Mahagad(bad)bandhan!

WhatsApp with all its inherent strengths and weaknesses can be a good source of humour. In particular, in the election season, meme factories are running at full capacity churning out humorous content day in and day out. Among this was a clip – a gem of a creative idea that was going viral on social media few days back. Unlike the usual edited video clips, this was an animation of a WhatsApp group conversation. And here’s the best part. The group was titled “Mahagathbandhan” and showed an imaginary chat among its members who were supposed to be part of the Mahagathbandhan! As this clip was trending on social media and doing the rounds on various WhatsApp groups, I am sure you would have seen it. If not, do check out the clip here!

The humour and sarcasm in this clip notwithstanding, it exposes the fallacies of the Mahagathbandhan being propped up in just 2.5 mins! The idea for this Mahagathbandhan, which is a spectacle for few and spectre for others, I guess, germinated in May last year after the Karnataka polls. After losing the majority, Congress in a very alert move, decided to support Janata Dal (S) though they fought against each other in the elections. This move deprived BJP of forming the government in Karnataka even though, they were the single largest party with just few seats short of majority.

In Indian politics, if you ask me of one sight which is downright repulsive, it is of leaders of political parties of all hue showing up on stage clutching their hands and raising them as a symbol of being together. No other visual can be as dubious as this. The swearing-in ceremony of H.Kumaraswamy Gowda provided the schadenfreude moment for all those parties opposed to the rise of BJP in the country. So, we saw leaders as diverse as Kejriwal to Stalin to Mamata to Chandrababu to Rahul Gandhi to Mayawati to Pinnarayi Vijayan to Akhilesh coming in person to grace the occasion. That stage with the majestic Vidhan Soudha as the back drop on the 23rd May last year, would have given seed to the idea of the Mahagathbandhan to all parties who wanted to stop Narendra Modi on his tracks!

As it is usually the case, showing off a possibility is easy and making it possible is the onerous task! Unlike in the past, where parties come together in a pre-poll alliance or at times cobble up a post poll set up, the Mahagathbandhan is an epitome of conflict of interests among its constituents. Held together by one single-minded purpose of keeping BJP or rather Narendra Modi away from another term, there are conflicts galore!

By definition, the proposed Mahagathbandhan is supposed to be a rainbow coalition of all parties outside of the NDA who have one common enemy. A rainbow with all its different colours presents a pleasing sight! But a rainbow coalition doesn’t! It is obvious on paper that if they all come together and fight the BJP/NDA, thanks to the arithmetic of vote shares and the possibility of transfer of votes, the Mahagathbandhan will pose a very stiff challenge to the BJP in seats where they got the benefit of a split opposition in 2014. And thereby, this is a sure shot and obvious formula/strategy to stop Modi from getting a 2nd term.  While it may seem simplistic, in reality nothing can be more complex than the coming together of the Mahagathbandhan! And here’s why!

Let us for the moment keep aside the historical tussles and conflicts the parties in the Mahagathbandhan, had among each other and just focus on the issues of today.

Starting from the capital, BJP took all the seats in Delhi in 2014. But in the assembly polls that followed, AAP’s broom literally swept Delhi dislodging Congress after a 15 year stint! Sections of the Delhi Congress are still not able to come to terms with the scenario of fighting with a party which was instrumental in not just defeating them in Delhi but also creating that “Anti-Corruption” atmosphere in the entire country in the run up to the 2014 polls. Kejriwal went to the extent of saying that AAP will take all the seats in Delhi without Congress’ help but they needed the Congress in Haryana!

In Kolkatta, where TMC is ruling supreme and BJP is emerging as a strong challenger, a tie up of TMC, the Left and the Congress may dent BJP’s hopes of winning 7-8 seats in WB this time.  But then, the Left cannot stand the TMC and it is unimaginable for the workers to come together and work for a common cause.  So when the Left and the Congress are in an alliance, it remains to be seen if this will affect the TMC or the BJP more!

