The committees which cobbled together the BJP’s advertising campaign got one fundamental proposition right: anger is a formidable weapon, but rage is counterproductive. There is a fine but defining line between raising your voice and losing your balance. And sometimes satire works far better than a scream.
This is the first time that a national party’s campaign has stepped into that erogenous zone of politics called wit. Two advertisements are based on a frightened man and woman, embodying corruption and rising prices, getting ready to leave India in a hurry because Narendra Modi is on his way to Delhi. Neat. Humour is infectious, as any troll through internet or mobile messages proves. In that ancient, pre-mobile era, Marxists used to do wall-scale cartoons quite well. But then the Election Commission cleaned up campaigns [literally] and the red cartoon whimpered out of existence.
Modi’s advantage is that his message is uncluttered: Atrocious governance by UPA has made change a national necessity, and he is the change. Any ally who wants to join the growing queue behind him has to sign on this dotted line.
Laughter is therapeutic, for it adds some calm to the prescriptive remedy. Governments can survive street violence, but not the merciless evisceration of teashop laughter. A joke is crisp, and distils the essence of a message far more effectively than any sermon. Homilies send voters into snore-land.
Modi’s advantage is that his message is uncluttered: Atrocious governance by UPA has made change a national necessity, and he is the change. Any ally who wants to join the growing queue behind him has to sign on this dotted line. His competitors are either weak, like Rahul Gandhi; isolated, like Nitish Kumar; or tentative, like the three regional satraps Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalithaa and Mayawati. Congress is spending at least Rs 750 crore to project Rahul Gandhi, but is afraid of clarity because it is uncertain about its leader’s credentials for the toughest job in public life. You cannot sell a track record that does not exist. Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalithaa and Mayawati are not even ready to contest this election to the Lok Sabha personally.
This does not technically rule them out from the egg-and-teaspoon race for PM. You can always become an MP within six months of being sworn in. P.V. Narasimha Rao was not in Parliament when he became destiny’s favourite in 1991. But the three ladies are also realists when outside camera range. Modi, in contrast, is contesting from Varanasi in addition to Gujarat because he wants to maximise electoral enthusiasm along the critical Ganga-Jamuna war zone.
All warfare has one unmentionable dimension: the casualty list from friendly fire. Such self-inflicted injuries are heaviest during ticket distribution, when the scramble for command positions is most intense.
Wounds generate headlines. Elections are a complicated contest at every level, and no armour has been devised which can fully protect an ego. But friendly fire should not be confused with the departure of generals who bristle with medals during every parade, but lose their nerve on the eve of battle, as in the case of P. Chidambaram. He is hardly the only Congress heavyweight reluctant to face the electorate.
But once conflict begins in earnest, these episodes will drift out of sight, and out of mind.
With nerves as taut as they become during elections, it is only human that even superstars should seek a safe seat. What they are really looking for is a safe environment, and that is determined by factors different from individual ability, or its absence. Democracy is an uncertain project; that is its beauty, and its strength. When the mood changes, an Indira Gandhi can lose from Rae Bareli, as she did in 1977. Even astute veterans can misread ground-level reverberations. In 2009, Lalu Yadav thought that he had lost from Saran after polling day, and rushed to Pataliputra to buy insurance. As it turned out, he won Saran and lost Pataliputra.
Something unusual is happening below surface shenanigans when the BJP vote is climbing to Congress levels in a state like Tamil Nadu, and has not peaked. Irrespective of who wins how many seats, one fact is crystal clear across the country: the Modi vote is rising, while Congress is suffering from deflation. AAP was promoted as the final spoiler against Modi, but is becoming reminiscent of Dr Frankenstein’s machine, which turned upon its maker. If Muslims turn towards AAP, the Congress crumble will become a rout. Congress candidates are already finding out that they cannot take Muslim support for granted.
Some of AAP’s credibility has been consumed by the rage of Arvind Kejriwal. But the problem is a little more nuanced. There is no party other than Congress which can be an alternative magnet for a non-BJP coalition. AAP cannot become Congress overnight; and Kejriwal’s mercurial tactics smell of the one thing that voters do not want in 2014, instability.
The best thing about laughter at election time is that the voter always has the last laugh.