Can the BJP satisfy its online supporters? If only it were Congress

As I write this, BJP has lost Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan and might even struggle to keep Madhya Pradesh. While Rajasthan results were expected, given that the state has been alternating between BJP and Congress for many elections, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh results were dampening for BJP, even though one can say that it’s not easy to beat anti-incumbency of 15 years.

There will be a hell lot of analysis coming our way in coming days because these results were being seem as ‘semi-final’ for the parliamentary elections due in next 5 months.

There could be analysis if BJP faltered due to agrarian issues, or was it because of PM Modi’s pet projects for rural India not fructifying, or was it because lack of government jobs, or was it because of GST, etc. – such issues can be analysed with some data, though given the kind of media we have, one can expect that there will be no data provided in articles dwelling upon these issues.

Then there would be another round of analysis where basically you don’t need data, or where reliable data may not be available, but you can still argue in a seeming logical manner – e.g. if certain caste factors were at play, or if there was infighting within the party, or candidate selections etc.

And then there is a third type of analysis, where you are free to take a flight of your fancy and peddle anything – rising intolerance, Yogi Adityanath, gau rakshaks, Vikas vs Hindutva, IT cell, and so on. This category is something we all love, and perhaps with hint of irony, this article could fall in this category itself despite my mocking tone for it.

People who are active on Twitter would have been subjected to relentless analysis of this category, but I want to focus on those that were extended by some BJP supporters or the online ‘right wing’. There were all kinds of theories offered, many of them inherently contradictory. For example:

“BJP must focus on core and cultural issues, vikas is taking the party nowhere.”

“BJP focussed too much on pappu’s gotra and such issues, it should have focused on achievements.”

“BJP is not investing in creating ecosystem, look how Congress rewards people.”

“BJP has rewarded people who are incompetent.”

“Only Ram Temple or war with Pakistan can save us now.”

“Forget rhetorical and emotional issues, show some work!”

And so on and so forth.

While we may itch to reject all of them for being mutually contradictory, the truth is that neither each one of them is absolutely correct assessment nor is anything entirely invalid. And there lies a problem of the BJP – of communicating to its own (online) supporters.

Unlike what the ‘liberals’ love to imagine and actually believe in – BJP’s support base, especially online, is far more diverse than any diversity a JNU student group can achieve. This seemingly incoherent analysis by this bunch is reflective of this fact.

What BJP has failed to do is to communicate effectively with various subsets of this bunch. This would have entailed giving customized messages to each subset. Sounds like Cambridge Analytica?

Yes, it indeed sounds like Cambridge Analytica, but this communication strategy, especially in politics, is hardly something that was invented by Cambridge Analytica. In fact, Congress has historically done it so well. They supported and encouraged crony capitalism while their rhetoric cantered around socialism, or as I had written earlier, in Bihar, they were a party of upper castes while Dalits were painted as their ‘natural voters’.

Even in this election, while in Delhi studios and for their fans in Lutyens media, Congress was fighting against obscurantist views around cow and temple, their manifesto promised gaushalas and corridor named after Lord Ram. This parallel messaging is right from the top itself where Rahul Gandhi goes on to side with supporters of Periyar who hate Brahmins and support physical attacks on Bhramins, while being a janeudhari Brahmin of dattatreya gotra.

This is a trick BJP needs to learn. How do you convince a ‘core’ voter that cultural issues are not being abandoned while also push for ‘vikas, and only vikas’ approach.

BJP’s challenge is far greater than Congress due to two reasons – the media and the intelligentsia of this country don’t beat chests over this doublespeak by the Congress, while Congress’ supporters are.. well.. slaves, who don’t question the party at all.

If the party attempts to send mixed signals, before the media, BJP’s supporters itself start questioning the party. For example, take the issue of ‘Charter of Hindu demands’ – which is being championed by a BJP MP and which is like a dream come true for a ‘core’ supporter. However, the first reaction of a supporter is – Why this drama after 4.5 years? If party is serious, why don’t they simply pass this act in parliament? Etc.

It is said that politics is often about perception, and communication is an important part of perception building. Ironically, this was the biggest strength of the party and the Prime Minister Narendra Modi before the 2014 general elections. Somehow this advantage faded.

There was a need to recalibrate the communication after the 2014 victory, especially when it came to communicating to party’s supporters (not party workers, to make it clear). Perhaps even the party made the same mistake about its supporters, especially online supporters, which the opponents make i.e. it took them as homogenous group. It was not. It was never one.

A one to many mode of communication was needed. I don’t really mean it as a post that should have been created, but essentially the party needed respective liaison officers or ambassadors for different groups of supporters. To keep them hopeful that they are being heard, to keep them engaged, to keep them close.

There were some attempts made e.g. to arrange a meeting of online supporters with Prime Minister Modi in 2015 itself, but that got mired in controversies precisely due to the fact that this group was not homogenous. There were accusations that there was favouritism in selecting people, that ‘opportunists’ were invited, and all kinds of accusations. Perhaps the party developed cold feet after that and they didn’t know how to proceed further. That broken link of communication has got only worse over time.

It’s not easy, and I don’t have ready-made solutions, but I am pointing out that what a common BJP supporter can reject a fellow supporter’s grievances as ‘armchair analysis’ or ‘knee jerk reaction’ is reflective of a problem of communication, which was begging attention since long.

The party has got a lot of things to do – galvanising the karyakartas, working with allies, fighting elections, running the government, and so on, and online supporters might not be a top priority for it, but this is a problem that the party shouldn’t ignore, for it doesn’t enjoy the luxury of having supporters like those of Arvind Kejriwal or Rahul Gandhi.

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