City City Bang Bang, Columns

An overdose of negativity?

When Mani Shankar Aiyar gives, he gives freely. First, he himself invoked the name of Aurangzeb in an attempt to defend the electoral process that the Congress is going through, thereby giving the BJP a juicy opening. Then he doubled down by describing Modi as ‘neech’, a word that lent itself to being interpreted as a caste slur. Icing on a gift horse, that the BJP did not look in the mouth. Media everywhere and particularly in Gujarat has chosen to highlight this, and the PM himself hasn’t been shy about using the gift that he has been presented with.

However, if Aiyar was letting fly, he was no means the only one. The BJP has for long considered it proper to unleash the most unbridled invective against Congress leaders. This time around, it seems that almost any kind of allegation can be made not just by the so-called fringe, as was the case earlier, but by the frontline leadership. A BJP MP called Sonia Gandhi a ‘vaishya’, the party alleged that Rahul Gandhi had signed in the non-Hindu register at Somnath temple, Yogi Adityanath speculated that Rahul Gandhi performed puja as if he were reading the namaz, the PM himself has alleged that a conspiracy was hatched at a meeting between the Pakistani high commissioner, Manmohan Singh, Aiyar and Hamid Ansari, a day before the ‘neech’ statement was made and has explicitly warned against a plan to make Ahmed Patel the CM in case the Congress wins. No stone that can be thrown, has been left unhurled.

WILL HISTORY REPEAT ITSELF? Before the 2014 general election, Mani Shankar Aiyar had created the chaiwalla myth, and it is possible that the ‘neech’ comment will have a similar outcome

There may be more examples of such overheated allegations and it may exist on both sides but there is a difference. For the Congress, there is little strategic advantage to be gained by calling the other side names. It does not have an established ideological base that responds to these loaded references, and today its cause is served much better by attacking the BJP government’s record as the incumbent. In the skewed media universe that we live in today, in any case, any such remark is likely to boomerang on the party. We saw this in 2014, when the same Mani Shankar Aiyar virtually created the chaiwalla myth, and it is possible that the ‘neech’ comment will have a similar outcome.

The BJP’s use of invective is part of its core strategy. The logic employed is to identify the deepest anxiety of their base and to attach Rahul or Sonia’s or even Nehru’s name to it. The connection need not be too strong, in fact it need not even be barely plausible. Mere association is good enough. In 2014, Modi, in particular, was careful to use allusions and loaded metaphors to make this point. Today, the effort is much cruder, and it begins right from the top. Rahul Gandhi is not a Hindu. He prays as if he were a Muslim. The Congress is conspiring with Pakistan to destroy India. They want to make a Muslim the CM of Gujarat.

What the BJP is doing now is to eat into its electoral capital. If in their citadel, the only proposition that they are left with is that it represents the cause of the Hindus, then they are scraping the bottom of the promise barrel and this should be cause for worry. In 2014, it created a new campaigning platform — it combined a promise of better times on the strength of clear and decisive leadership, with Hindutva in the right dilution — overt enough to speak to its constituency and covert enough so as not to overwhelm the positive message.

However, in the last three years it has added little to its capital. Nothing dramatic has changed in either the economy or in the everyday life of citizens. The UP elections seemed to suggest that demonetisation, whatever its flaws as economic policy, was an electorally useful instrument. But as its longer term negative effects rumbled through the lives of people, combined with the dislocation caused by a cumbersome GST regime, there has been a groundswell of disaffection. The idea that India is on a threshold of dramatically better times is no longer a belief that carries much electoral currency.

That leaves it with only the negative side of its 2014 platform, and here its deeper impulses lead it to consistently overplay its hand. Also, by choosing Adityanath in UP, the BJP has made its choices irreversible. The result is a relentlessly negative series of campaigns that feed on anxieties that have little to with the voters’ everyday lives today. The more frequently the party harps on these issues, the more strident its assertions need to become in order to register.

It doesn’t help that Modi by virtue of being the strongest, and indeed only weapon in the party’s armoury, can end up creating fatigue as his pronouncements, his rhetorical strategies, and his repetitive use of devices like selfpity can become predictable. To listen to the same kind of dialogues over and over again can tax even those predisposed to him and the party. In contrast, this time around, Rahul Gandhi has come across as someone who has done better than was expected of him. The drubbing his image has taken in the last few years has actually helped him this time, for by doing not very much, he is being applauded, even if cautiously.

There is a long way to go till the 2019 elections, and if the BJP has decided that crude religious polarisation is its only hope going forward, the country is in for a really trying time. As an incumbent, it has to find answers from within its performance, but as of now, it seems to show little confidence in using its own record electorally. Without a positive leg to its electoral plank, the party offers nothing but darkness to an aspirational India. For the BJP today, losing in Gujarat will be disastrous, but winning it this way may also not be good enough.

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