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.
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.
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?
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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