2019 is nigh and it will be raining dead cats from the Modi campaign.
Presuming that the 2019 Lok Sabha elections will be held on the same dates as 2014, the last day of campaigning will be 10 May 2019. That’s 292 days away.
To make any significant impact this election, Rahul Gandhi needs to put 292 dead cats on the table.
When you put a dead cat on the table, no one can ignore it. Everyone will talk about it. In the process, you have succeeded in making sure people don’t talk about what they planned to.
Also known as deadcatting, it is a strategy in business and politics, used most famously by Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby. In the words of British politician Boris Johnson, one of Crosby’s clients, “There is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table – and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’”
Rahul’s hug, even his wink, was a dead cat on the table. Without the hug, the headline would have been ‘Modi wins trust vote’. People would have been talking about how poor the opposition numbers looked, how opposition unity is still a chimera, and how Modi gave another bombastic speech on the historical wrongs of the Congress party.
Rahul’s hug-and-wink changed the conversation. All opposition politicians who complain that a biased media doesn’t give them space should note that even the most pro-Modi media outlets could not ignore the Rahul hug. They may have trashed it but they could not ignore it.
Any publicity is good publicity
The Hindi proverb “Badnaam hi huay tou kya, naam tou hua” comes to mind. Politicians like Narendra Modi and Donald Trump win even when they lose because they always occupy your mind-space. Whether Modi does right or wrong, whether he fails or succeeds, whether he goes to Uganda or Uttarakhand, whether he’s in Parliament or inside the NaMo app, he’s always occupying your attention.
As the 2019 election approaches, there will scarcely be a space where you won’t find a Modi poster. In the post-Modi era, elections are about occupying mind-space more than delivering any development. This is what partly explains the power of Brand Modi to win elections for the BJP despite its failures. The BJP should not have won Uttar Pradesh after the failure of demonetisation was clear, it should not have won Gujarat after the troubles caused by the hasty implementation of GST, and it should not have emerged as the single-largest party in Karnataka with a discredited Yeddyurappa as the local face.
But Modi makes sure you always think of Modi more than you think about GST, demonetisation or the BJP’s uninspiring local leaders.
The Salman Khan Eid release
What was that fitness challenge about? Everybody’s asking what happened to ‘Acche Din’, and Modi is asking celebrities to post fitness videos on Twitter. How does that make any sense?
Modi posts his own exercise video for which he gets ridiculed endlessly on social media. A million memes make fun of the Prime Minister’s fitness regime. Yet these memes only help Modi because they make sure you think only Modi, Modi, Modi.
Just think of all the terrible Bollywood movies we watch just because the producers carpet-bombed us with pre-release publicity. Not watching the film would then make us feel like we missed something. It is the success of the Bollywood publicity machine that people often say they went to see the film with low expectations. If you didn’t expect it to be worthy of your time why did you go for it?
Modi, then, is the political equivalent of the Salman Khan Eid release.
Attention over merit
In his book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads, Tim Wu writes how we live in an attention economy. Such is the scramble among attention merchants to get inside our heads that grabbing attention alone can make people win. The last chapter in Wu’s book is on Trump. He writes, “History shows that dominating mindshare is a classic strategy of influence, because the sheer volume of messaging allows the leader to drown out alternatives, transform minds and begin changing the rules of the game itself.”
Wu draws a distinction between “attentional contests” and the “contests based in merit”. In the case of Trump, as in the case of Modi, you can’t win just because you are right, or better. You have to win the attentional contest. Merit doesn’t matter.
That is why one hug and wink can’t do it. Over the next nine months, Modi will put one dead cat on the table after another. He will make us talk about what he wants us to talk about. He will make sure that his supporters, his critics and the fence-sitters talk about Modi, Modi and only Modi.
One hug and one wink won’t do it for Rahul. He needs his own 292 dead cats on the table.