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The opposition in India has a ‘distribution’ problem

It doesn’t matter what the opposition says, because voters don’t get to know their ideas anyway.

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Content is king, but distribution is god.

Websites would collapse without the popular means of distribution, such as Google or social media networks. The number of people who visit a content website on their own, by just typing in the URL, is a small minority. You are probably reading this article through one such distribution mechanism. The most critical leg of the newspaper industry is the distributor. When Arnab Goswami quit Times Now to start his own channel, people thought Times Now might collapse. But the poor cousin of Republic TV continues to do well not so much because it is competitive in its hate-mongering but because the Times Group has deep pockets to spend on the distribution game.

This saying about media — distribution is god — applies to all communication, including political communication. Much of the debate on Indian politics is about content: Modi says this, Modi goofed up on that, Amit Shah is contradicting himself, Rahul Gandhi should adopt this strategy, Tejashwi Yadav is taking this position, and so on. But perhaps we have been over-emphasising who-says-what and who-did-what. The bigger problem today is that the delivery pipes of political communication are all dominated by only one party and one leader.

Critics like yours truly have been calling out India’s opposition parties for not doing their job well. But when you speak to the opposition leaders, they argue, ‘We say and do a lot of things but the media doesn’t show them’. One Congress leader told me, “We are talking on a certain plane and the voter is on a different one. It is two different conversations.” It is not so much a disconnect as a dissonance.

Also read: From catch-all to catch-none party, it’s still not too late for Congress

Controlling the distribution networks

The means of distribution of political content in India have to be seen in their diversity: TV news, newspapers, websites and social media platforms, semi-private messenger services like WhatsApp, party workers, non-party workers like RSS pracharaks and paid volunteers, government events and advertising.

The exclusive monopoly of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over all these means of distribution explains a lot about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s success. It explains why Modi has a Teflon coating. Nothing sticks to him because the mud the opposition throws at him doesn’t get seen by the voter. A farmer in Unnao near Lucknow once told me, “I want to know what the opposition has to say but the media doesn’t show it.”

Modi’s complete domination of the communication pipelines tells you why public opinion doesn’t turn against him no matter what. The failure of demonetisation, a structural slowdown of the economy that has become a crisis, the failure of most marketing gimmicks like Make in India, the historically high unemployment rate, rising intolerance and communal hate, international criticism, and so on. Nothing affects him or his image.

It also partly explains why Modi, Shah and the BJP can get away with lies and frequent contradictions. Amit Shah can go around linking the CAA to the NRC, explaining the ‘chronology’ for months, and then do a complete turnaround after a backlash by saying there’s no link, that it’s just opposition propaganda — and there are no political ramifications. He can get away with it because the voter can’t see anyone call him out on this contradiction. Those doing so are limited to an echo chamber of their own, a very small one.

Also read: You can’t cancel Modi, RSS: Why US-style identity politics won’t help Indian liberals’ fight

Building your own ecosystem

The opposition has learnt to tweet but that’s about it. The distribution networks don’t exist. They can blame the media and go to sleep or they can start building their own distribution networks from scratch. Better late than never. Mahatma Gandhi didn’t just give up because the press was owned, controlled and dominated by the British. He started his own journals, editing and publishing them. “Satyagraha would probably have been impossible without Indian Opinion,” he said of the journal he published.

In 1938, Jawaharlal Nehru launched a newspaper called National Herald. Its tagline read, “Freedom is in peril, defend it with all your might.”

If you look at the 10 years of the Congress-led UPA, did they do anything to create their own sustainable networks of distribution of content? In 2008, the neglected National Herald shut down. It was revived recently, more as a website than a paper. It is a fairly vibrant and engaging website, and does not read like a party press release. But how will it reach the people?

Also read: The Left is dead, but India deserves a new Left that dares to think afresh

What’s stopping the opposition?

The opposition could say it doesn’t have an RSS. There’s a case to be made that the role of the RSS is widely exaggerated. The BJP itself has a large number of workers. Why didn’t parties like the Congress use their years in power to build a more robust cadre? Why can’t they do it now? Through campaigns and agitations, and by giving cadre-building tasks to ticket seekers, a large cadre can be built. That’s how Jaganmohan Reddy built the YSR Congress Party organisation from scratch in Andhra Pradesh (with help from election strategist Prashant Kishor) and won the chief minister’s post.

It is not enough to add more people to your party; they have to be constantly given tasks, and motivation to accomplish those tasks. They have to be told to go door to door and get signatures on a campaign or to add all their neighbours on a WhatsApp group.

Building the party organisation is a very tough and demanding thing to do, but technology can help India’s opposition parties reach out to the voters without the (valuable) human interface. The opposition can argue that TV news has all been co-opted by the Modi ecosystem but the BJP isn’t preventing the opposition from building and maintaining a few million WhatsApp groups of its own.

The key here is scale. The BJP likely has many more WhatsApp groups under its influence than the entire opposition put together. When you meet an opposition politician, ask them how many WhatsApp groups do they have under their influence and in which areas. If they don’t have the answer on their fingertips, they are not serious about politics.

The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.

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  1. The market is sucking and here you are sucking even more. Non cooperative, argumentative and unhygienic Indians will seldom be otherwise on any issue.

