July 31, 2013

Media madness: What BJP and Modi should learn from Mamata

by Akshaya Mishra 24 mins ago
The Congress is losing the 2014 parliamentary elections, but the BJP is not winning it. This is the message from the poll surveys conducted recently by different media groups. As the surveys indicate, the presence of Narendra Modi, the BJP’s great white hope, is not likely to cause a dramatic change to the prospects of the party.

Frankly, this is not how things were supposed to be.

With all that buzz around Modi, the media’s tacit support, a Congress groaning under the weight of anti-incumbency and with no new political front in sight, the BJP was expected to have a cakewalk – well, by cakewalk we don’t mean 272 seats; we mean a realistic 190 seats which would open possibilities for it to find allies. Surely, the party is getting things wrong somewhere. And it has only partly to do with the over-dependence on a single person’s supposed charisma.

So are there lessons for the BJP at the national level from Mamata Banerjee’s thumping victory in the local body polls in rural West Bengal?

Admittedly, national and panchayat polls are worlds apart. The priorities before the voters are different in each case, as are the issues. The results of one do not serve even as a loose indicator of the trend in the case of the other. And, the BJP is never more than a marginal force in the state. Yet, there could be important takeaways from the TMC win for the party.

After the massive chit fund scam, the slew of controversies involving rape cases and acts of violence from party workers, Mamata Banerjee, by the reckoning of most political observers, should not have won the rural local body polls in the state. Even the Left, who watched with glee as Mamata’s party got into self-destruct mode, felt that the collapse of the Trinamool was an inevitability. Yet she won the elections convincingly, bringing rural Bengal, the CPM’s once loyal constituency under her firm grip.

The first lesson from her victory: media don’t matter much.

Mamata has been hounded by a belligerent media ever since she took charge of West Bengal. Not all the actions of her government were above board, but the aggression with which she has been treated, particularly by the television and the English language media, is rather unusual.

Rural voters don’t get carried away by the perception created by others. That they could forget and forgive her for the chit fund scam – lakhs of victims of it were the rural poor – is proof that her bond with this section of the electorate remains intact and certificates of good conduct from the media do not count for much.

The BJP’s obsession with dominating the media space is perplexing indeed. In 2004, the party created hype around its own successes through the India Shining campaign. Once a big section of the media started swallowing it hook, line and sinker and went to town about it, the party actually started believing its own fiction and confusing it with reality.

It forgot India Shining was essentially a campaign designed for the urban middle class and it would have little appeal with the rural masses for which it had done precious little. The creation of 53 million jobs looks good as a statistic but what matters really is the quality of jobs. The party missed that completely.

The TMC has not lost touch with its rural voter base: Reuters imageThe TMC has not lost touch with its rural voter base: Reuters image
Obviously, the BJP has learnt no lessons. A similar myth-building exercise is already in progress with the help of a section of the media. Modi is aggressively wooing the young, urban electorate with his social media campaign and other BJP leaders have been more busy before television cameras than in the fields interacting with real people. All of them are wooing the same set of people.

Modi, as the campaign committee head of the party and someone with deep understanding of grassroots politics, must change this culture of slothfulness. As the pre-poll surveys and the vote share calculation over the last two elections suggest, the party has covered no new ground. It should recognise that although media help, it does very little in winning elections. The real work is not in cosy television studios but on the streets and villages of the country.

The BJP should learn it from Mamata.

Yes, the urban population is growing and the young among it are expressive about corruption, poor governance and lack of opportunities. This constituency is important for any party – in 2009, it was the urban voters who tilted the balance decisively in favour of the UPA. But what about the rural constituency? Doesn’t it matter too? It still accounts for 370 constituencies, enough to make or break the chances of any party or formation in a general election.

While the Congress has been silently yet aggressively working to woo this section, we have not yet heard of a rural outreach programme of the BJP. Does it expect to come to power solely on the strength of the urban voters? Mamata, for all her weaknesses as an administrator, has not lost touch with her core constituency.

The BJP must learn to build long-term association with this section of the electorate.

None of the surveys has mapped the rural mood yet. Similar surveys in 2004 were gung-ho about the BJP’s prospects. Urban regions were over-sampled and thus the results had a strictly urban bias. They fell flat because they ignored rural India.

The rural constituency is silent and inexpressive, and thus not easily undecipherable and dangerous. The BJP should be careful, very careful.


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