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BJP must take back control of the message

By Rajeev Srinivasan
November 09, 2015 21:59 IST
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'The BJP can kill two birds with one stone by wresting back control of the message; and the steps are fairly obvious. Once the media is neutral, there is a level playing field,' argues Rajeev Srinivasan.

Three things took up my attention this weekend: The Kerala local body election results, the #MarchforIndia, and the Bihar assembly election results, in chronological order. All of them had some useful lessons for the nation in general, and the Bharatiya Janata Party in particular, in terms of what seems to work on the ground.

The Kerala local body elections -- these were fought with unprecedented vigour and expense -- were a watershed, and a semi-final for the assembly elections to come next year.

The results showed that the ruling Congress-led United Democratic Front is suffering from anti-incumbency (not surprising considering the number of corruption cases that keep popping up).

The Opposition Left Democratic Front led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist did quite well (although that should have been no surprise given Kerala's tendency to alternate between the two). The BJP, which had been expected to severely erode the LDF's support base, failed to do so, although they have become much more viable as a Third Front.

The #MarchforIndia showed there is as much support for the idea of a developed India as there is for the old, discredited 'Idea of India' pushed by the Lutyens crowd. But we can only say this is true for the privileged, Twitter-reading, middle-class crowd, although that is indeed the prized audience of urban, educated, affluent customers that all marketers and many politicians reach out to, given its disproportionate influence. The #AwardWapsi types clearly have competition: it is a two-horse race.

The Bihar assembly election results are definitely disappointing. I said in an earlier column that this tussle was one between two visions of India.

The first, the one the leftists have dreamt up, and that we have pursued for the last 60-odd years: It has left India the largest repository of human misery in the world, while leftism has been thrown in the garbage bin everywhere else, and people prospered. The second is that of an India that can actually prosper and grow. And now the Bihari voter has said s/he prefers the former, and that is disappointing.

Are there themes that tie these events together? I think I can explain the Kerala and Bihar results to a certain extent by looking at jati issues. First, I would like to assert that the OBC groups are the real pothujanam (common people in Malayalam). They tend to be large in numbers, and have, ever since imperialist days, been at the bottom of the pyramid: The peasants. Therefore, it is they whom all politicians exploit, and they are the ones who, on average, determine election results.

I believe the BJP failed in both Kerala and Bihar to reach out to, and enthuse, the OBCs. In Kerala, I have been saying for years that the key is the Ezhava community, who form the bulk of the peasant classes and about 20 per cent of the electorate.

In Kerala, with the Census 2011 saying that 27 per cent of the voters are Muslim, and 18 per cent Christian, the Congress is pretty much assured of a large chunk of the vote. The Communists only win because they win almost all of the Ezhava vote, and they are spread all over the state.

Over time, the Ezhavas have become disenchanted with the Communists, and there is an opening. Another group, the forward caste Nairs, account for another 13 per cent. So the simple arithmetic is that if you can get these two groups together, the BJP will be a force to reckon with.

A preliminary analysis of the Kerala results show that the Congress has kept its core votebanks, but has suffered an erosion of Nair votes. But the Communists, contrary to expectations, managed to maintain their Ezhava vote bank, and thus has done well across the board. Thus the BJP's idea of a Hindu consolidation across Ezhava, Nair and schedule caste Pulaya (two per cent) communities has not materialised.

The Ezhava leadership in the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam did support the BJP strongly, but apparently the rank and file continues to be swayed by ideology and not by community interests. Unless they can fix this, the BJP will fail to make an impact in the Kerala assembly elections 2016.

As for the #MarchforIndia effort, the spontaneity of the march, and the fact that it quickly spread to many urban centres, gave it the feeling of a flash mob which, while instantaneous, also has little staying power. On the other hand, the #AwardWapsi people are fueled by two things: Horror that their privileged Lutyens sinecures will disappear forever as they are tied to Congress largesse; and funding by certain global interests including #deepstate that have invested heavily in assets in the Congress. This will continue, while the enthusiasm of grass-roots protesters will wither, as with the 'Occupy' folks.

The interesting thing, however, is that #MarchforIndia demonstrated that there indeed a substantial constituency that has recovered from the disease of leftism, and that the BJP can count on. This group -- fed up with the anti-national hypocrisies of the #AwardWapsi gang and Congress corruption in general, puts development and nation before anything else, and form a core bloc that needs to be nurtured.

As for Bihar, there is no doubt that it has been a blow to development; but this is a mere skirmish, and you can win the war even if you lose several battles. This being politics, you win some, you lose some. The jati issue here is evident: The Yadavs voted for Lalu Prasad Yadav, ignoring his mendacity, and ignoring all other pulls. That means the messaging has simply not gotten across to them: That there is value in Hindu consolidation and in overall development.

The siren song of populism is still strong: Just as Ezhavas voted for the Communists who have done nothing for them, Yadavs voted for Lalu Prasad Yadav who has done nothing for them. I am not saying that is a bad thing either; a strong jati consciousness is a useful economic tool, and gives one a sense of belonging. But they have to be shown wherein their interests lie.

Why is caste such an important factor in India? That's because the pie isn't growing, and jati is simply a mechanism for collective bargaining to try and get a larger piece of the small pie for you and your peers. If the pie is growing dramatically, there is no need to fight like this: There is enough for everyone, and you can still pursue your clan's interests without giving Pyrrhic victories to people like Nitish Kumar.

Why is the message not getting across to the OBCs that, with the PM himself being an OBC (or EBC if you want to be picky), the time has finally come for OBCs? I call it the Shambuka Syndrome (In the Ramayana, Shambuka the Shudra's penance causes the death of a Brahmin boy, and Ram beheads him, thus restoring Dharma): OBCs have been socialised to believe that they have been forever discriminated against by some vague entity called 'Brahminism' and that therefore, somehow they need to distrust the BJP.

This Shambuka meme is what keeps Ezhavas in thrall to the Communists, despite much evidence that the Communists themselves are very casteist, and that OBCs are usually just their water-carriers and hewers of wood.

And here the blame is squarely lies squarely with the BJP government's marketing and messaging. After a brilliantly conceived Parliament election, the government has allowed the messaging to be hijacked by the hostile Main Stream Media, although there was never any reason to do so.

I have been reading lately that the marketing genius behind the 2014 win, Prashanth Kishor, defected to Nitish Kumar, and that led to the defeat. I find that too facile a reason: It is not one man's doing. It is the cumulative result of having allowed someone else to set the agenda.

This is a major problem. So long as large segments of the voting population, especially the common man, are convinced through propaganda that they can never trust the BJP, they cannot win. There is no substitute for communication.

The airwaves and the newspapers are so full of anti-BJP venom that it is absolutely shocking: I got an earful while watching TV news about the Kerala results.

The vast majority of the media and pundits simply do not believe the BJP has a right to exist, much less to rule. The words 'communal,' 'fascist,' 'secular,' 'intolerance,' 'genocide,' 'caste,' are bandied about with gay abandon, to deadly effect.

Nobody can rule when their messaging is controlled by hostile elements. In India the messaging is controlled by malignant others. Which is a no-no. The BJP can kill two birds with one stone by wresting back control of the message; and the steps are fairly obvious.

Once the media is neutral, there is a level playing field. That doesn't mean neutering the media, but forcing it to present the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

When that happens, the OBCs will realise that the Shambuka Syndrome is merely a myth, and that inclusive growth will benefit them most.

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