March 2022 brought with it yet another ‘against all odds’ win for the BJP in 4 out of 5 state elections, including the monster win in Uttar Pradesh. This time around, opposition supporters were betting on big BJP losses in the high-octane electoral battle given how badly the central and various BJP state governments handled the COVID-19 crisis, especially wave 2 in 2021. Expectations of a BJP rout every year were driven more by wishful thinking but 4/5 against all odds was truly remarkable.
The list of reasons why BJP wins is long: national security concerns, social welfare schemes, reformist image, anti-corruption stance…more propaganda and downright gas but valid issues that resonate. And then there’s money power, of course. Plus there’s the opposition’s own listlessness with its “Modi is terrible and we are Modi’s alternative” narrative, which tells the voter what they are not for but doesn’t tell them what they are for. Yet, maintaining the narrative for over 8 years has to have a framework behind it. Here’s a thought (or rather, 1 thought for each of the last 8 years) on what has kept voters enamoured of the BJP and more specifically Modi:
1. Build & Maintain Association:
Take 2 otherwise unrelated or loosely related concepts, one that people believe in (say, ‘corruption is India’s biggest problem’) and one that BJP wants voters to believe in (‘Congress is entirely and thoroughly corrupt’). Cement the association with regular application of narrative even long after you assume power.
Create symbols of change that pass off as unshackling, reform, and progress. This includes strategic symbols such as the Central Vista project, tactical ones such as Statue of Unity and even the Ayodhya temple as a symbol of deliverance from the decades-long Babri dispute, and even micro-tactical ones wherein the most inane of developments is played up and usurped as a personal achievement of BJP or Modi.
3. Rhetoric (+ve & -ve)
Build support for itself and its ideas by associating them with positive words like clean, secure, growth, development, inclusiveness, etc. and Congress/opposition with negative words like dynast, corrupt, slow, etc. The key here is constant repetition and reinforcement such that if a shrink were to ask you, “what’s the first word that comes to your mind when I say Congress/BJP?”, your instinctive and automatic response will be “corrupt/clean”.
4. Keeping it vague
When talking about opponents, use appropriately vague terms that cannot be pinned down or validated such as Tukde Tukde Gang, Urban Naxals, etc.
The vagueness is just as valid when talking about yourself, the best example of which is ‘Acche Din’.
Appeal to people’s aspirations and they will support you even with nothing in sight for 8 long years. Why? Because delivery has indeed been so pathetic that a wait that lasts a generation or 2 is acceptable as long as there is promise. Modi does not have to deliver an LPG connection or a functional toilet to every household to remain popular. In fact, the hedonic treadmill effect means that he SHOULD NOT deliver too well on it. Far more effective to ensure 1/10 households gets a connection – the other 9 will support the BJP in the aspiration that they will score one day. If Congress was about reform by stealth then Modi is about popularity by slow trickles.
Use known faces to make your message palatable. Bollywood celebrities, sportspersons, artists, media persons…anyone with a following and a conscience for hire should be used fully, visibly, and continually. This makes it imperative for Modi to physically associate himself with literally every achievement.
A recent example: it wasn’t enough that Modi wanted himself to be seen with the Thomas Cup winning team. The badminton players just had to say they were “proud that they have the backing of our Prime Minister” (presumably this too “never happened for 70 years”). While you’re at it, also vilify those who are not pliant.
Modi has created an invaluable association with common folk through an emphasis on the poverty his family suffered, his need to start working at an early age as a chaiwala, OBC status, lack of spit n’ polish and advanced education, etc (much of it less real, more imagined). When they see him hobnobbing with world leaders (who apparently revere him 🙄) vicarious pride starts playing up.
8. Belonging & Identification
People have an innate desire to belong, to have common purpose. Show people they are participating in nation-building/growth by supporting the BJP. Understand this with the context that you are giving common purpose to a people who’ve done next to nothing in civic life till now. Network effects do the rest. More on belonging and identification at https://fiscalujval.in/2016/06/16/belonging-and-identification/
RESULT: The collective weight of this narrative setting means “Game, Set, Match, and Championship Mr. Narendra ‘Teflon’ Modi” despite propagating ‘Hindu khatre mein hain’, ‘desh sankat mein hain’, etc. while ruling with an absolute majority since 8 long years, not to mentioned unmitigated and undisputed disasters like DeMo (https://fiscalujval.in/2016/11/16/demonetization-wrong-panacea-for-the-wrong-disease/), botched GST rollout, COVID-19 mismanagement (https://caravanmagazine.in/health/four-men-covid-response), exacerbating already extreme income inequality, and so much else 🤷🏻♂️.
The clincher lies neither in any of the above factors or even a combination of them all. It lies in the mental association: each of the above goes towards creating a belief system in the BJP voter’s mind. A carefully, deliberately, and (to the voter’s mind) rationally built belief system in which this voter has not only invested time but has also propagated aggressively. How does such a voter then acknowledge that this belief system was built on fraud? An impossibility exacerbated by the fact that now this belief system is mixed up with personal identity (in part thanks to BJP critics who have forced BJP supporters into binaries). Thus, an attack on this belief system is an attack on the identity itself, which reinforces the bond with the BJP even in the face of personal loss, economic hardship, and more.
Short of a major exposé that leads to a mass rethink, detaching this belief system from the person’s identity is going to be a tough task and till that happens, don’t hold your breath on a BJP stumble.