While in Bengal, the Congress and the Left are in it together, in Kerala though, the numero uno enemy for the Left is the Congress led UDF! In fact, this fault line got exposed after Congress announced that Rahul Gandhi would contest from Wayanad in Kerala in addition to Amethi! CPI(M)’s Prakash Karat was among the 1st to criticise this decision! He went on to say that the Left will work to defeat Rahul Gandhi in Wayanad!

There are such inconsistencies all over. In Maharashtra, the Congress and NCP are together for a long time, but in Gujarat, they are not. In the recent assembly polls in Telangana, TDP and the Congress fought together in an alliance but that couldn’t prevent the TRS winning the state by a landslide! After that spectacular defeat, TDP is silent about its tie up with the Congress for the Lok Sabha polls and the Assembly polls in AP!

None of these confusions are more pronounced than in UP.  If BJP needs to be defeated in 2019, it should be defeated convincingly in UP. But even this overarching objective couldn’t stop BSP and SP from ditching the Congress for the Lok Sabha polls. So, finally that famous picture of Sonia Gandhi hugging Mayawati in glee during the swearing-in function of Kumaraswamy remained just a photo-op!

And one common theme which comes up as a predicament for all regional parties to be part of the Mahagathbandhan is their perception of Congress as a liability rather than an asset in the coalition! So, in all states where the regional parties are stronger than the Congress, they don’t want to have any truck with the Congress!

Now, I am sure that all these parties which are taking a stand based in their self-interests today, will have no hesitation in coming together and form a post poll Mahagathbandhan if they get an opportunity to take a shot at power! And one can imagine, with all the inherent conflicts and fault lines among themselves, the alliance can only run with confusion writ all over! As each and every coalition partner start pulling the cart based on their self-interests and not necessarily Nation’s interest, it is not difficult to visualise what will happen to governance!  What will start as a Mahagathbandhan will soon become a Mahagad(bad)bandhan! Don’t believe?  Check out what happened to governance between 1977 and 1980, when we had the 1st Mahagadbadbandhan of sorts!

Postscript: Title courtesy my friend and an avid political watcher, Mukund Sampath who called Mahagathbandhan as a possible Mahagad(bad)bandhan in one of our chatsand that prompted this post!

Toon courtesy: Satish Acharya

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Daag Acche Nahin Hain!

Just as I was checking my Twitter feed this Sunday morning, I saw the #Surfexcel trending. Initially I ignored attributing it to some sponsored marketing campaign. But when I saw a whole bunch of individuals from the Right to the Left tweeting on the same, I decided to check it out. There, I could see other hashtags calling for a boycott of Unilever products and so on. The reason for the furore being, this ad (watch here) which Hindustan Unilever (HUL) has made for Surf Excel for the upcoming Holi. I watched the ad and I thought it was a brilliant ad though the theme has got a bit repetitive particularly with HUL these days!

People calling for a boycott of Surf Excel and Unilever products though, had a different take. They questioned the need for the company to pick up on a Hindu festival (Holi) to push their product. Few also quizzed if Unilever would do an ad around any Muslim festival. There were also many other tweets with images of Muslim festivals photo shopped with Surf Excel and its now famous tag line – ‘Daag Acche Hain’!  Notwithstanding all this, the ad achieved the purpose of creating a buzz and finally going viral.

This comes closely in the heels of another ad from the same company created during the Kumbh Mela! This ad (Watch here) for their Brooke Bond Red label Tea literally kicked up a storm in the social media tea-cup! . Though extremely well made, it is clear from the ad that the product and its attributes were secondary while the primary objective was just to ride the buzz around the Kumbh. While the commercial went viral on many WhatsApp groups as a great ad, on Twitter though, folks derided the company HUL for hurting the religious sentiments of Hindus. The supers that appeared at the end of the ad said, “Kumbh Mela is the largest religious gathering in the world. At this holy gathering, many elderly are abandoned by their families”!