  2. one day the truth will prevail and history will not be kind to the Goebbelian lies propagated by the godi media. dhiyo yo naḥ prachodayāt!

  3. Congies got a long bamboo in their a**e today when Scindia joined BJP and all these chaprasis got flared up. these Gandhis are a bunch of theives and they should be in prison along with their chamchas. Rajdeep is another chaprashi who was almost saved from getting thrashed in USA. Barkha has gone into hibernation. Most of these Congie journos used to get many leftovers from the ruling family then, a flat somewhere in Delhi, some cash and free flights to the western capitals. That has stopped and all these monkeys are now up in arms. Bugger off.

  4. PRINT and many other newspapers have become Congies spokesperson. So has NDTV and their leftie sickular brigade. Add to that the help they are getting from the Pakis. Congress is unhappy for the last six years they could not loot the country.

  5. Lol, “hate-mongering” is what you at ThePrint is doing. TheWire is a lost case. I am wondering why the government has not taken any action against these “fake-opinion as news” organisations, especially TheWire, Caravan, etc.

    We are fed up of “This is your daily reminder that RSS-BJP is fascist” crap opinions.

  6. Even today 80% of the media is Left-Liberal. They only support the Congress and constantly engage in Modi-bashing and Hindu-bashing. Shivam Vij is underestimating the intelligence of the audience.

  7. They have people like you in their pay rolls? Are you guys not doing the job properly for the money you are getting?

  8. Congress always rewards loyalty to “Family ” .It has loyal batch of old tribe of journalists to to do “family-worship ” day in day out. The author of the article is also well known family retainer. So when Supreme command is well served by a old grateful tribe of past beneficiaries of their regime, where is need to search for or promote new leaders, new journalists, new channels of media or new ideas. The party is moving towards its destined journey — journey towards extinction. Do not be emotional on it. Every organism, every organization comes to its end and is replaced by more potent and advanced organism or organization, This law is forcefully applied by mother nature. After 2029 the party will find its mention only in history books. Start and keep on collecting historical material for writing books like ” once upon a time there was Congress ” or ” Congress – journey towards entropy “.

  9. The writers pain and frustration is understandable. He is constantly abusing and spreading lies about the BJP, RSS, Hindus, giving so many ideas to the opposition but still Modi’s popularity remains intact. This will continue to happen till these Congress doormats in the media stop their unjust criticism of Modi. In one voice the Lutyens gang is saying demo was bad. But the common man clearly doesn’t say so. In fact he has supported demo in the larger interest of cleaning the economy of unaccounted cash. The media will not speak about the crores and crores of cash, rendered useless, found in lakes, dustbins around the country. So this demo is bad rants are completely off the mark or deliberately so. Secondly one important factor the media misses out is that it does not realise that in the eyes of the electorate Modi is totally non corrupt, he has no bagge of greedy relatives like the Gandhi family has. He does not steal the nation’s wealth like the Congress did for more than 60 years right from Nehru. And the common man likes a head of the country who doesn’t loot left, right and centre but utilizes the resources for building India’s infrastructure and running many welfare programmes. So a Modi government building toilets, giving cooking gas cylinders to the poor, electricity to the remotest corner in India, life insurance for every household, IBC, article 370, recognising unknown people who are achievers in their respective fields but not reported by a corrupt media, with Padma awards which earlier were always given to the sidekicks of Sonia and Rahul….etc the list is endless. All this is a pointer of honesty and we’ll meaning intentions of the PM. The common man evaluates the ruler on all parameters and Modi, of all PM has been baptised by fire. He is there in spite of the lies being spread by the media because people know and trust him to keep our country’s interest at the top and also know that he works 18 hours a day without any other activities except for the country. Now Shivam Vij should enlighten the readers which opposition including his master’s Sonia Rahul have these qualities ? None. The opposition leaders are busy only with 2 things when in power, looting the exchequer with scams, enriching themselves and their near ones and otherwise spreading communal poison. The thory of congress not present much in media is bogus and figment of imagination of the author. Even today there are media houses and journos who blindly defend the Gandhi family, this author included. The author is a fool if he thinks that people are not aware of these things and that everything they throw at readers has to be construed as gospel truth.

  10. Shivam Vij, who told opposition party have no Distribution Network to distribute their Political contents? ND TV,India To-day, Aaj Thak etc ,social medias like The Wire,The Print,Firstpost,National Herald etc,The Hindu,Indian Express,Deccan Herald, Caravan etc carry at least 3-4 articles per day,reappear the same articles in different social medias,News Paper,Yahoo,Rediff etc Shivam Vij should remember that People are intelligent to brand Distribution Network by reading hate-Modi articles as “Anti-Modi Lobby” & ignore them as biased. So People stop going to these branded social medias,TV Channels & News Papers as they know what content in Article which nothing but spewing venom called Modi hate.. You pointed out many failure of Modi Rule but never mentioned good achievements of Modi Rule which shows how much you & score of Journalists express their hatrate against Modi. Be fair in write-up & People will read articles. Why Times Now or The Republic TV have more audience & why ND TV has no audience? I doubt even Congis watch ND TV & so many social medias devoted in hate-Modi campaign. I do not know whether The print will Publish my views.

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