How BJP's spinmeisters fixed an image for a desperate Prime Minister
By Pamela Philipose
The author is a well known journalist
General elections 1999 has witnessed the comprehensive apotheosis of Atal Behari Vajpayee. In the 1998 elections, he was projected as the man of destiny whom Indian awaited -- ab ki baari, Atal Behari. This time he has emerged fully formed. Tried. Tested. Trusted. The other leaders like L.K. Advani and Kushabhau Thakre have been neatly airbrushed from the canvas, just as the core issues of the party have. The drive now is to make the "able" leader a stable leader, who should rightfully preside over the destiny of the nation for the next five years.
Whether the BJP is successful getting away with this great spin is an open question, but there is no denying that it has enthusiastically swooped upon the only opportunity that the Sangh Parivar has had in its entire existence to assume a pan-Indian presence by riding on the appeal of the "moderate'' Vajpayee. In the process, it has succumbed to the personality-driven politics that characterised the Congress under Indira Gandhi and her elder son.
The Congress, in contrast, has consciously chosen to underplay Sonia Gandhi this time round. Last November, during the Assembly elections, she had been projected in a far more focussed fashion. The Pawar revolt and the BJP's strident swadeshi versus videshi campaign seemed to have changed all that. There was no image of Sonia Gandhi in the series of newspaper ads that the Congress ran for these elections.
The BJP was under no such constraint. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) manifesto, representing the interests of over 20 political parties, had Vajpayee's photographs splashed on every other page. The series of six large newspaper ads that the BJP came up with this time, once again had Vajpayee on centrestage. It recalled the series that Rajiv Gandhi's Congress had run in 1989, which had as its bottomline, "My heart beats for India''.
Ever since the government fell in April, the BJP has been carefully moulding public opinion on Vajpayee. A newspaper insertion sponsored by Lok Abhiyan, anorganisation run by a BJP MP, appeared directly after the confidence vote. It portrayed Vajpayee as the target of a nasty lot of politicians and carried the legend: ``What wrong has this man done?'' How could such a good human being be treated so badly was the subtext -- a theme that was to be promoted time and again in the months to follow. One vote brought down my government. Your vote can undo that injustice.
Then there was that one-page DAVP splash put out on Independence Day. Dominated by a huge portrait of Vajpayee, it was an appeal to 100 crore Indians to salute the spirit of Kargil. The text went on to say: ``Militarily, the Kargil conflict has been a splendid victory. Diplomatically, it has been an unprecedented success. But we have also had another, even greater triumph -- the manifestation of Indian unity.''
The ad appeared at a time when defence analysts and opposition parties had already begun to ask uncomfortable questions about Kargil. The abysmal intelligence failure, the internationalisation of Kashmir, the high number of Indian soldiers who died and incurred injuries, all this was wished away -- only the euphoria remained. Feel good, citizens. Enjoy. The last line of that DAVP ad said it all: “Together, let us make the 21st Century, India's Century''.
The recent series of six newspaper ads put out by the BJP drew on this very euphoria. Kargil was never very far away in any of them. The first insertion set the mood and introduced the catchphrase of the entire campaign: “The leader you can trust. In war, In peace.'' Atal Behari Vajpayee. With five decades in public life, with a career "spotlessly clean'', he is the man who can ``lead India into the 21st century''.
The next three insertions developed on the theme. Vajpayee, the victor of Kargil. Vajpayee, the man who can shake the hand of friendship and crush it when betrayed. Vajpayee, the man who pushes up the sensex, fights economic sanctions, holds recession at bay, wrestles with inflation and tames it. Vajpayee, the exploder of the Nuclear Bomb, the maker of Agni, Trishul, INSAT, PSLV (sic). Vajpayee, the man who came up with a Nuclear Doctrine. If Santro was being sold as the complete family car, Vajpayee was being sold as the complete national leader.
From the third insertion on, things went subtly xenophobic. >From now on it is the Congress that was systematically targeted, even as Vajpayee remained as omnipresent as ever. ``Don't vote for him because HE was born in India. Vote for him because YOU were'' one ad went. He and you, unlike some others we know, are 100 per cent Indian. The same ad also stated that only Vajpayee can rule and protect you from communal tension. Again, there's no move to grapple with facts. No mention of Dara Singh, or the new insecurities of Christians and the old insecurities of Muslims. No mention of Ahmedabad or that famous suggestion of the Prime Minister that there must be a debate on conversions.
Congress scams are reeled out. In contrast, there was Vajpayee yet again. “Five decades in public life, not a single blot. Because he is committed. Not to himself. To his nation.'' Like laundry bleach, Vajpayee has the power to “cleanse the nation of corruption that is eating into our very vitals''. There is, of course, no reason to worry about the telecom imbroglio or about the dubious influence of a son-in-law here.
The whole campaign then rose to a crescendo with the voter asked to choose between Italian-born Sonia, with hardly any “public life experience'' (sic) and the "master Parliamentarian”, “who has brought back international re-cognition for India'' and who is, yes, completely Indian.
In this homogenised, pasteurised, mythified appeal, there is no attempt to look beyond the sensex-gazing classes. While nuclearised military might is aggressively projected, there is no similar attempt to showcase social development. There is very little to crow about here apart from some hurried references to credit and insurance schemes for farmers and education for the girl child. While there is a boast about record foodgrain production, there is nothing on whether the poor benefitted from it. While the 21st century is constantly evoked, there is no concern expressed anywhere for the general welfare of children, their health, their schools, their future.
Who then is Atal Behari Vajpayee leading into the 21st century? Going by the evidence of BJP's spinmeisters, it is the predominantly urban-based citizen, who presumably needs a war, a bomb, a rising sensex and a Vajpayee to really feel good.
(Courtesy: Indian Express. September 6, 1999)
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