MANISH DUBEY | 6 MAY, 2019
The Reason for the Desperate Edginess in the BJP Campaign
The propaganda state
A series of controversial remarks have emanated from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) side this campaign season, the latest being Narendra Modi’s labeling of deceased prime minister Rajiv Gandhi as Bhrastachari No. 1.
Earlier in the trail, BJP leaders have sought votes in the name of the Pulwama terror attack victims, the Balakot air strike heroes and a Bajrang Bali/ Ali binary, tried making an issue of Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest a supposedly minority-dominated constituency, and promised harsh action against Muslims and Christian infiltrators while pointedly offering protection to those subscribing to other faiths.
Two (opposing) explanations have been offered for the edge the BJP campaign has acquired. One, that it reflects the party’s desperation at a time when the writing on the wall is clearly against it.
Two, that the BJP is only expressing its core political stance with the above, and that the sharpness of its articulation is only intended to drive its message home to the electorate and achieve the substantial (not narrow) majority it would need to fulfill its promises.
A third explanation – deeper, overlooked - could lie in the nature of the propaganda state. There is little doubt that the incumbent government has tried running one, with its focus on:
-mythicizing a single leader;
-creating a ‘nationalist’ mood via a mainstream media that stokes prejudices and amplifies a -certain set of values and a social media that acts a bully pulpit;
-maligning and bulldozing dissenting voices; and
-deploying a mix of energetically peddled half-truths and conspiracy theories to project its noble intent and successes and defend its omissions and failures.
Has the movement towards a propaganda state post-2014 helped the BJP electorally? Sure, there have been impressive wins such as the ones in assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Tripura, but then there have been crushing defeats in Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Delhi and narrow losses elsewhere. And even BJP wins in several states have hardly been proportionate to the noise and heat the party raises.
On balance then, the propaganda has been rewarding, but whether it can serve the BJP’s cause in every circumstance and location – and to the extent the party would like - remains an open question.
Aside from the BJP’s mixed experience in assembly elections post-2014, there is a another, larger issue for the self-doubt in the BJP ranks. That owes to the paranoia – about slips in its leader’s approval ratings, about its narratives and claims losing popular resonance in the face of real world issues, about dissenters retaining credibility despite attacks they face and finding new spaces to express their positions - that is characteristic of the propaganda state. It is this paranoia that usually sustains leaders and their propagandist efforts.
There have been occasions in history when individuals have been swayed by their own narratives, let their guard down, and found themselves jolted. The current BJP leadership however has shown itself to be too politically canny for that. Aware of the pitfalls of living in their own echo chambers and the discontent its governance failures have spawned, it is not about to sit back and hope its five years of propaganda has seeped deep and wide enough to see the party through at the hustings.
In theory, the BJP had the option of centering its campaign on vikas it had enabled. But that is only in theory. In practice, it is a no-go. For the party understands that the ‘masterstrokes’ and achievements its propaganda machinery so immediately and effectively amplified on announcement have been exposed with time, sparking widespread doubt on whether they have made a material – and the promised - difference to the daily circumstances of ordinary Indians.
Amidst this lack of meaningful achievements to showcase, the BJP has been left with little choice but to amp up its rhetoric and blood the Pulwama-Balakot-infiltrator-Bajrang Bali/ Ali elements into the mix it has been dishing out. With a refreshing of its pitch not possible, the pragmatic thing to do is introduce new threads into an old narrative, the party has calculated.
The result is the edginess we are seeing, a reflection of the limits of the propaganda state, where those working towards it, even self-aware ones, come to realize that their shrill, exaggerated narratives may run their course at any unpredictable point and, worse, find themselves locked in difficult-to-refresh frames and end up hitting new and tasteless notes.