PGT: Would you go along with the view that the BJP’s campaign was more effective and innovative than the others in its deployment of technology, whether it bethe Narendra Modi 3D hologram or the 300-plus rallies that were broadcast live? He had dedicated television crews providing live feed to anybody and everybody who wanted it. Then, there were innovations like making a toll free line available to anybody who wanted to call on a mobile phone and hear everything he was saying live. In addition, there were large numbers of people working for him on the internet, on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. In all these respects, BJP stole a march over everybody, including the Congress.
YY: Absolutely, there is no doubt about that. As I said, this stood out as one of the most extraordinary campaigns and may be later, people will write books about this campaign—just the media advertising part of it, and the use of technology. This extended to social media as well, where the BJP’s main competitor was not the Congress, but the Aam Aadmi Party. Even here, they stole a march.
The BJP’s election campaign was not thought out over just the last one year. It must have been thought through for the last five years and was only executed in the last year. The BJP used the huge funds at its disposal intelligently, and also used technology to great effect. That is why I think this election could be a watershed… Indian elections shall never be the same again….
PGT: When you look at the role of the media in terms of the BJP’s political strategy, what went on top of the advertising campaign, and what went below?
YY: As someone who was confronting the BJP and was, in some ways, a victim of it, I used to look at the BJP’s image machine and wonder what it was all about. When I look back, I feel there may be three or four tiers to what we today call the BJP’s media strategy. The top layer consisted of spin doctoring, ideological placements and political positioning. This was not the stuff being done by the advertising gurus. This is where the Swapan Dasguptas or the Arun Jaitleys of the world come in.
Spin doctoring did the basic job of making sure that the anger and energy generated in the last two years by the anti-corruption movement could be deflected to serve the BJP. A part of that involved derailing AAP, because this party was the one big problem that cropped up during Narendra Modi’s dream march. Suddenly, AAP comes along and halts this march, Narendra Modi is off the newspapers, off the front pages, for about six weeks (after the Delhi assembly election). So someone thinks, how do we derail them? How do we bring Narendra Modi back? That’s where spin doctoring comes into play. The UPA is already down in the dumps. The name of the game is to delegitimize the new and unexpected rival, AAP. It is hard to challenge the ethical appeal of AAP. Hence, the attack shifts to its governance record. The point is to position AAP as a party that cannot be trusted to govern. That was achieved through political moves and spin doctoring.
The second layer was media management, which is different from advertising. Something very big happened in this election at this level. It would be inaccurate to say that the entire media was bought, which is how some of my colleagues (in AAP) saw it. I do not blame them because, as victims, we felt it.
PGT: What do you mean by media management, in this context? Is it about ensuring that particular channels and individuals are favoured with interviews—that these individuals are selected because their political persuasions are already well known? So you know that they will not be asking you uncomfortable questions, including questions about the 2002 riots? Was this an integral part of this media management strategy that you talk about?
“All the Congress campaigns were thought out in English and executed in Hindi and the final product was shoddy. I almost wish I could ask them to take my advice on getting their Hindi right.”
YY: That would be a small and legitimate part of the media management exercise. Other parties have done it and yes, the BJP did it. Clearly, the management of Modi’s interviews was an example of this. I remember The Economic Times and The Times of India running front-page interviews that were written responses to e-mailed questionnaires. Someone who knew politically correct English had responded on Modi’s behalf. Narendra Modi may not even have had a look at the questionnaires. If the papers had said these were responses from Modi’s office, that would be a correct description. But these were run as “exclusive” interviews.
PGT: You are saying that they did not disclose the fact that these were not one-on-one interviews?
YY: They disclosed it in the fine print, and that’s how I know it. But that’s not something you (should) put out as your front-page interview or as a so-called exclusive interview. There were widespread suspicions that many of the interviews were managed, as only certain “convenient” journalists were asked to interview Modi. All that happened. But that is the smaller part, which is almost legitimate.
I suspect that most of the media houses were managed in a more direct and instrumental way by Team Modi— partly by the sheer size of their advertising budget. As you know,a small part of the expenditure can be paid in “white” money and the rest can be paid through other means. I cannot be sure if the BJP used such means, but you cannot rule it out.
Television channels and newspaper editors were pressurised and arm-twisted. Pressure was put on channels and editors through the owners of media companies. As it became clear that Narendra Modi was the frontrunner, lots of things started happening. The corporate sector was backing Modi and as that became clear, the tone of media changed. Some of the channels and newspapers acted as propaganda vehicles of the BJP. Some editors-proprietors were even given tickets by the BJP.
PGT: Would you like to name some of these individuals?
YY: Take, for example, Punjab Kesari, a newspaper that may be considered low-brow by some, but has a large circulation and is very influential in north India. The editor and proprietor, Ashwini Minna, was given a BJP ticket from Karnal in Haryana. I am told he had earlier written some editorials sharply critical of Narendra Modi. But after he got the ticket, the tone of the paper changed. In fact, the entire coverage in the paper could have been called paid news. Newspapers like Dainik Jagran and television channels like India TV, Zee News and occasionally, even Times Now, played a role wherein it became hard to tell whether what was being put out was journalism or soft propaganda. I am not suggesting that in each case, editors or proprietors were coerced or bought. Yet, something was at play that was more than we could see. So there was clear pressure—from managing a reporter to managing a channel, this was done systematically. This was the second tier of media management by the BJP.
The third tier was a regular advertisement campaign, which we have already discussed. But there was also a fourth, invisible tier—the rumour mill—this election will go down in history as one in which most effective uses were made of rumours.
PGT: Tell us about these rumour and innuendos.
YY: These were not spontaneous rumours, which are in circulation in the public domain all the time. These were manufactured rumours. They were carefully designed and placed where they would get picked up and circulated. I can speak of rumours about us (AAP), because we were at the receiving end. In particular, Arvind Kejriwal was at the receiving end. There were all kinds of rumours, and obscene publicity that no one owned up to. There were anonymous trollers, blogs and websites with content so obscene that you could not read it for more than a few minutes. At the same time, the content left an impression on your mind. This was not spontaneous; this was not even the job of a few enthusiastic BJP cadres. It was designed and planned and carried out to perfection.
So you have the entire spectrum of the image machine, from the anonymous person who wrote obscenities about Arvind Kejriwal to Swapan Dasgupta’s sophisticated spin doctoring. The entire thing had a design to it.
Lest all this gives an impression of a deep conspiracy, I must underline the systemic foundations of this image machine. This was an election in which economic power, social power and media power converged at one point called NaMo. This is what happens when these three most powerful forces of society converge at one point and produce the desired effect.
To be continued…