“What do you think went wrong for the Congress party… this is after all a huge defeat?” asked a young, black-bearded, Prannoy Roy to his three eminent panelists. “This is a big defeat but will have no bearing on our government at the centre and we will take corrective measures” answered the then deputy chairman of planning commission, Pranab Mukherjee in his typical Bengali accent with very little emotion, almost mocking back at the anchor. “This is the revival of the Janata alliance as a national alternative to the Congress party” suggested an equally stoic Prof. Madhu Dandavate (who would later succeed Mr. Mukherjee at the Planning Commission). Prannoy Roy looked at both the leaders almost reverentially and then, as an afterthought, turned towards the third guest sitting in the middle of the panel.
“This is unprecedented in the sense that Congress hadn’t lost these two southern citadels even in 1977 and 1989 when there was a massive anti-Congress wave against the party all over India” said a much younger Lal Krishna Advani with a twinkling smile that reached his eyes. “This marks the beginning of the end of the Congress party as the dominant political force of India” Advani concluded, even as Prannoy gave him a near contemptuous look before continuing on to another topic.
This scene is from an election debate on Doordarshan in the winter of 1994, when Congress had lost Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh by a huge margin and those words of Advani went on to be prophetic in the subsequent years, despite the Prannoy Roy disdain. This is how news media has always treated BJP – even if the greatest political gyaan of that evening in DD studios came from Advani, he was treated with contempt and despite of the fact that both Mukherjee and Dandavate rehashed the same old tired political lines they got respect.
That was an era when Newspapers dominated the political discourse in India and every newspaper worth its salt was busy maligning BJP in its editorials, centre-page columns and even local reportage by correspondents. Whenever there was mild political exposure on the TV, which was mostly limited to election time coverage, BJP leaders outshined all others with their wit, knowledge and nationalism. There was a school of thought, in the era, which firmly believed that BJP as a party was a perfect match for the evolving TV generation of India. True to its potential, in the initial years of satellite television, in the mid-90s, BJP almost always won whatever few political debates that happened on the telly. In fact, the first quasi-News Channel known as Jain TV (Joint Indo-American TV) was a brainchild of a BJP RS MP and created ripples among the politically inclined TV watchers of that generation.
Even through the late-90s when the first generation of news channels in India began to take shape – the TV Today, NDTV and Star TV platforms – BJP was way ahead of all its political rivals in milking this medium in the Vajpayee era. Many believe that the 1999 victory of BJP was possible (despite of a big loss in its core state of Uttar Pradesh) because of the positive coverage that Indian Television provided during the Kargil war. It was widely argued that the big news media houses of that era virtually ate out of Pramod Mahajan’s hands and performed as per his whims and fancies. For a brief period of time, it almost seemed as if BJP had overcome the huge obstacle of inherent media antagonism towards the party.
At the turn of the millennium, everything began to change. The first major incident was Kandahar, when the News Channel scarred BJP government took some horribly wrong decisions which hurt the party immensely. From that point onwards there was no looking back. Better trained, newer crop of Congress and left spokespersons started winning TV debates, News Anchors started showing their true left-liberal bias and put up a joint front against the Vajpayee government. The advent of Tehelka, the Bangaru Laxman episode, post-Godhra riots of Gujarat et al. brought out the worst face of the BJP on the Indian telly. Once again BJP lost a battle in which it was far ahead of its rivals and Left-Liberalism emerged victorious.
For almost a decade BJP suffered immensely under constant ridicule of Indian mainstream media which had by then formed a formidable nexus with the Congress party. It is indeed inexplicable as to how or why BJP has been unable to create an ecosystem of news media favorably inclined towards the party. In fact, this is possibly BJP’s single biggest failure as an alternate organism of Indian polity. With the advent of the social media things took a positive turn for the BJP and a whole new narrative started to take shape. Arguably, social media has played the biggest role in the rise of Narendra Modi as the icon of the Indian Right and the tallest leader of BJP.
Until a few months ago, the presence and strength of BJP on the social media was so humungous that no other narrative stood a chance of dominating the NaMo debate. The farce of BJP’s history of quashing all the first mover advantage is repeating itself on Twitter and Facebook. In Delhi, the most urbanized state of India, on the day of elections, the number one trending topic on Twitter was about voting for AAP! Post elections, all the SM limelight has been stolen by AAP and Kejriwal. Thus it is now a double-barreled gun of Dilli mainstream media and Social Media gunning together for AAP and Kejriwal.
To think that all of this is happening at possibly the finest hour of Modi’s campaign for BJP is even more distressing. This is when Modi has been absolved by the court of the one blackspot on his otherwise illustrious political rise – the 2002 riots. This is when BJP has won tremendous victory over Congress in 4 important states of North India. This is when BJP has taken a massive 75 lakh vote lead in North India. This is when Congress has been totally decimated from the Hindi Heartland. This is when the governance model of BJP governments has received the greatest acceptance among the voting class and that of Congress has been defeated in totality.
With thousands of volunteers working for BJP IT cell and hundreds of young minds working on the paroles of external agencies in Bangalore and Delhi, if in the finest hour of a leader and the party all we get to hear about is Kejriwal and AAP, then the party must surely have reinvented its past ghosts. Every second post on CRI today is discussing AAP, every second tweet by even the diehard BJP supporters is about Kejriwal and co. Every independent right-wing blog is obsessed with AAP (apart from the faithful mission 272 types that is).
How have issues come to such a pass? Maybe the BJP leadership, especially the ones handling media and communications, is too smug to realize the enormity of the problem. Maybe as participant observers, many of them lack the ability to pause and notice the train wreck around them. Maybe everybody is too busy guarding their own turfs to worry about a future disaster.
One hopes that this colossal failure to create a narrative around itself so close to the next election would not hurt the BJP in May 2014, but past experience has shown us time and again that the party specializes in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. From that day in 1994 when Advani was debating the elections with Prannoy Roy on Doordarshan to today’s uber-narrative of AAP in the MSM and Social Media, I have been wondering for close to 20 years, what prevents BJP from creating an alternate media ecosystem that is robust enough to challenge the left-libbers?