What is wrong with Congress' messaging to the Polity?
When there is will, there is way. The right method and message needs to be forged.
Rahul Gandhi needs a plan to capture power in 2024.
It is the inability of the leadership to formulate such a plan, and to have key lieutenants amplify its message, that seriously hampers Congress’ performance. Every little thing, big and small, is left to the top leadership, whose limited bandwidth chokes the organization, discouraging others from showing initiative and enterprise.
Today the man on the street has no idea of what Congress stands for. The Party’s share of the citizens’ mind-space, that determines her sense of where the polity is headed, is near zero. For a political party, this incoherence is suicide,
Everybody, in and out of the Congress, has some idea of what should go into such a plan. Ideas are critical to a plan. However, the most important function of a plan is not the ideas itself. Rather it is to generate coherence in such ideas, and to evolve a consensus around them.
If Gandhis involved key lieutenants in the process, it would engender understanding and commitment to their plan. Ensuring such a consensus around an agreed plan means everybody knows where they fit into the overall scheme of things. It tamps down internal dissension, focusing energy on getting things done. Involvement is the best form of communication. The idea is to get all informed, involved, and on the same page.
This frees the top leadership from the need for day-to-day direction of party’s messaging, and to effectively delegate authority to spokespersons. The lieutenants are thus enabled, and empowered, to augment the top leadership’s bandwidth, and amplify its message by orders of magnitude, without loss of coherence and control. It is a weak leadership which privileges control over empowerment of lieutenants.
Congress’ central message to the polity, if at all one such exists, is not getting through to the person on the street.
Oratory no doubt helps a leader get his message across. Rahul Gandhi’s diction and delivery has improved with passing years. Priyanka Gandhi’s sense of repartee, and ability to engage with people at large, is impressive. However, my concern is not with what the top two can deliver personally, but with what the Congress delivers. Barring a few effective spokespersons on TV, like Pawan Khera, there is not much.
I suspect the reason lies in not having forged a consensus on what the Congress’ message should be. The lack of a coherent and agreed message is disastrous. One day Rahul Gandhi attacks Modi on Rafael, next day he accuses PM of Crony Capitalism, and on the third, perfidy on China. The message is unduly negative, lacks coherence, and offers no alternative positive vision.
It unnecessarily concentrates fire on the adversary’s strength, which is Teflon Modi, instead of exploiting the Sangh’s weaknesses in spawning disunity and strife. Cacophony, rather than coherence, marks Congress’ messaging. This is best understood in contrast with line pushed by RSS/BJP.
The Central appeal of RSS/BJP is addressed to a well-defined target market, comprising the middle 50 to 60% of the Hindu electorate. BJP consciously ignores the bottom quartile. The message itself is simple, clear, concise, and coherent. BJP focuses exclusively on its core target market, which is Conservative Hindus, cutting across social and economic class, sometimes even caste.
The message to the masses never varies. It says you are virtuous Hindus, a proud people, and immensely patriotic Nationalists. Which is why BJP/RSS honors you, and fights for you. The others, the renegade secular Hindus, corrupt elites, minorities, and assorted casteists, leftists and communists, held sway before us, with the help of Muslims. They are the enemy that has held us back. We are going to show you how to fight them. We will let nothing come in the way in this crucial contest. We will change the very law if necessary to assure your victory over others. You will win. We will win. Judge us by how well we put such elements in their place, to enhance your power and prospects.
Note how cleverly the message divides people into two categories, us vs. they, each a neatly defined category by itself. It makes the contest between you and them the central theme, and calls upon on the voter to judge progress by its own parameters. It wastes no effort trying to talk to, or woo others, to evolve a consensus, or appeal to any other rational consideration. The whole message is emotive, making us the victims of a profound injustice, that RSS/BJP will help set right. The prospect’s identification as the wronged victim in the ensuing existential contest is both immersive and total.
The message enables RSS/BJP to skirt around every rational criticism such as poor economic performance, lack of new job creation, shrinking international stature, hostile neighborhood etc. On the other hand, it neatly converts vice into virtue, by making equality before law, invidious taxation, shrinking of welfare, equity etc., a matter of policy design, to show the others their new place in society.
Implicit in this policy is the assumption that the poor deserve their poverty and can be safely pauperized. The Sangh has thus left the bottom quartile entirely out of their political calculus, except as a part of the pernicious “other,” who drag you down.
No surprise then that the person on the street, especially the target market, pays scant attention to what the opposition says, or the adverse news-flow that media heralds. They live in a bubble totally managed by the Sangh parivar, in a sort of emotional cocoon, in which thought & rationality appear unnecessary, since the big brother is taking care of everything, needing only our undying loyalty to win.
What is Congress offering in its place? What is Congress’ target market? Is it the same as that of BJP, or different? Overlapping or segregated? What is its caste, class, or social structure? How can it be differentiated from that of BJP? What is Congress selling to this target market? Past performance? Social justice? Political and economic equality? Economic and political freedom? Which economic class or social strata does the Congress identify with? Does anybody have a clear idea of what Congress stands for? Why does it oppose BJP’s agenda? How is BJP’s agenda harmful? Apart from criticizing Modi, what does the Congress offer?
