City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Mamata Experiment?

It takes about 30 seconds after landing in Goa to figure out that there is a new political player in town. Mamata Banerjee is everywhere- her visage along with a line that promises a new dawn in Konkani beams down at passersby regularly as one makes one’s way from the airport.

It is an intriguing question- can a party and a leader with no political roots, a complete absence of any cultural affinity and no grassroots organization hope to make a meaningful impact in a new geography? There is no doubt that there is a big hole in the Opposition firmament because of the stubborn inadequacies of the Congress. Wherever the BJP and the Congress are the two dominant parties, there is a room for a new Opposition player. The reported architect of this strategy for the TMC, Prashant Kishore obviously thinks so given the huge investment they seem to be making in distant Goa.

But would any voter vote for a totally alien party? Just because it wants to exploit a political opportunity? Just because it has the money to advertise aggressively? Just because it has inducted some local politicians who were popular once?

Brands do it all the time. Completely alien creatures arrive in a new country and find ways of connecting with the local market and culture. They introduce new habits, make us value a new set of things, look up to new heroes. They too are armed with nothing but ambition and money. So why can’t a political party have the same ambition?

Brands are able to make headway in an alien setting because they find a compelling story to tell. No matter how large a brand is globally, unless it finds a narrative that speaks to the local market, it struggles. We saw this at work in the early days of liberalization when so many international brands failed to connect with the Indian consumer because they came with propositions that made no sense to the local context.

The problem with the TMC is that it lacks a story. There is absolutely no reason why the Goan voter should feel any connection, emotional or otherwise with this alien political force that has been airdropped from a different part of the country. Mamata Banerjee as a leader has no cachet outside West Bengal. What is her strength in her home state- her earthy groundedness, which is the emotional basis of her appeal and her ability to make the BJP look like bumbling outsiders in the state elections, is her biggest liability elsewhere.

Neither has any attempt been made to construct a narrative around her performance. In popular imagination, the state continues to lag behind others in terms of development and industry. Locally, her supporters might disagree, but at a national level, little attempt has been made to craft a turnaround story for the state. She has launched no landmark social welfare programmes that are widely known. She lacks in credible cheerleaders- there are hardly any significant ‘objective’ voices that speak up for the party or for her personally.

Ideologically too, she represents nothing concrete to any constituency. While she might appeal to the secular-minded, there is nothing liberal about her in an overall sense- witness her handling of dissent. Her recent comments about giving government advertising only to those media outlets that have favourable things to say about her government is no aberration- it reflects her views on the role media is meant to play.

Nationally, the only significant support that she is capable of getting  is as a credible counterpoint to the BJP. Those opposed to the government see her as someone not only able to match up to whatever the ruling party can throw at her but best them comprehensively in a no-holds-barred political war.

But that appeal rests on her perceived winnability which doesn’t exist outside Bengal. Support for her rests on her winnability, which needs the support to exist in the first place. It is strange that someone like Prashant Kishore would have advised her to venture out to the national stage without even trying to build a narrative around her.

Contrast this with  Modi’s ability to command a following outside his home state. Two strong narratives were built that became the basis of his success. The branding of the Gujarat Model, along with the razzle-dazzle of the Vibrant Gujarat summits, laid the foundation of his reputation as an efficient development- friendly leader. Business leaders from India and abroad testified in fulsome terms to his vision and ability to get things done.

The other narrative that was built as successfully was as someone unafraid to stand up for Hindus, and ‘do what was needed’ to keep the minorities in check. Two very different constituencies saw in him someone who could decisively change the country’s trajectory. These narratives were packaged in a persona that was seen to radiate clarity and strength.

Even Arvind Kejriwal, regardless of how he fares outside Delhi, has a story to tell. The AAP sees the same opportunity as the TMC. It can showcase not only its electoral success in Delhi but can point to its investment in education and health as well as its focus on providing welfare facilities to the marginalized, as a reason for the same. Its implicit plank, that of a party with a municipal focus, is of greater relevance to a small state like Goa, more so than in larger states.

BJP on its part has little reason to fear the attempts made by the TMC to occupy the space hitherto belonging to the Congress. It will fragment votes, and  pose little risk of throwing up a credible challenger to the ruling party in the short term.

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