Three very different political spectacles, three very different parties, three very different styles. How we respond to each tells us a lot about ourselves.
Far to the east, in a state still called West Bengal and near a city once called Calcutta, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee addressed an investors’ conclave. She occasionally confuses political theatre with regular theatre, and did her usual master-of-ceremonies act, calling out investors’ names, making them stand up, demanding one of them come on stage to sing. (Apparently, he sang “Ae mere watan ke logon, zara aankh mein bhar lo pani”, an instruction some may very well have taken seriously).
Far to the west, in a state called Gujarat, and just outside a city for the moment called Ahmedabad, the great and the good of corporate India assembled to pay tribute to the state’s success. Well, some of them talked of the state, not its Visionary Leader. Cyrus Mistry did not match the sycophancy of his predecessor in Bombay House, delivering a short, awkward speech with the air of an ancien regime aristocrat praising Robespierre at the foot of the guillotine. Anil Ambani, not known for understatement and accuracy – just read any of his share prospectuses – declared Narendra Modi a king among kings, and compared him to Gandhi, Patel and Dhirubhai Ambani. Engineering professors were told to cancel classes and head off to serve as foreigners’ guides to the Vibrant Modi Summit. Adoring and ambitious journalists tweeted every one of the Vibrant Leader’s lines breathlessly; prospective members of Modi’s National Advisory Council came, saw, and loudly declared themselves conquered. Some will murmur admiringly at the organisation of it all. Others will look at the atmospherics and wonder if, as and when the Inevitable Leader becomes prime minister, we will have to build a new and larger stadium in Delhi to accommodate the pageantry he’s bound to expect at his swearing-in.
And, even as I write, a party once called the Congress (Indira) is meeting in a town close enough to Delhi that its younger members can get back in time for the weekend’s parties. Its Hereditary Leader spoke from a darkened stage of earnest issues like female foeticide and austerity. Nothing was quite wrong with her speech. Nothing was quite right with it either. Typical. Headline writers struggled to find an angle. Arnab Goswami had no idea what the nation wanted to know. Journalists stampeded instead towards Jairam Ramesh and Digvijay Singh, in the puzzling expectation that those publicity-shy and sagacious gentlemen would say something inappropriate or silly. Shockingly, they did.
Each of these was an exercise, above all, in public communication. Whether investment mela or internal “debate”-fest, the point was not what they would produce, but how they impressed onlookers.
As branding exercises, they’re effective in their own ways in speaking to their own converted. Banerjee will have reminded people how different she is from the distant, aristocratic leaders of the Left, and how she doesn’t expect to dance to industrialists’ tunes, they’ll damn well dance to hers. Modi will have reinforced the sense of efficiency and inevitability that hangs around him now like a saffron shawl. Gandhi will have reminded everyone that the Congress worries about all the right things, and is less a political party than an NGO that happens to run a government.
The question is: how useful are these strategies in expanding their base? Banerjee will not have encouraged many people to trust her instincts, or to give her state their money. Gandhi will only have reminded people that there are problems that the Congress’ leadership has failed to solve. Modi’s appears the most effective. Modestly, he shared with the leaders of corporate India genuflecting before him that “we have proved our branding of Gujarat has been better than any company in the world”. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan sniffily agrees, telling Tehelka magazine that “I do not put up a show of the work I’ve done... I do not have larger-than-life ambitions... Unlike other states that have abundant natural resources — forests, land and sea — to invite big industrial houses, we can’t do that. I don’t need to be shown affection on Twitter or Facebook because I am not here to market myself.”
Chouhan is an old-style politician, the sort we assume our politics has passed by. But, even in the midst of a media narrative driven by Twitter and Facebook and outrage expressed on well-metalled roads, I can’t help wondering if he’s right, and not Gandhi, who said the Congress needs to be more nimble on social media — “we need to adapt to the changing world of communication”. In fact, Modi’s second-biggest liability is his fanbase, especially on the internet, who are thuggish, irrational and complexed enough to make all those who encounter them struggle to avoid judging the leader by his followers.
Yet we live in times where news television devotes prime-time to topics trending on Twitter; where prime ministers bend policy to suit what’s on prime-time that week. Everyone agrees that communication is central to today’s politics. And yet, paradoxically, everyone also seems to agree that “governance” and “results” are what win elections today; surely voters don’t need to be told how they’re doing by communications strategists?
I suspect that much of the demand for “communication” parties feel forced to acknowledge is the self-involved whining of people who’ve otherwise done pretty well, to whom government is not quite as urgent a partner as for most in India. How we responded to each strategy tells us a lot about ourselves. But that’s all it tells us.