Social media has acquired a well-deserved reputation as the site of unseemly behaviour that includes outlandish views, slander, abuse and even rape and death threats. Yet, before the baby is thrown out with the bathwater, it is instructive to look at social media as a platform for news that never finds place in either the relatively sober print media or the shrill TV channels.
Over the past three weeks or so, functionaries of the ruling BJP have been posting photographs of quiet and (mostly) unpublicised meetings with notables at their homes. Billed as the sampark se samarthan (support through contact/relationship), this has involved party president Amit Shah, Union ministers and state functionaries briefing prominent individuals all over the country about the performance of the Narendra Modi government.
As a dignified way of building political support with an eye on the 2019 general election, the initiative is welcome. Over the past few decades, as constituency size has grown unmanageably, voters have often complained that politics and politicians have become too detached from the concerns of daily life. Most Indian voters have not met the people they elect and don’t always have a three-dimensional view of those they elect or reject. Their perceptions are often moulded by the media (not always objective) and chatter (which is invariably mendacious). As a way of restoring the human touch of democracy and simultaneously sensitising political workers of individual (as distinct from collective) concerns, this initiative is laudable.
In the case of the BJP, however, there is another interesting angle. There is a strong perception in the entire saffron fraternity that its public image has been disfigured by the biases of an organised intellectual class that, in turn, moulds the media narrative. The intellectual-media nexus also shapes the projection of the Modi government overseas because, in India at least, the foreign media mirrors the local English-language media. Apart from Kashmiri separatists, human rights and NGO activists and a small clutch of English-speaking politicians, the primary contact of foreign journalists are Indian journalists. The saffron ecosystem finds no place in this incestuous world.
For a long time — and much of the previous four years — the Modi government paid little heed to this rising tide of negativism. After all, the battle in 2014 had been won despite the organised hostility of intellectuals and other so-called opinion makers. However, with the Opposition pooling all its resources for a concerted anti-Modi offensive, it is now clear that the government cannot afford to leave anything to chance. The only way it can renew its mandate is by maximising votes through an extraordinarily high turnout. All fence sitters will have to be roped in.
Countering the influence of an organised body of well-networked intellectuals who can be called upon to either pen articles, give TV bites and sign yet another protest petition at very short notice is daunting. All right-wing and conservative movements throughout the world have been objects of intellectual derision and labelled the ‘stupid’ party and even the ‘nasty’ party. This is compounded by the growing hostility of humanities and social science departments to anything not remotely deemed ‘progressive’. Earlier this month in an article in Sunday Times (London), historian Niall Ferguson admitted his failure to secure a measure of “intellectual diversity” in Stanford University. He could just as well have written about India where Hindu religiosity is also deemed non-kosher.
In his autobiography, Tony Blair made a distinction between ‘activists’ and ‘ordinary people’. In the US, the ‘silent majority’ was galvanised by Republicans to force back the tide of radicalism and counter-culture. Can a programme aimed at creating goodwill among people who are well-regarded locally and have achieved success in their personal and professional lives be a counter to noisy intellectuals? These people may not have written books, spoken at literature festivals and, at best, may have served as functionaries of insignificant local clubs. But if their value systems are governed by common decencies such as paying fair taxes, abhorring corruption and cronyism, promoting efficiency in public life and upholding national honour, they will realise the importance of decisive leadership and political stability.
Modi already has a fan following among the youth based on soaring aspirations and enhanced opportunities. Poll data also shows his growing support among women who have benefitted from his emphasis on toilets and cooking gas. Now he needs to galvanise the middle class and even the middle aged. In short, those who have a decisive stake in India’s progress. This election must also offer a choice of competing value systems.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.