"Someone once asked me what would be the best job in Indian politics? I said, to be leader of the Opposition with Sonia Gandhi as prime minister!"
—BJP leader Arun Jaitley's favourite joke
They are glib, sharp and media-savvy. The marketeers of Brand BJP are in many ways different from the politicians of the past. Over the past 15 years, they have successfully sold Big Ideas to the nation. The Ram mandir at Ayodhya, Atal Behari Vajpayee as a larger-than-life phenomenon, the Terrorist Threat, Resurgent India and so on.
In the same period, the Congress has floundered. Hamstrung by an inexperienced central leadership, pegged on a vicarious Nehru-Gandhi aura, it shows itself to be incapable of seizing the moment. Uncomfortable with the sound bite culture of 24-hour news channels and unable to articulate a clear stand on issues, the Congress often seems bereft of the winning touch. Slowly but inexorably, it is losing the propaganda edge. Already, its biggest ideas and icons, from Dalit politics to Gandhi to khadi, have been coopted by the competition.
As things stand, the BJP's proved far more adept than the Congress in terms of communicating its ideas, attitudes and information to the public in the last decade. Indira Gandhi sold her Big Idea, 'Garibi Hatao', so successfully that the Congress continued to be seen as the party of the poor for a quarter of a century. Rajiv Gandhi had no lack of ideas but failed to sell them even to his own party. Ironically, it was P.V. Narasimha Rao's Big Idea—economic reforms—which dented the party's pro-poor image and decimated it electorally. The middle classes, direct beneficiaries of liberalisation, were seduced by appeals to first religious, then nationalistic sentiments. The poor did not know what to make of policies that brought visible benefits to the upper crust but none to them and so began seeking alternatives.
Several reasons have contributed to the BJP's success. The most significant is the party's mastery over the art of spin. As one of the BJP's most telegenic faces and its most effective spin doctor, Union law minister Arun Jaitley, says, "We know we have to package a big concept or an idea. As a party, we must stand for something." Jaitley also admits to an ideological dichotomy—on the one hand, there is a booming economy and a forward-looking India, on the other, there are issues like Ayodhya. "I personally believe we should project economic successes along with a strong nationalistic line on terrorism," he says.
In fact, the BJP is currently grappling with its pitch for 2004. There's a debate on over whether the Resurgent Economy and Shining India concept will work. Can the Vajpayee charisma work again? How deep is the Ayodhya fatigue? Several conclaves are on between BJP and RSS strategists to thrash out these issues. At the very least, this internal churning points to a party that thinks through its strategy and positioning.
Curiously, the Congress celebrates its lack of propaganda skills, making a virtue out of its incompetence. Says Congress chief spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy, "Our constituency is the lower economic classes. We don't need a modern propaganda machinery to reach out to them." It is the upper and middle classes, says Reddy, which is vulnerable to sustained media campaigns. Media committee member Abhishek Manu Singhvi drives home the point: "We believe in information, not propaganda. The term itself has acquired notoriety since Goebbelsian times. It suggests misleading and false information. In that sense, we are happy not to be part of the propaganda war."
The more superficial reason for the BJP's success is the party's 'efficiency' vis-a-vis its opponents. It's a political party in tune with the modern times.To give one example, the telephone exchange at the BJP's national headquarters runs round the clock and all numbers, both in Delhi and in the states, are available easily. The BJP website too is regularly updated with press statements being posted on the net within 15 minutes of their release in the party office. The party has also produced a phone directory with all important numbers, and a shop in the headquarters sells publications, journals, audio cassettes and books on Hindutva and leaders of the movement.
Off the record, Congressmen admit to an ad hoc approach to the Information Education Communication strategy. The party headquarters has no separate budget for its media department. It doesn't run a round-the-clock phone exchange, and getting it to divulge phone numbers of party leaders and state units is akin to pulling the teeth of a not-so-cheerful grizzly. Its website exists purely as a matter of record. "Nor do we have ostensibly anonymous sites, like our rivals do, to attack the BJP," says a media department functionary. The party office does not stock Congress literature; even Pranab Mukherjee's definitive two-volume History of the Congress is not available on the premises.
The party which started off with three major newspapers in English, Hindi and Urdu has now been reduced to publishing a shoddy monthly magazine, Congress Sandesh. Compare this with BJP Today which has a healthier circulation and is more slickly produced. The Congress did make an effort to bring out a house magazine during Rajiv Gandhi's time, with a purported circulation of 70 lakh. The more funds it swallowed, the more indigestible readers found it. The National Herald, Quami Awaz and Navjeewan, boasting a galaxy of eminent editors like Chelapathy Rao, Hayatullah Ansari and Ismat Ali Siddiqui, have all died a natural death.
