Monday, March 06, 2017

The art of political communication and UP elections

by Ratnakar Tripathy

Over time it has become an intellectual habit for me to overlook the professed ideologies of the politicians and focus on what they plan to do with the existing social conflicts within the community of voters. Do they try to play the mediator or they wish to aggravate the conflicts and perhaps rub salt on the existing wounds and even conjure up imaginary grievances is for me the final touchstone I use for labeling a politician. You may decide that this is what we call in history and the humanities in general ‘mono-causal ‘thinking’, namely attributing unduly heavy significance to a single aspect of life and communication. But on this, I am obdurate and unwilling to budge even an inch given the state of political communication in our times. With this disclosure, I now wish to proceed further and present my reading of what politicians, parties and people on podiums are saying these days in UP.

The flattening landscape of rhetoric  

I take the liberty of starting with the following quote from the Facebook status of a friend of mine, Awanish Kumar, an Assistant Professor at St. Xavier's College, Mumbai:
‘Just a thought: In the contemporary political discourse, particularly after the rise of Modi, development stands out as an overarching category often posed as a self-evident phenomenon. Once the D-word is uttered, political divisions also tend to blur. Akhilesh Yadav promises Metro trains, and Arvind Kejriwal wants to turn Delhi into London. Nitish Kumar promises good governance, and Naveen Patnaik also promises corruption free development.’

Yes indeed, if you come down from your highly educated and intellectual pedestal and look at the political rhetoric of the leaders in the fray, Akhilesh, Mayawati and Modi through the eyes of the common voter, you will indeed be highly perplexed. Aren’t they saying the same or similar thing? So how do I decide whom to vote? On the basis of earlier track record, or the specificity of the promise, or simply go with the wave around me? The voter faces two interesting dilemmas here – first an existential and a philosophical one, namely although it is after all the votes together that count, my individual vote is a minuscule really. But there is another dilemma of a practical nature – what am I to do when the political leaders seem to be borrowing promises and agendas from each other on a daily basis? Looking at the same from the leader’s viewpoint, a politician I am sure must wonder how to stand out in the most conspicuous manner among a row of identical figures?  This game of standing out when played day in and day out along with the mimicry of rhetoric takes you to a point of communication when the common voter stops listening to development talk, and perhaps stops listening to anything but the jokes and sarcasm. This may be the reason why the politicians of all hues have been attacking each other like we all did as kids – making faces, rolling tongues and finding inventive acronyms. But does this have to be the only option? Of course, the other remedy may be to get louder by the day till the voter simply cannot escape you. Aren’t there other ways of consolidating votes of larger groups rather than pretend that the individual voter is your sole target?

The communal gamble

Yes. You can do better by aiming at bulk votes through a toxic rhetoric that targets specific groups as the perpetrators of something or the other. You make indirect hints in the public speeches but the cadre on the ground spreads substantial and specific as well randomly baseless rumours, which is why ‘in some parts, the RSS cadre are going from house-to-house to consolidate Hindus against the "rising Islamic influence".’ The SP-Congress address the individual voter ‘with the theme of “Kaam Bolta Hai, [deeds speak louder]”, the thrust of SP president and Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav’s campaign was to pitch his infrastructural projects and welfare schemes, which together with his tech savvy image form “Brand Akhilesh” beyond the Muslim-Yadav combine associated with the SP. The BSP on the other hand aims at the Dalit-Muslim constituency for the purpose of winning ‘consolidated’ votes and often focuses on law and order situation in UP while addressing the wisdom of the individual voter.

I call Modi-Shah’s communal strategy to be a gamble since apart from being morally heinous, they have decided they can do without the 20 per cent Muslims. The logic here is if you polarize you will find the Hindu votes consolidated in your favour. Currently the results of the UP elections revolve around this magnificently devilish bet. The only other confusion lies over who will get the most Muslim votes between Akhilesh and Mayawati. Everything else is a matter of detail.

So the UP elections do not seem as confusing as they earlier seemed, do they? If at all they are confusing, it is for two reasons. First, a profound reason why the journalists are torn when they are not acting as tools of propaganda is the voter is lying to them with the belief that truthfulness is not owed to the media anymore. This reflects on the state of the media as the journalists along with the politician have become a consolidated mass of people when not feared perhaps the most hated and despised segment of the society by the common voter.  Second, the UP data is near impossible to aggregate on a day to day basis as the rhetoric over the microphone and the whisperings at the door to door campaigns reflexively change every other day among the parties in the fray in reaction to each other. So my advice is don’t waste time in speculations over who is winning and wait till the 11th March when you will have everything on a latter. We are just 3-4 days away from it. 

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