I am not sure what kind of research went behind, to make a statement like this.  Nevertheless, the ad, I repeat very well made and executed, came across as a botched attempt where just to bring in the “Kumbh” story, you build a very touchy and probably insensitive narrative. I would rather prefer the approach by Fevicol in a similar context for the Kumbh where, they weaved a positive story (watch the ad here) around the event while plugging the attributes of the product effectively.  In the Red label ad, the product got thrust upon in the story at the end. With the massive uproar about this ad in social media, I am told that the company decided to take down the same. However, it didn’t stop it from going viral on social media platforms where it got trolled heavily.

These days, companies when they brief the agency for their commercials, I think must be outlining their 1st objective as “It should go viral”! As I had written in my earlier posts, “Stir up to sell” is an old ploy in marketing and advertising.  Achieving the objective of getting ad go viral is of late falling into very predictable tropes like Hindu – Muslim unity sentiment, Indo – Pak emotion and so on.

The larger point I am trying to put forward though, is different.  Few days back, I received as a forward on WhatsApp a clip which, I then gathered was a trailer for an upcoming web series titled ‘Metro Park’. Watch it here. I watched it, had a hearty laugh and forwarded the same to few other WhatsApp groups as is the wont these days. Little did I realise that, even for what I perceived as a routine comedy clip, I would receive some critique questioning, if the makers would dare to make fun of any other religion’s practices in a similar way!

A few years back, the Surf Excel Ad and the Red Label Kumbh ad would have just got beamed across homes through your television sets and the agencies would have just walked away with awards galore. But today, there is no such getting away easily. Though personally I thought that the Surf Excel Holi Ad is a brilliant one which weaves in the product attributes into the Holi story, while at the same time talking of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood… the extreme reactions against the ad actually conveys something else. That of bringing to the fore the fault lines that exist/existed all along in our society.

First of all, the repeated emergence of these themes in ads is itself an aberration in my view. A Unilever company in another country say in the US or in Europe I feel, will not take pains to come up with an ad promoting Hindu-Muslim unity in the guise of promoting their product. After over 70 years of Independence and declaring ourselves as a secular nation, if we have to keep clutching at straws (read as films and TV Commercials) to promote self-belief as a secular nation, something has gone wrong somewhere. Secondly, the extreme reactions a TV commercial promoting harmony evokes among us, also is worrisome.  While social media playing the role of a watch dog is good, more often than not, it is barking up the wrong tree.

‘Daag Acche Hain’ (Stains are good) may be a good tag line for a detergent.  However, “Communal”, “Bigoted” as tags are stains. And as a country we could do without such stains. Kyunki woh Daag acche nahin hain!

Time to shoot the messenger?

“Don’t shoot the messenger” is a cliché often used to decry when someone criticizes the media which is the bearer of bad news, instead of the one who was responsible for it. In the context of what’s been happening in India in the last few days, I am tempted to relieve this cliché of the word ‘Don’t”! We all now know that, media all over the world in general and India in particular is only headed towards abyss! And what we saw in India in the past few days only put a stamp of confirmation on it!

In the wee hours of 26th, India conducted a daring air attack deep inside Pakistan targeting some terror camps on what was touted as a retaliation to the Pulwama attack when over 40 CRPF jawans were killed by a suicide bomber of the Jaish. When we started hearing the news, incidentally first through cryptic tweets from the Pakistani side, journalists of all hue starting dialling up their sources and putting out more details – some true and rest hearsay accounts. In just a few hours, mainstream media and social media were engulfed with a tsunami of nationalistic pride over the attack, even when the Government or the forces never came out with the details in public. #Indiastrikesback, #Surgicalstrike2 and other hashtags started trending on social media and not to mention of the myriad memes taking pot shot on Pakistan!