Interestingly, what keeps the BJP machine ticking is its younger crop of leaders. As BJP general-secretary Pramod Mahajan puts it, "The main advantage the BJP has over the Congress is in the quality of second-rung leaders. Ever since the '80s, there has been a deliberate policy to project younger leaders like me. Atalji encouraged this while Advani actively groomed an entire generation of BJP leaders." And this generation which cut its political teeth in the '90s, Mahajan points out, is very media-savvy. "The media gets good copy and one-liners from BJP leaders. So, they give us a lot of space. Unlike Congressmen, BJP leaders have understood the electronic media. In fact, I believe that some BJP leaders are better than the TV anchors interviewing them," he says.
Indeed, there's been a deliberate policy in the BJP to give its promising leaders media exposure. At some time or another, all prominent faces of the BJP have been made chief party spokesperson or general-secretary in charge of the press. This includes Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Pramod Mahajan and Narendra Modi, who was handling the press at Delhi before he was sent off to Gujarat as chief minister. Says party president Venkaiah Naidu, himself highly accessible to the media, "As a cadre-based party, we do things in a systematic way. And today we realise the importance of catchy phrases and slogans and reaching out to the media."
Even as the BJP has stepped up its interface with the media, the number of Congress press briefings has declined from five or six a week to two or three. The media committee meets from 10 am to 11.30 am to decide what the press will be told at 4 pm, subject to the approval of party president Sonia Gandhi. As a result, it rarely reacts to events that have taken place during the day, be it a Supreme Court ruling or a provocative remark by the BJP president, until a couple of days later. "Wary of sticking their necks out, even CWC members waffle and wait for the president's clearance before saying anything," admits a media committee member.
The Congress president's inaccessibility is by now the stuff of legend. Not only is Sonia Gandhi not readily available to her PCC presidents, most often her spokespeople are not "in the loop". She is perhaps the only leader of Opposition to have shunned the media. Curiously, when she first joined politics, she seemed well aware of the importance of a party-media interface. Her very first move was to set up a media committee under the chairmanship of Najma Heptullah. Yet, its communication machinery is less potent than it was 10 years ago.
Congressmen admit that the managerial aspects of running the party headquarters could do with greater attention. But any effort at modernisation has to contend with the old guard. Some aicc employees have been around since Independence. "It's like a trade union. We can't pension off a fossilised staffer or hire a new steno," moans an aicc functionary. At the root of the problem is the fact that after 50 years of being in power and having access to government propaganda machinery, the Congress still can't get used to developing its own.
Yet, of late, the Congress has thrown up new leaders, who have never shared in the spoils of office and aren't burdened with a sarkari mindset. These youngsters are pushing for changes, which are slowly becoming visible. "Better late than never. We have a state-of-the-art communications centre. We're publishing directories. We're putting up a website in a fortnight, which will be updated half-hourly," promises aicc media secretary Tom Vadakkan, who redesigned the aicc conference hall to make it TV-friendly.
The Congress has no lack of erudite communicators, many of whom write prolifically in newspapers and magazines. But they write as individuals, not as party ideologues, in stark contrast to the BJP or the Left stable of writers who consciously put across their respective parties' point of view. No effort is made to make the leaders TV-friendly or even to use the best available talent.
However, while one gives credit to the BJP's propaganda machine, there's no denying that unlike Congressmen, some BJP leaders remain ultra-sensitive to criticism. That is why the party has worked hard at creating its own coterie in the media. Journalists considered "ideologically friendly" get special treatment at BJP meetings and conclaves. And since coming to power, several BJP leaders and ministers like Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, Shahnawaz Hussain, Uma Bharati, Vijay Goel and Rajiv Pratap Rudy have actually rewarded such scribes with jobs. But the original author of this 'reward' policy is deputy PM L.K. Advani. The list of senior journalists who pledge loyalty to the BJP ideology in general and the DPM in particular is long. Many of them have been rewarded with Rajya Sabha berths, while others are still waiting in queue for an opening. This policy has certainly worked in creating a core group of media loyalists.
One might argue that the BJP has the advantage of being in power while the Congress simply cannot come to terms with the idea of being past its glory days at the Centre. So the brash new entrant on the political stage is often able to get the better of the grand old party. And if this scenario has to change, then the Congress will have to reinvent itself.
Saba Naqvi Bhaumik And Bhavdeep Kang