Tuesday, September 13, 2011

First Advani, now Modi…..BJP attempts to change its colors

First Advani proposed a ridiculous anti-corruption yatra. Now Modi is proposing to go on a 3-day fast for communal harmony and peace! What’s going on in the BJP? Is the tiger changing its stripes? Is the BJP “reaching out” to sections of society that don’t wear extreme Hinduism on their sleeves? Well….Modi may want to keep some basic lessons from marketing in mind before he makes these attempts.

After I wrote my post titled “Advani advised to avoid BJP ruled states in his yatra…..” yesterday, I was surprised to see that the Economic Times had also carried something similar about the yatra in its editorial. In private conversations with many, the same points come out. The BJP is hardly in a position to occupy the anti-corruption platform. In a clumsy attempt to grab the goodwill generated for Anna and his movement and against corruption in the country, the BJP was trying to be opportunistic. Much embarrassment came the BJP’s way yesterday when Anna himself – in several TV interviews – refused to support Advani’s yatra. He asked Advani to get the Lok Ayukta Act passed in all BJP ruled states if he was so concerned about corruption. For me…..this distancing of Anna from Advani and the BJP is important. For the first time…..all through his agitation, he continued to pointedly attack the Congress and Congress alone…..Anna had public attempted to show his equidistance from both the Congress and the BJP. For the first time, Anna appeared to see through the games that the BJP was playing. For the first time, Anna appeared to be neutral and apolitical. With Anna openly not supporting Advani’s yatra, I think the worst that could have happened has happened for the yatra – it’s a non-starter.

In the same way, Modi’s attempt at appearing to be secular and non-divisive is a little hard to believe. Here’s a man who has won three elections – all on hardcore divisive communal agendas. I remember this one election-day ad in the papers which appeared to have been released by some Muslim groups urging the Muslim brethren to vote en-masse against the BJP. Obviously, this aroused a solid reverse voting en-masse by the Hindus for the BJP. The commonly accepted view in Gujarat is that the ad was not released by any Muslim party or organization; it was released by Modi himself! Brilliant! He may have been let off the hook (temporarily) by the SC, but he hasn’t been let off the hook by the minority communities (not just Muslims but all minorities) and even by a section of the majority community. Modi understands that his communal policies are self-limiting. They’ve got him this far…..but they will block his progress further. He can be the CM of Gujarat for another 3 terms if he wants to be; but he will never be able to go outside Gujarat. Since he now harbors ambitions of being PM, he is suddenly caught in a bind. His fast is clearly a poll strategy; not a cleansing of the heart.

Newspaper stories on the above two stories (Anna’s TV interviews and Modi’s fast) also bring out several other smaller points worth mentioning here.

For one, Anna finds that there are many people in the government who want to be PM. Like Pranab Mukherjee, Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal. It’s not difficult to understand why Anna feels this way. His own style is fairly dictatorial – his word is the last word – once he’s said something, he cannot back down. It’s difficult for Anna to understand that the cabinet works as a team (at least it should!) and that when these three were deputed by the PM to talk to Anna, it didn’t necessarily make the PM a weak leader. Going on a fast-unto-death may be proof of strength for an activist; for a PM, the strength comes from getting the best out of his team. MMS may be weak for other reasons…..but not because he was represented by three of his cabinet colleagues.

Then there is this praise that Anna lavishes on Indira Gandhi. He said that she worked for the poor. What’s going on here? Is Anna trying to appear so equidistant that he’s willing to openly praise Indira Gandhi – one of the toughest PMs the Congress has produced and the one who brought the emergency into India? Anna’s views on corruption are important, but honeslty…..his views on politics are not.

If Anna is striving so hard to be equidistant, and ask tough questions off Advani and the BJP, then can Kiran Bedi please explain her much publicized statement that it was Advani who called her and reassured her that the JLP will be passed by Parliament? Did Advani really make that call? If he did, then why is Anna not supporting Advani’s yatra as one of his own? If Advani was indeed so concerned about corruption that he reassured Kiran Bedi, then why is the BJP not supporting the JLP bill openly? Why do they always caveats attached to each point? Why is the PM to be included…..but with some caveats (leave out national security etc). Won’t that leave out the Bofors kind of allegations? The center can make one single law for the center and the states….but with caveats (it can only be an indicative bill for the states who may follow it if they agree with it). The Lokpal can investigate openly…..but with caveats (no phone tapping). The judiciary should not be included (but be covered by a separate bill). And so on and so forth. If Advani was so concerned about Anna’s movement, then why did his party not extend open unconditional support to the JLP bill? In reality, I am happy he didn’t because the BJP is right in putting these caveats. The JLP bill is a bill that needs a lot of changes. The point is not that though; the point is that Advani’s call to Kiran Bedi was just political grandstanding…..knowing as his did that the TV-focused Kiran Bedi would generate the required publicity for his phone call. Maybe Anna has now seen through this trickery?

Also, Anna’s call to support “like minded politicians” to form a separate party is akin to JP’s call in 1977 which led to the formation of the Janata Party. In fact, it’s an exact copy of it. We know what happened then. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh – opportunistic as they were even then – dissolved to join the Janata Party. Many other mofussil parties (Bharatiya Lok Dal, Congress(O), Swatantra Party etc) combined to form the Janata Party. Advani and Vajpayee got cushy ministerial posts (Minister of I&B and Minister of External Affairs). Shanti Bhushan becamse the Minister of Law in this government. But then what? The basic ideological differences between all of these parties were so large that they couldn’t stick together for even half their term. The Congress was back to the forefront in less than three years. And with an even bigger margin than it enjoyed earlier. This time around also, maybe Anna’s support will matter to the party that gets formed. But in a few years, the BJP and Congress will be back to center-stage. History is a good teacher and Anna should also learn from it. What he should do is formally join politics and set up his own party based on his core ideals. Maybe some supporters will be disappointed with his entry into politics. But many others will feel happy. In any case, Anna will be able to reform the country in a much more impactful manner if he does this.

One last point about what Modi should learn from the subject of marketing. What he is attempting has the risk of what is called “falling between two stools” in marketing. A brand tries to be this….and that. High on features….and cheap on price. A shampoo tries to remove dandruff…..and also strengthen the hair. There are innumerable examples of brands that fail when they attempt to over-reach. Modi runs the risk of suffering the same fate. His divisive communal stand is the core of what defines him. That’s his core brand proposition. The Hindus feel that Modi will show the Muslims their place. That’s what his supporters support him for. If he attempts to change that basic core, and reach out the Muslims, he will lose the support of his core Hindu supporters. He will fail to enlist the support of the Muslims (because people take decades to forget things)……

The real truth is that there is a war going on out there. Between the Congress and the BJP to appear less corrupt and more virtuous than the other. Between the BJP and Team Anna to stay central to the anti-corruption issue. Between Modi and the other aspirants in the BJP to emerge as the PM candidate. And also within the Congress to cut each other down to size! Yesterday, Sanjay Nirupam (a small fry) ridiculed Digvijay Singh (a much more senior leader) openly on TV. A few days back, Mani Shankar Aiyer spoke openly against Maken’s sports bill. There is a war…..and there is bafoonry. So much entertainment!

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