By going on against the Gujarat Chief Minister, the Congress and the media are only cementing his centrality to the 2014 election, much like they did with Lalu Prasad Yadav in the 1995 Bihar election

In early 1995, Bihar saw a landmark Assembly election that led to a comprehensive victory for the Janata Dal and established Lalu Prasad Yadav as a phenomenon. Before the election, there was little indication in the national media that such an emphatic verdict was in the offing. Mr. Yadav had become chief minister in 1990 after a contentious struggle within his party. He was seen as a Yadav factionalist but his grip over other groups such as Dalits and Muslims was anything but obvious.

The Congress, back in power in New Delhi by 1995, still held hopes of regaining Bihar. The BJP, then a much stronger force in the State with a base in southern Bihar (later Jharkhand), also fancied its chances. A defeat for Mr. Yadav and at the very least a hung Assembly were predicted. The national press and its correspondents in Patna — several of them, it must be pointed out, with Brahmin or upper caste surnames — mocked Mr. Yadav’s rhetoric and forecast a setback for him.

What Mr. Yadav’s media and political opponents thought they were doing was cornering him, with an exaggerated notion of how much newspaper reports — there were no news channels and prime-time discussions in those days — could influence voters. To Mr. Yadav’s adherents, the perception was just the opposite. He appeared as some sort of Abhimanyu figure, besieged by a coalition of entrenched elites and traduced by an over-interpretation of every half-statement and throwaway phrase.

Scrutiny

On his part, Lalu Prasad Yadav revelled in the underdog status and made it his badge of honour. Blinded by their ideological or denominational prejudices and dislike for Mr. Yadav, his critics, political and intellectual, completely misread the election.

It is worth wondering if a similar mistake is not being made in regard to Narendra Modi and the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the campaign for which is just about beginning. Every semi-colon Mr. Modi uses is interpreted and dissected beyond belief. The appearance of a few posters — run-of-the-mill publicity material for any politician — is analysed for semiotic content that was probably not intended or is beyond the comprehension of the poster’s designers and promoters. Evening television discussions go on and on about the atmosphere of religious polarisation in the country.

Larger picture

This is a make-believe world, a bubble in which the media and talking-heads elite have wrapped themselves. Outside of television studios, nobody seriously thinks a so-called “secularism versus communalism” debate is raging in the country.

Indeed, by narrow-focusing on just this aspect and in not recognising that the narrative surrounding Mr. Modi has changed in the recent past — largely because economic conditions have changed and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s performance has come to be considered deeply disappointing — the media is in danger of covering some other election of its imagination and completely missing the urges and imperatives of 2014.

This is not to suggest that a wave is under way and Mr. Modi’s triumph is assured. There is no certainty to that and much will depend on the response the man gets in Uttar Pradesh, where a genuine, grass roots mass-contact programme has not even started yet. Even so, Mr. Modi’s centrality to the 2014 election season is being encouraged and established precisely by those forces that insist the election will not be presidential and that the Gujarat Chief Minister has a limited footprint.

Congress’s strategy

The Congress is attempting a strategy that is both innovative and risky. Conscious that the public mood is against it and unwilling to be persuaded about its performance in government, the ruling party is seeking to convert the election into a referendum on Mr. Modi. Rather than defend its record, the bulk of its effort is on a denunciation of Mr. Modi.

Whether such an approach can be sustained for eight or nine months, right till the conclusion of the election in May 2014, is debatable. There are limits to a trigger-happy, rapid-fire assault in a political battle that extends over almost a year rather than a few short television debates. At some point, a sense of fatigue with the Congress’s anti-Modi obsession will set in. What will it do then?

Sections of the media, at least some news channels, are beginning to see Modi-related programming as a daily occurrence and a must-have, almost like unfolding episodes of a soap opera. The problem here is the template is prepared well in advance of the content — and the content is improvised or even manufactured to fit pre-decided time slots. As an example, take that shrill and perennial question, “Is the Ram temple back?”

Anyone with a modicum of idea of Mr. Modi’s plans for the 2014 election realises that Hindutva and the temple are not at the core of these at all. They are acknowledged as not being key voter priorities at the moment. Nevertheless the news media continues to wait for the return of Ayodhya. Meanwhile an election — and a country of 1.2 billion people — could simply pass it by.

For an opposing view, see Vidya Subrahmaniam's article

(Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based journalist and commentator. E-mail: malikashok@gmail.com)

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