On one hand, there was a headline in both papers with a picture of the Prime Minister in Davos inviting companies to come to India to invest. On the other hand, towards the bottom left of the page was a quarter page advert by Patanjali asking consumers to “join Patanjali’s Swadeshi movement to protect India from the loot of foreign companies and to bring about economic and cultural freedom.” The Express article quoted the Prime Minister about the danger of protectionism, asserting that his government has “made it so easy to invest in India, manufacture in India and work in India. We have decided to uproot violence…”
The irony was that the very day that Patanjali’s advert and the Prime Minister’s news came out, a bus was attacked by an irate mob who decided to direct their anger about the release of a Bollywood film onto a school bus full of children. The protestors, some of whom had earlier taken naked swords to television studios to make their point- quite literally, have found the government amenable to their demands. Several BJP-ruled states had sought to ban the film “Padmaavat”. The video that emerged shows little children cowering under their seats while their teachers bravely try to reassure them that everything will be all right. In a way, the Patanjali advert, the PM’s speech in Davos and the events near Delhi highlight the crux of the problem.
Speeches, marketing, social media outreach and the ability to give multiple and often contradictory messages cannot mask the lack of a coherent and consistent economic and political vision beyond the divisive politics of identity. Indeed, the manner of implementation and the result of demonetisation and the GST illustrate the erratic manner in which these ‘reforms’ were conceived.
The very Prime Minister, who had asked the people of India to punish him if demonetisation didn’t work after 50 days, is now asking people not to judge his government by the changes that he implemented.
Apart from this, the BJP’s position, much like that of the Congress party’s, on an issue like Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) has consistently changed based on whether they are in power or in opposition. While in opposition, it is easy to oppose FDI and speak of more populist economic measures. The exigencies of being in government means that this position is entirely reversed. However, the new development to this consistent flip-flopping is not that positions on certain policies are reversed when in power but the fact that different messages can be tailored to different audiences.
The relationship that the iconic face of the Patanjali group, yoga guru Baba Ramdev, has with the ubiquitous face of the BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is an open secret. Indeed, in a meeting in Delhi a fortnight before being elected Prime Minister in 2014, Modi leant over and whispered something to the saffron-clad Ramdev. The latter shouted into the mic asking the crowd whether they will tell others or not [about voting for Modi]. The crowd instantly roared back its approval. The Yogi batted his eyelid and laughed. Modi smiled and the rest, as they say, was history.
Patanjali’s financial value and its land holdings have almost doubled since the BJP came to power. Many of Patanjali’s products are sold in the messes and canteens of the security forces and Ramdev’s company sells everything from soaps to clarified butter, in the name of promoting indigenous business.
Beyond the fact that ostensibly Modi and Ramdev have two different visions of what they want for India, the fact remains that both their ideas are inextricably linked and indeed work in tandem. The BJP is trying to cultivate different voting demographics by speaking in multiple registers. So on the one hand, the Prime Minister can travel across the world speaking of the importance of technology and globalisation while on the other hand people like Ramdev, while not officially affiliated with the BJP but exceedingly close to both the RSS and the BJP, can send out a directly contradictory message. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that Patanjali would be branding itself as a defender of indigenous industry without the blessings of the government.
The fact of the matter is that the BJP only has one well thought out and consistent vision for India: creating a Hindu Rashtra and in the process eliminating any potential opposition. In a place like Uttar Pradesh, the Chief Minister has been busy ordering various government buildings to be painted saffrom while 60 kilometres from Lucknow, just recently, a farmer was crushed to death by his own tractor when recovery agents assaulted him in his field. The outstanding amount on his loan: ₹90,000.
Just to put this in perspective, the government has still been unable to do anything about the Adani group’s ₹72,000 crore loan and Vijay Mallya’s ₹9,000 crore loan. The abysmal condition of farmers across India is only symptomatic of a larger malaise, which stems from the fact that the government seems to think that it can get away with saying different things depending on the audience. In other words, there is something to target every demographic: the farmers, the middle classes, the youth and the industrialists not to mention many others. However, the problem with this strategy is that the interests of many of these groups do and inevitably will collide.
The interest of poor farmers will rarely ever align with that of large industrialists. Yet, by sheer dint of oratory and using targeted social media technology as a marketing tool, the BJP seems to think it can placate both groups. The power of the politics of ventriloquism, as I have argued elsewhere, cannot be underestimated whereby various ‘puppets’ put out multiple, even contradictory, messages while the puppet master assumes a studied silence.
The advert and the news on the front page of the Express and the Dainik Jagran illustrate this very problem and perhaps also signal the fault lines that will inevitably arise when a political party seeks to placate too many different demographics. Whether the opposition is able to take advantage of this remains to be seen.