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How the Congress is losing more than just elections
May 25, 2008
The party's understanding of the power of television goes back to the 1982 Asian Games, when the Indira Gandhi [Images] government rolled out an LPT (low power transmitter) a day under the dark gaze of H K L Bhagat, so that Rajivbaba's showpiece event, his organisational arangetram, could reach every corner of the country-- live and in full colour.
The party logged into the silicon yug not too much later.
After his mother's funeral, telecast round the clock, implanted him in the nation's consciousness, Rajiv Gandhi was reputed to have pushed the nation into the computer age. If that surname is not what you like to hear, you might like to remember how that wily Chanakya, P V Narasimha Rao, booted up his laptop.
Today, on the 25th day of the year of the lord 2008, as the BJP steps below the Vindhyas -- proving the BJP, and its chosen astrologers, pundits and psephologists right (and proving churumuri.com wrong, we humbly admit)-- the Congress' plight shows how the party which took India into the LPG era of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation stands disconnected from the TV and the PC.
Today's Karnataka vote can be read any which way you like depending on your political preferences.
You can see it as a decisive, much-deserved victory for the BJP. After all, it was the first-placed party last time round. Or you can see it as a well-deserved slap on the Congress, which conspired with the JD-S to deprive the BJP its rightful chance in the name of 'secularism'.
You can see it as a rejection of the backstabbing and betrayal of the JD-S. Or you can see it as a state's cry for stability -- and with it development and governance. You can see it as a rejection of dynastic and family politics. You can see it as a result of inflation and price rise.
You can even see it as the shape of things to come for Sonia Gandhi [Images] and Rahulbaba in 2009.
Success, as they say, attracts many explanations; failure has to grope around to find its excuses.
While we can all doff our Mysore petas to Arun Jaitely, if there is just one decisive lesson to be obtained from the BJP's triumph in Karnataka --- and indeed from Gujarat --- it is how important clarity and cogency has become in our political grammar, be it in the television studios, on the news pages, or on the campaign trail.
What the wise voter wants and values in an increasingly complex world are clear and simple signals of promise and deliverance; and repeatedly delivered from very pulpit and forum.
What he hates is beating around the bush.
For a party which ushered in the television era into our lives, the Congress seems to have lost the art of the message; the BJP, to its credit, seems to have mastered it.
The way experts and analysts saw it in Karnataka, this was an election for the Congress to lose. It was not in power at the time of elections, so anti-incumbency was out. It had leaders from virtually every community in its ranks -- Vokkaligas, Lingayats, Kurubas, Dalits, Muslims, Christians, Brahmins. There was plenty of things that had been done in Delhi which were supposed to fetch votes according to the pundits: the Rajinder Sachar panel report to woo minorities, the farm debt waiver to woo farmers, the pay commission recommendations to woo the middle classes, etc.
If, in spite of all that, the Congress could barely manage to retain its 2004 tally, it shows that many things are horribly wrong within the party. But one thing that sticks out is that it has lost the ability to articulate its thoughts and actions clearly, to tom-tom its achievements and abilities, and to take them into the hearts and minds of voters.
It has become too soft and sophisticated for its own good.
It looks nice and polished on the plasma screens, not so on the community black and white sets.
On the other hand, the BJP had much going against it. It was seen to be aligned with just one community -- the Lingayats. It was seen to be hand in glove with the mining mafia which had legitimised the criminalisation of Karnataka politics. Its top two leaders were said to be fighting amongst themselves, even if privately. It was seen to have gone into an unholy alliance with a party which had the word 'secular' in its registration certificate. It had spent just seven days in government.
Yet, in spite of all that, if the BJP has managed to add more than 30 seats to its 2004 tally, it shows that 21st century Indian elections are not quite the complex and nuanced social, political and economic processes that the intelligentsia thinks it is.
It is a lot more simple -- and primal.
If the Congress and BJP were brands, the latter has better recall and recognition at the electoral mall. The voter knows what he is buying.
For weeks and months, the BJP leadership, be it in Delhi or Bangalore, have been aggressively and abrasively drumming and drilling the same three things into the skulls of voters on television. That B S Yediyurappa was their chosen man for chief minister. That B S Yediyurappa as finance minister delivered two 'superb' and 'excellent' budgets. That the party, if given just '"one chance', would bring paradise on earth.
Last week, when Prannoy Roy asked Yediyurappa some complex formulation from Delhi, the chief minister-in-waiting ignored it, adjusted his spectacles, looked down, and began parotting the same three things.
'Mr Yediyurappa, please stop reading from your notes,' Roy said.
It would have invited sniggers in the right kind of drawing rooms, of course, but clearly voters in the age of news television do not mind that.
At every conceivable opportunity during the election campaign, Sushma Swaraj talked of price rise affecting the common man in her Karol Bagh Kannada -- 'akki, bele, yenne, tarkari... (rice, lentils, oil, vegetables...) -- in the same order. It gets boring beyond a point, but who is to argue that it is not effective?
In contrast, the Congress leaders have been a disaster on live television. Not one of its leaders, in Delhi or Bangalore, has had the clarity of thought or the fire in the belly to take on the stuck records of the Sangh Parivar. They hem and haw, on the one hand and on the other. They are stuck for words in explaining their USP. They cannot forcefully say why the party hadn't named a chief ministerial candidate. They have no convincing explanation on Afzal Guru or Taslima Nasreen [Images]; terrorism or minority appeasement.
Where the voter seeks a clean window to the future; the Congress seems happy to provide a muddied rear-view mirror of the past.
At Congress public meetings across the state, tens of people crowded the stage for the benefit of the cameras. There was no single face, single voice, single big idea to grip the people.
On paper, the Congress is more inclusive, more representative, more well-rounded, etc. On paper, they promise this, that and the other, and they say all the right, politically correct things. But in reality, as today's verdict demonstrates, despite the promise of free colour TVs [Get Quote] in the manifesto, those things have relevance only to edit page writers and columnists.
Voters, who have picked the product off the shelves earlier, want a new and improved version.
For six months or more of President's rule, the Congress had the chance to get its election army in fit and fighting shape. It could have finalised candidates, finalised its commanders, finalised its strategy, finalised its advertising campaign and media strategy.
But when a party which can lay legitimate claims to being computer-savvy could only send the 'B' form to a candidate with just 15 minutes left for nomination papers to be filed, it shows a party in some dystrophy. By the way, that candidate couldn't stand, and in the end India's oldest party had lost its first seat even before the death knell was sounded on Sunday afternoon.
Krishna Prasad, former editor, Vijay Times and one of India's finest young journalists, is the guiding spirit behind www.churumuri.com