Vol. XLIII No. 21 May 26, 2019

Election CamPAYin

R Arun Kumar

EVERY election is followed by an in-depth analysis of the way the elections were contested. The growth of right-wing forces in the period of continuing global economic crisis, has further increased the interest in studying the contributing factors. Apart from who voted for whom and why, analysis of various opinion polls, exit polls and their biases, electoral campaigns too are closely scrutinised to understand the issues raised, the target populace and the reasons behind concentrating only on those issues. The recently concluded elections to our parliament offer us a good example.

The class character of the concerned political party plays a prominent role in defining their campaign strategy. With the corporatisation of elections and campaigns being outsourced to ‘consultancy firms’ and ‘advertising agencies’, political parties have become ‘commodities’ that need to be ‘sold’ to the electorate, with a guaranteed ‘return’. In such a scenario, ideology, issues, citizen concerns – all take a backseat as most of the parties represent the interests of the exploiting classes.  And for this reason, even opposing political parties do not have any qualms in approaching the same consultancy firm for devising their electoral strategies.

Of course, even for such a ‘corporatisation of elections’, issues cannot be completely delinked, as after all, the ‘product’ is a political party and they are vying for the ultimate prize – access to STATE POWER. So we find issues mentioned, but more as an afterthought or only in a superfluous manner. Money, identities and emotions are given greater importance than the livelihood issues of people. Elections become an elaborate exercise in ‘marketing’. So it no longer remains an ‘electoral campaign’, but becomes ‘electoral management’.

With every passing election, elections are becoming a costly affair. Apart from spending the stipulated money on campaigning, a lot more is being splurged to win at any cost. The total value of money and goods seized during this election by the Election Commission is Rs 3,458,57,00,000 (Three thousand four hundred and fifty eight crores, fifty seven lakhs only as per the seizure report put up by the Election Commission on its website on May 21). According to Centre for Media Studies, social media spending itself is estimated to reach Rs 5,000 crores (it was only Rs 250 crores in 2014). Media reports point out that Zenith India, a firm that arranges for slots on TV and in newspapers, estimated that Rs 2,600 crores will be spent on advertising in these elections, while both the BJP and the Congress together spent around Rs 1,200 crores in 2014. Data published in the Indian Express show how different parties prioritised different platforms during the election campaign – ‘the BJP outspent all parties on Google and Facebook, while the Congress spent nine times as much as the BJP on Twitter’. What is leading to this splurge of money in elections? And what are the returns sought by this money or the ‘profits’ sought by this ‘capital investment’?

Lord McAlpine, a long-time treasurer of the British Conservative Party, put it best when he stated that he could ‘persuade the public to believe virtually anything, given enough money’. “A poster campaign costing £1 or £2 million is a waste of money,” he once told a reporter, “but give me £8 million and I will deliver whatever you want”. Studies show that more the money you spend in an election, the more are your chances of winning.

Roslyn Fuller, in her book on democracy, states: “Ahead of the 2015 UK national election, candidate and party spending had previously been capped at £26 million per party. However, the Conservatives had raised about £70 million since the last election, far more than any of their opponents, and therefore they stood to gain the most from increasing spending caps. The Conservatives therefore used their position in government to increase the spending limit to £32 million just months before the election – a move which paid off in electoral victory for the party and a sympathetic ear in government for its financial backers”. Similarly, she quotes a study on the 2011-12 election cycle for US House of Congress, for the 84 seats that went to the election, the candidate who spent more on their campaign won 78.3 per cent of the time. This is the tactic that is now sought to be repeated in our country, with the introduction of electoral bonds that completely camouflage corporate donations (read investments) and having no cap on party spending.

Apart from money power in elections, psycho-analytical tools are also now being used to devise ‘mind games’ for the political parties – how to influence the minds of the people and ensure the continuation of their class rule.

India Today's Data Intelligence Unit has analysed Narendra Modi's five poll speeches each during the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections and concluded: “The major thrust of the five speeches combined in 2014 was on the word 'poor'. This word had found 55 mentions in his speeches. It, however, saw a decline to 44 mentions in 2019….The issues of poverty and unemployment are something the BJP hadn't discussed in length in its manifesto for the 2019 Lok Sabha election and neither have they found many mentions in PM Modi's recent speeches. 'Poverty' that had 19 mentions in 2014, found hardly three mentions in the 2019 speeches. Similarly, 'unemployment' that had six mentions in 2014 found none this time. Corruption was mentioned 10 times in 2014, but only 6 times in 2019”. As this study shows, major issues that are bothering the people of our country – unemployment and poverty – hardly found a mention in BJP’s star campaigner’s speeches. The same study points out instead what attained focus in his speeches.

