media—a much over-rated phenomenon as far as elections are concerned. There are also interesting interventions by, among others, the oh-so-superior Salman Khurshid describing Narendra Modi as a wide-eyed frog who presumably never benefitted from an Oxbridge exposure. There was the casteist disdain of Ghulam Nabi Azad who equated the Gujarat Chief Minister with ‘Gangu teli’ without inviting a harsh rebuke from the editorial classes. And finally, there was the launch of an anti-Modi website by a curious alliance of social snobs, human rights activists and Maoists which, predictably, received generous coverage in the Hindu.

However, the issue of the Congress’ political abdication doesn’t centre on what it is doing to preach to the converted or how the activists are being kept busy running around like headless chicken. The Congress, the party occasionally needs reminding, is in government. It is the complete dereliction of this responsibility and the grim reality of a Prime Minister who is seen but not heard that is prompting loyal Congress voters to ask whether the party is seeking involuntary liquidation.

Take the events of last week. First, there was the free fall of the rupee which was met with the Finance Minister reassuring the natives in his halting manner that all is well. More than feeling comforted that the “dream team” will soon drive away the pessimism and lead India to superpower status, the erosion of the rupee generated an epidemic of black humour. Second, there was the mysterious disappearance of the Coalgate files and the equally mysterious reappearance of some of the lost documents—a feat that made people wonder whether the spirit of the late Gogia Pasha had been summoned. And, finally, the nation witnessed the Lady Bountiful assure a bankrupt nation that no one in the country would go hungry again. Crisis? What crisis?

Actually, the preoccupation of the government seems to be focussed on information management. From the week prior to Independence Day when we witnessed the awkward Ashok Gehlot asking a child what she was writing to the new Bharat Nirman advertisements which has assured people that India is full of colourful, smiling and frolicking natives, the brains trust of the UPA has devoted its energies telling people pessimism is illusory and that India should be in a state of ecstasy. Thus, the Capital’s leading pro-Congress newspaper informed readers on Saturday morning that “PC pep talk ends Rupee’s six-day fall” and that the “Currency sees biggest single-day gain in a decade”. This spin was as credible as an American paper recording the 1932 Olympics hockey final with the headline: “Bodlington scores”. The game, just in case anyone has forgotten, was won by India 24-1. Likewise, when the Sensex shed nearly a thousand points in just two days of trading, a financial paper deemed it fit to list the stocks that were available at a bargain price.

This attempt to talk-up the mood has also coincided with a campaign—again limited to the media—to tell people how horrible and deceitful Narendra Modi really is. Thus, the Times of India showcased a story by a reporter from Ahmedabad who got the impression that a shopping mall was charging Muslims an entrance fee. This was followed by its sister paper writing a stinging editorial decrying this institutionalised apartheid. The story needless to say was a great example of impressionism in prose.

Then on Saturday, the Hindu had a front-page story in its Delhi edition saying how someone had been coerced into saying ‘Narendra Modi zindabad’. Considering how many publications have been arm-twisted into making ‘Narendra Modi murdabad’ its editorial policy for advertising revenue considerations, the story was about as indicative of a trend as Sheila Dikshit’s comparison of Delhi with New York.

The larger point is that the Congress hasn’t fled the electoral battlefield totally. It has merely decided that the best way to fight the battle for the hearts and minds of India is through manipulation and intrigue. This is something the Congress has perfected into a fine art. For the past few years, it has withstood its falling support in Parliament through the clever use of the CBI, even if it involves compromising India’s intelligence agencies. Now, it has chosen to arm-twist the Fourth Estate into being supportive. It’s an old trick that those who can recall the run-up to the 1989 election will be familiar with. But people will also remember that manipulative politics didn’t prevent voters from showing Rajiv Gandhi the way out of Race Course Road. History, it would seem, repeats itself—both times as a farce.

Sunday Pioneer, August 25, 2013 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Brilliant Article!!!...I think you are one of the most enlightened analytical minds of our country. I was wondering if beyond analysis can take a stab at structuring a solution to this menace of media & bureaycarcy that Congress Raj has nurtured overs decades of rule or misrule

So more precisely, I am asking
1. How to fix this corrupt media after Congress's departure in 2014?

2. Same question goes for the bureaucracy

3. Lastly, hoe to fix Bangladeshi Infiltration problem