There was a visible difference on the Indian response to Pak terror attack this time. Unlike in the past (particularly in the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks) when India played the “responsible” card, this time the “Mirage” was for real (pun intended). Notwithstanding the valour and the efficiency of the armed forces in carrying out this attack, make no mistake, it was possible only because there was a go ahead for such a daring action from the political leadership of the day.  Unfortunately, in these days of a divided polity, opposition leaders like Rahul Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati and the like chose to be petulance personified as seen from their tweets! They all congratulated the IAF and chose to remain silent on the intention of the Govt. forgetting the fact that in situations like these, if there is no political will, there is no way! I am not sure, if BJP was in opposition under the same circumstances, they would have acted differently. Be that as it may, given that this is election season in India, the way media and some of the star anchors and journalists handled this was baffling.  In some of the channels, it was nothing but war mongering. War sets and props, anchors in army fatigues, prime time was unambiguously playing to the gallery. The pro-Govt. journalists had a field day frothing on TV, spitting venom on their social media handles without any responsibility.

The next day i.e. on 27th Feb, Pakistan now chose to retaliate just as their Prime Minister Imran Khan had warned. For many hours, it was not clear what exactly happened as the news trickled in bits and pieces. But soon it emerged that while we were able to put down one Pakistani F16, one of our pilots unfortunately ended up in Pakistan’s custody. Just as news of this emerged, the whole commentary in the media changed. The liberal commentariat which was cooling its heels the previous day came out with their daggers open, now blasting the Indian Govt. for war mongering and sacrificing its brave men with its mindless actions. As #SayNotoWar started trending, our country’s soft underbelly got exposed once again. During the Kandahar hijack, the same thing happened. And further when Imran Khan made a peace dove like statement in their Parliament that they were freeing our officer the next day, the exposure was complete, in my opinion.

From purely Optics point of view, there is no doubt that Imran Khan made most of the situation. While it was well known that they had no choice but freeing a POW, by doing that swiftly, Imran Khan won the perception battle. But to designate and celebrate him as an apostle of peace, just how some of the media personalities were doing on Thursday, was gross injustice to the 40+ jawans who lost their lives just few days back! Back then, the same Imran Khan did not have the courtesy to either condemn or regret the dastardly attack and just mouthed the same “show proof” rhetoric! Now this time it was the turn of the media which is against the BJP/Modi to pursue their agenda and were having their field day!

Neutrality in journalism is now passé. In addition to this agenda driven journalism which now we have learnt to live with, the behaviour of the politicians from both sides was equally regressive and repulsive.  While the ruling party taking this issue to the polls is not avoidable and partially understandable, counting the seat chicken before the border tension hatches as some BJP politicians were doing is highly condemnble.

So in India, we swing from one extreme to another so easily.  From one day shouting from the rooftop of “using our right to attack” in the verge of a terrorist attack to pushing for de-escalation and pull back the moment one of our officers get caught the next day, we proved that we are indeed a country of weak hearts.

Amidst all this, if we have to take lesson on response to these kind of situations, it must be from our defence forces. The same day evening when Imran announced that our officer Abhinandan would be returned to India, there was a presser by the armed forces team which I thought was brilliant, thoroughly professional and to the point. Even when prodded to respond to the so called “good will gesture” of Pakistan in returning our officer, Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor stuck to the fact that it was just an “act” which any country was supposed to do and that the IAF was happy to have the officer back. Period. And the whole presser had lessons for journalists and social media warriors on reporting facts, not giving own interpretations and not getting into matters which was not their domain. It is now part of folklore on how the officer Abhinandan behaved under custody. The training and upbringing certainly showed!

The big difference in the media today in situations like these is the arrival of the monster called Social media. Social media not just gives a platform to all of us to express ourselves, it also becomes a platform for professional journalists to display their loyalties and show where their heart lies. It is indeed great to note that our Govt. didn’t buy into the canard of those putting out their own opinions based on their loyalties this way or that way and stuck to their actions in this situation.

As Social media commentary feeds off into main stream media and vice versa and with government functionaries actively present in the social media these days, one gets concerned if governance becomes a prisoner of media’s whims and fancies. And if that begins to happen, time to “Shoot the messenger, folks!

Cartoon courtesy: Amul