The utter irrelevance of the Congress becomes apparent from the fact that in the “Us vs. Them” contest engendered by the RSS/BJP; the Congress is not even the unequivocal champion of the other “Them”. This political ineptitude, the sheer lack of statecraft, the shallowness of resulting strategy, is truly appalling. Congress is neither bereft of talent, nor expertise. So, if it has reduced itself to such incoherence, the leadership needs to own up responsibility and make amends.
The Gandhis need to understand very clearly the value they bring to the Congress, as also their limitations, to remain at the helm of the party’s affairs.
Gandhis bring to the table name recognition, a well-entrenched legacy brand, and an ability to spawn consensus and coherence in a house of babble, that is the traditional Congress.
Their power over Congress stems basically from this key role in forging a consensus among disparate local satrapies, that have always dominated India’s diverse polity through centuries. A recent PEW survey showed Indians want to live among their own, and prefer local culture, cuisine, customs, language, and history. They have long resisted homogenization. Congress’ ability to assimilate a diversity of opinion within its fold, and still forge a working consensus, helped the party negotiate a diverse India. In contrast, the Sanghi mind is terrified of diversity, and instinctively reaches out for homogenization. The inability to grasp diversity is the Sangh’s Achilles’ heel. The Congress needs to make the most of its unique strength.
The ability to forge a central consensus eroded to some extent after the 90/91 reforms, when the power of patronage was effectively transferred from the center to the states. Control over resources made the state satraps all powerful, while the center was left with just a moral authority, and debilitating dependence on the state satraps for funds at election time. The Anonymous Electoral Bonds have now enabled the central leadership to recapture its role as coordinator. It is no longer vulnerable to blackmail by local satraps.
AEBs have in fact transformed the politics of the country by institutionalizing corruption behind the anonymity of the bonds. They confer anonymity not so much to donors, as to the deals struck behind the anonymity, and serve to insulate the powerful from the stink.
But they also help parties centralize the treasury function, and power, within the party, where top leadership controls funding and deal making, leaving little to state satraps. This is true as much of the Congress as the BJP. The centralization of treasury has restored power back to the top leadership of the Congress in some measure. Where it not so, the disintegration of the party would have been much faster. Whether this is a boon or a curse, only time will tell.
Modi is now close to eight years in power, and there is hardly any secret around his social, political, and economic agenda. On the economic front, Modi is clearly embarked on protecting domestic markets for local tycoons, even as he adds to their profits by cutting direct corporate taxes and making up the shortfall in revenues by extortionate indirect taxes, on the bottom half of the income pyramid. He has also embarked on formalization of the economy, which is killing small entrepreneurs, and transferring their markets to big tycoons, playing havoc with new job creation and employment.
Modi has clearly written off the bottom quartile of the income pyramid, leaving it to manage as best as it can. He has sought to contain the resulting economic distress by throwing a few highly visible freebies at them. They will slowly erase themselves like the Advasis displaced from the dam sites in the 60s. Their children will vanish first, and then the elders will melt away. Pauperization of poor has become policy.
On the social front, a brazen campaign to shrink the social, political, and economic space for minorities, Muslims in particular, is well underway. Social exclusion is being advanced by such strategies as love jihad, ban on beef, curtailed employment opportunities, segregated housing, exclusion from the marketplace, etc. Political exclusion is near total as the ruling party excludes any significant Muslim voices. Economic space is shrinking by frequent lynching & destruction of Muslim vends by violent mobs. Yet such strategies of calumny and hate, provide the spectacle of a successful campaign against the “other” for its followers; a source of satisfaction, not loathing, for the Sangh’s supporters.
Given the Sangh’s failure on such a broad front: social, political, and economic, there is hardly any doubt that the Modi Govt. would be voted out at the earliest opportunity. If it still manages to hang on, it is largely due to its total hold on the narrow imagination of a certain section of the population in the Hindu Hindi Heartland that constitutes some 40% of the total electorate. The opportunity to return to power for Congress is wide open. The tide, and winds of public opinion are shifting.
Congress is totally confused between confronting the Sangh in its geographical and ideological strongholds or skirting out around them, to go after the hearts and minds of the balance 60% of the polity. Given limited resources, Congress needs a well-crafted plan to win back power. Congress reform must begin at the top with the family.
This is history in the making for the family and the Congress. The prize is a liberal Constitutional democracy. Saving it from the fascist abyss should be the goal.
The Sangh Parivar’s ideological sway has peaked; the horrendous social and economic costs of its hate filled, divisive strategy to gain a chokehold on power are becoming obvious. They have left India friendless in its own neighborhood, and isolated it in the international arena, locked out of all trade pacts. Instead of reviving a glorious civilization, the Sangh has only brought distrust of, and calumny to, Hindus.
Can Congress rise to the occasion? Can it fight again for the Idea of India? A lot depends on the vision of the Congress’ first family, and their commitment to India’s liberal Constitutional democracy. When there is will, there is way. The right method and message needs to be forged.