Why can’t the Congress party ask people to do things from their balconies?
It could start a counter-movement by asking people to, say, wear black clothes and record videos from their balconies, asking Prime Minister Narendra Modi why he allowed the export of protective gear for doctors till as recently as 19 March.
The Congress has been highlighting this issue, as also the lack of testing, delay in the Modi government’s preparedness for Covid-19, and the hardship faced by the people due to the poorly planned 21-day lockdown.
It would be incredibly powerful if social media was flooded one evening, with even a few hundred videos of citizens asking these questions wearing black clothes or black bands in protest. Doing something like this would be the obvious counter-campaign to what Modi has been doing. Question is, why do the most obvious ideas not strike our opposition parties?
Why does the Samajwadi Party not do a hand-washing challenge on social media, just like the one the BJP did, one leader tagging five more to post videos showing how to wash away the wretched coronavirus?
Why doesn’t Uddhav Thackeray ask the people of Maharashtra to clap from their doorsteps at 8 pm to honour health workers?
A lost legacy
Modi’s tricks have long been obvious. He keeps doing them again and again. It is also clear that they help him stay popular even when he is unable to perform on governance. It is clear that these gimmicks are powerful enough to make people forget that demonetisation failed and the economy has been going downhill ever since Modi became the prime minister.
This is the point at which self-righteous ideological people will say the opposition should not be copying Modi because of secularism. But Modi also drinks water. Should secularists stop drinking water?
Then they might say the opposition should come up with original ideas. Guess what? These ideas aren’t Modi’s original ideas. He’s also clearly been inspired because these ideas have been around for decades.
Just like Modi asks people to do things, there was once a Congress leader who used to ask people to do things. His name was M.K. Gandhi. He used to ask people to burn foreign cloth or spin the charkha to make clothes at home or join him in making salt on the Gujarat coast. That even the Congress doesn’t remember Gandhian campaign methods speaks of a lost legacy within the party.
The greatest amplifiers of a politician’s voice are the people. The relationship between political leaders and the masses is like the relationship between stage performers and the audience. The audience applause, laughter, boos, jeers, sighs, are all part of the theatrical experience.
The unwillingness and the inability of opposition parties to understand Modi’s campaign methods is reflective of their own disconnect with mass politics.
Give the people a task
“I don’t have any problem with Modi ji,” said stand-up comic Abhijit Ganguly in a sketch, “but he keeps giving a lot of work.”
Narendra Modi has been asking people to do things even before he became prime minister.
When he became prime minister, he asked people to help clean the streets.
He asks people to do yoga, and to do it like an event on Yoga Day.
He has asked people to change currency notes and adapt to a new taxation system, link their Aadhaar cards to everything and voluntarily give up their LPG subsidy if they don’t need it.
He has asked people to prefix ‘Chowkidar’ to their names on social media, to download the NaMo app, buy NaMo merchandise, and so on.
Modi is always asking people to do things because it is a more effective form of political communication. It’s like the difference between a lecture and a workshop. It’s like the difference between seeing a product on TV and actually experiencing how the product works in a showroom.
Not many people sit through a speech with full attention. Give them a small task and they might do it. Ask them to post a video of them doing exercise as Modi once did, or a selfie to support a cause, and you’ll be surprised to see the number of people willing to do it.
There’s a term for it in the corporate world: prosumers, or people who are not just passive consumers of the product but also help shape and define the product. For instance, children’s toy company Lego crowdsourcing its next design.
By now, the idea of giving people actionable tasks involving props (jhadu, diya, chai, farming tools, etc.) is old and obvious. These ideas work in rallying people around Modi in the same way that rituals unite societies.
We know the power of this idea: props make ideas tangible, people’s participation makes them invested in Modi’s cause, and thus less receptive to criticism against Modi.
People don’t want to acknowledge the failure of such ideas because they were all part of its execution. It would be like admitting one’s own failure.
These participative campaigns help shift the goalposts: success is not how the government is addressing shortage of medical equipment and paraphernalia, but how many people lit candles.
If you are an observer of Indian politics, all of this is old hat by now. We know the power of the nudge, we know the behavioural science logic behind these ideas. This viral Instagram post describes it well:
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And Modi is not the only one to use these campaign methods, though he may be using them the most often. The Aam Aadmi Party’s odd-even car rationing scheme was on similar lines.
My favourite example is from a decade ago. In 2009, a vigilante group attacked women at a pub in Mangalore, a few activists in Delhi asked people across India to send pink panties to the vigilante group by courier. Thousands of people happily did so, even posting selfies on Facebook with the pink panties they were about to courier. It was called the “Pink Chaddi Campaign”.
Ideology vs theatre
Branding experts worry about brand authenticity. The moment a brand comes across as inauthentic, it loses its value. But since authenticity is a subjective thing, brands also have to adapt and change with times, take to new marketing and advertising campaigns. There’s a tension between what the brand is and its need to sell the product to consumers whose demographic and tastes keep changing.
One management theorist, Michael Beverland, has defined this tension as the tension between “being and doing” and has proposed that managing this tension is key to growing a brand while keeping it real.
This theory has been adapted to politics by Abhijit Prasad, a branding expert, who tells me the political equivalent is ‘Ideology versus Theatre’.
Ideology is a political party’s identity, and it gets the core vote. It is the theatrics that gets the swing vote. The two need a balance. If a party tilts too heavily in favour of either ideology or theatre, it will lose out. Modi maintains this fine balance.
Our opposition parties — most of them — lack ideological conviction and are unwilling to do theatre. Some leaders and intellectuals think ideology alone is enough, they shouldn’t have to do the theatre. They should listen to Shakespeare: all the world’s a stage, and all the women and men merely players.
Modi plays his part. The opposition sits back and says, oh what a bad actor.
Views are personal.