Politics in the media age is increasingly about perception management which in turn is about shaping the narrative to your advantage. The UPA 2 government lost the plot when they simply couldn’t handle the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement. The most bizarre episode was when senior ministers from the Manmohan Singh government went to receive yoga guru turned ‘black money crusader’ Baba Ramdev at the airport, only to arrest him 24 hours later.
One of the more persistent criticisms against the Narendra Modi government has been that far too many of its ministers seem to have very little work to do and as a result end up saying/doing things that have no connection with their assigned ministry. A classic example is Giriraj Singh, minister of state for micro, small and medium enterprises: rather than focus on reviving MSMEs in post-demonetisation India, Singh is best known for routinely making bizarre remarks, often asking critics of the government to be packed off to Pakistan.
Rahul Gandhi was just seventeen years old when the Bofors gun payoff scandal first exploded, a corruption charge that would tar his father Rajiv Gandhi's reputation and eventually push the Congress towards defeat in the 1989 elections. Now, three decades later, the Congress president seems determined to extract 'revenge' for his father's political downfall by making the Rafale aircraft deal a centre-piece of his 2019 election campaign. But is 2019 really going to be 1989 all over again and will Rafale become the Bofors of our times?
One of the biggest mistakes political journalists make is to often assess election trends based on talking to politicians. When Narendra Modi was Gujarat chief minister, any reporter who spoke to Mr Modi’s fellow politicians (be they rivals or even from the BJP) was convinced he was losing. In 2012, one of them wagered a dinner bet with me that creeping anti-incumbency against sitting MLAs would spell doom for Mr Modi. As it turned out, Mr Modi won a third successive election rather comfortably and I won my bet.
Amit Shah is often credited as the BJP president who has converted Indian elections from routine local fights into an all-out life and death ‘war’. Little surprise then when Mr Shah was quoted as having told a gathering of BJP social media activists in Pune that they must see themselves as ‘soldiers going into battle who take no prisoners’. Mr Shah may have been only trying to motivate his flock but the sharp rhetoric reflects a new election dynamic where a tweet, a Facebook post or a WhatsApp forward are the modern-day arrows and bullets aimed at bruising political opponents.
A simple photo-op can sometimes reveal the entire political picture. Last month, as Rahul Gandhi hosted an iftaar party, his high table did not include a single opposition party chieftain: most of them chose to send their representatives instead while the Samajawadi party gave the event a miss altogether. The message was clear: most opposition parties do not see the Congress as a first among equals, even less so Mr Gandhi as an unquestioned magnet for opposition unity.
A few months after he had taken over as chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir in the spring of 2015, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed hosted a dinner for journalists in the capital. Mufti ‘saab’ was a great host: the drink was flowing and the Kashmiri wazwaan was delicious. The gracious hospitality didn’t stop us from asking the obvious question: ‘How long will this BJP-PDP alliance last?” Mufti saab’s answer reflected his optimistic mood: ‘I am hopeful that between Modi saab and me, we can create history and bridge the divide between Jammu and Kashmir forever!”
In 1996, soon after LK Advani resigned as an MP over his name surfacing in the ‘hawala’ diaries, we asked the original BJP ideological mascot why he had taken what many believed was an ‘extreme’ step. ‘It is a conscience call. I come from a party with a difference which is committed to probity in public life,” he claimed.