Media and BJP’s Identity Crisis
The Indian MSM allowed democracy to be compromised by becoming lapdogs instead of watchdogs of the UPA regime for both of its terms. In this sense, the MSM are accomplices in the mega scams of UPA by staying away from investigating them. In UPA’s 10 years, both PM Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi did not permit themselves to be exposed to scrutiny that democratically elected leaders must be subjected to. Although media was composed of cronies, in 10 years, Sonia Gandhi gave only one or two interviews to the press and never held a press briefing where she independently handled questions. Manmohan Singh’s interaction with the media was similarly extremely rare. The media were willing partners in this charade. The most pernicious outcome of this “arrangement” was that it set a precedent for the power centres in the government to be above answerability and accountability. Given this history, the MSM today are hardly in a position where they can insist on press interaction as a means of accountability of elected leaders.
Such an absence of accountability to a fourth pillar is detrimental to democracy, and the PM, instead of continuing with the practise should do away with it and set up a system such that those elected remain answerable and accountable–not just through one-way interaction, speeches, and monologues–but through a give and take, answering of questions, and interaction.
If one agrees that it is healthy for a democracy where the top leaders including the PM are accountable and approachable, then another issue that needs to be tackled is the party’s apparent identity crisis. How can you communicate and articulate fluently if you don’t know who you are, if you’ve suffered selective amnesia and end up second guessing yourself and floundering-which is exactly what the party seems to doing.
As most democratic large parties end up becoming, the party is not a cohesive sounding unit. Voices like Yogi Adityanath and Sakshi Maharaj who articulate double standards of pseudo-secular entities in the state governments and media, do so in a manner that can be milked by Modi and BJP detractors. Supporters of these “Hindutva” voices within BJP point out that these voices articulate relevant issues. These are grassroots leaders with a mass support base and know how pseudo-secular standards and policies end up afflicting their constituents. Shouldn’t these local leaders be allowed to tackle and speak about issues of concern to their constituents?
The party’s support base can thus be roughly divided into two groups. One group of well wishers and party supporters says that these “Hindutva” voices must be reined in. This group believes that the mandate for this government is only about development and therefore, only matters which relate to development and the economy need to be spoken about by everyone affiliated with the party, so that the government is able to proceed with governance without distraction from detractors who are looking to brand this government as communal.
The “Hindutva” supporting group thinks that in addition to governance and development, the so-called Hindutva ideology represents the core ideology of the party. The party should not disown or shy away from its own core ideology, they claim, but should instead work towards promoting it and creating a counter-narrative. By not disowning its own manifesto, BJP can reassure its core voter base that it is willing to walk the talk and stands by its Hindu constituents.
In fact, even among the core issues, one could categorize some as non-contentious and non-controversial. For example, levelling the playing-field in areas where previous policies have discriminated against Hindus, is (or at least should be) non-controversial and non-contentious. The party would do well if it could articulate these non-contentious issues and frame a counter narrative. Further, this counter narrative should be pro-actively promoted and acted upon. This would mean either doing away with the RTE or removing the minority clause so that all private players have to conform to RTE norms or none have to. Control of Hindu temples by the government but a hands-off approach for minority places of worship is another such issue that should be considered non-contentious. On the other hand, even though needed in the interests of fairness and justice, issues like building the Ram temple, bringing in a Uniform Civil code, or revoking Article 370, are more complicated since they have the minority community as stakeholders. This second category of issues could be temporarily put on the back burner. Ensuring that the state governments apply laws fairly and prosecute law breakers irrespective of faith is in fact not even a communal issue that the “Hindutva” group of BJP supporters is concerned about. Using this perspective, the “Hindutva” group of BJP supporters does not appear to have unreasonable expectations, as is made out to be.
Certainly, the government and party needs to devise an effective strategy of media management, but it can do so only when it has dealt with its identity crisis. Adding to its own ambiguity on issues of identity, the government (or party) has been receiving conflicting suggestions and feedback from these two groups of supporters, pulling it in opposing directions.
BJP was voted into power for standing up and pointing out that pseudo-secularism exists. The party needs to continue to stand up for righting the wrongs of pseudo-secularism. Even if the pseudo-secular fraternity and even some other well wishers say that the mandate was only for governance and fixing the economy, the BJP cannot disown its own roots and genesis.
- Such hypocrisy would soon be exposed by the very detractors who try to portray that the party’s mandate was only for “vikas.” Additionally, such hypocrisy is resented by its core base of Hindu minded people including well-read intellectuals who have been witness to UPA’s pernicious anti-Hindu policies.
- This is not a coalition government, one that needs to follow a common minimum programme, but a party that has an independent mandate. If it is being conned into believing or conveniently (out of cowardice/reluctance) assuming that it can either “do” development or do “Hindutva,” the party needs to snap out of this either/or approach and realize that its mandate is for tackling both kinds of issues.
- The likelihood of a full majority happening again looks dim, more so after the Delhi and Bihar mega defeats. That’s why it’s all the more imperative that the BJP looks at at-least the “non-contentious” Hindutva issues while it has a complete mandate.
- By standing up for who it is, it gains respect from its friends and foes and can make a dent in countering faux narratives to promote its own narrative assertively. This will additionally ensure that its “Hindutva” supporters remain loyal to it and the likelihood of returning to power in 2019 is higher.
Once the party has sorted out this mega identity crisis, the media management issues could be made to fall in place. Concerning media management, it has been suggested that:
- Ministers hold periodical press briefings to inform citizens about the progress of projects under their purview. This should be easy to put in place, but for some reason, this has not been happening.
- Another suggestion is that, as practised in the past, an official spokesperson of the PMO should hold regular press briefings and conferences to disseminate information and the official government point of view on issues. This too should not be too hard to carry out.
- A party spokesperson as a single window for expressing party views through press briefings has also been suggested and this too could be easily done. One wonders why these simple steps have not been taken so far. Even now, 18 months down the line, it is perhaps not too late.
- There’s a near consensus among BJP supporters that the party should not send spokespersons to participate in debates on channels that carry out anti-BJP reporting and it is pretty much clear which channels can be put on the list of anti-BJP channels. Laying down terms and conditions on topics of debate or how topics are framed is an important aspect of media management that has been ignored but needs to be prioritized for narrative correction.
- The party/government also needs to get its act together with respect to responding to the media’s false stories or factual inaccuracies. The social media cell of the party and government hasn’t appeared to be on top of things here and this needs to be rectified.