“In his 2014 poll speeches, PM Modi had said Pakistan was causing trouble for India and mentioned it four times. In 2019, Pakistan found 15 mentions. Pakistan and terrorism appeared together in Modi's 2019 speeches which were not the case in 2014. The word ‘terrorist’ found only one mention in 2014. Cut to 2019, words such as ‘terror’, ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ collectively found 24 mentions”. So he had shifted the discourse from livelihood concerns of the people to ‘security’. It is nobody’s contention that ‘national security’ should not be discussed in elections. But the problem is with ‘security’ being made synonymous with ‘war’ and leading to the ‘othering’ of minorities, here Muslims. These divisive policies are pursued to break the growing class unity, as witnessed in the working class and peasant struggles and also divert people’s angst from their livelihood issues.

Research done by Roy Eidelson, former president of the US Psychologists Association, points out how the issues of security and the lurking danger of ‘others’ are used by political parties to influence voters’ behaviour. He states that ‘if fear leaps to the forefront, other thoughts and feelings are quickly pushed aside’. He further argues that ‘emotional arousal can lead us to ignore the actual quality of the evidence being presented to us’ and make us lose our ‘capacity to think and see clearly’. Also, our ‘inclinations to either trust or distrust are soft targets for psychological manipulation’ and because of this inclination, we adopt a ‘distrustful posture towards those we see as different, or those we have been taught to view as ‘outsiders’.

Eidelson makes a detailed analysis of Trump’s presidential campaign, which rings some bells to us, after being exposed to the BJP’s or rather Modi’s campaign. He quotes another psychologist who, through research, established that ‘an engaging narrative can change the way we think about things, regardless of whether it’s labeled fact or fiction’. He details how Trump fed on ‘public’s worries about vulnerability’ and warned people that ‘only he could provide protection from a wide range of catastrophic threats’. He also points how Trump was quick to ‘cast himself as an aggrieved victim of injustice’, portrayed his opponents as ‘untrustworthy’ and ‘dishonest’. Trump placed Muslims under a ‘cloud of suspicion’ and presented himself as ‘the only reliable truth-teller’. Further, ‘Trump aimed to instill a sense of superiority in his supporters’, presented himself as a ‘saviour who would make sure the country and its citizens regained the stature they had lost’.

In our country too, it is these kind of ‘political mind games’ that are fast becoming the decisive factors in election campaigning. Consultants are being hired for this express purpose. Because of this reason, if we closely observe the pattern of election campaigning of any party other than the Left parties, there is nothing much to differentiate them from each other. Hindustan Times (May 22), analysing the campaign of both the BJP and the Congress, writes: “The BJP narrowed down on its key themes for the polls. It began with nationalism and how Modi led a strong government that could give Pakistan a robust response, in comparison to all the ‘weak’ governments of the past….As the campaign progressed, the BJP’s campaign became more bitter and personal….It also assumed a strong majoritarian tone….” On the other hand, it has this to say about the Congress campaign: “The Congress, however, carefully stayed away from the secularism-communalism debate for the fear of being labelled ‘anti-Hindu’. It initially also kept away from the ‘nationalism’ issue for fear of being portrayed as anti-national or pro-Pakistan, but eventually put out former prime minister Manmohan Singh who claimed that his government had conducted multiple surgical strikes too”.

Both the BJP and the Congress are the parties of the ruling classes, the major difference between them being that BJP is a rabidly communal party, guided by the fascistic RSS, unlike the Congress. The ruling classes need both of them to play an important part in any government after the elections so that their interests are protected irrespective of a change in government. Experience shows us that the uninterrupted implementation of neoliberal reforms was possible because of the shared views of these two ruling class parties on this issue.

In order to break this cycle and for a real peoples’ alternative to emerge, there is no other way except for strengthening the CPI(M) and the other Left and Democratic forces. Only they can defeat the BJP comprehensively – politically, socially, ideologically, culturally, economically and electorally. It might be a tall order, but one that can be achieved by believing in our strengths – our class and its multifaceted struggles. Even for elections to become truly democratic and representative in character, these are imperative. We should never forget that a small minority can maintain an oppressive status quo only when there is no active resistance and when voices of opposition are silent.

Come what may. Let our voices always sing the songs of the exploited.