For a day that was supposed to have been about endless BJP bashing, the BJP has handled the optics rather well. I am pleasantly surprised … actually I am really really surprised.
People in our country generally are very very prickly about price rises. It is not hard to get them seething in anger over the smallest price rise. However, at the end of the yesterday, the general consensus on the secular side appeared to be one of disappointment. The best that secular commentators could say for the Bandh was that it was “not a total flop.”
Earlier in the day, I saw one “senior” Marathi patrakar post a picture with barely 25 people in a circle, carrying flags of various opposition parties, hoping to tell everyone that the Bandh was getting lots of support. The desperation was obvious … and kind of cute.
In the national capital, where the big leaders were leading the bandh, we hardly saw or heard any real people around. The media cameras had to stay focused on the dias, which looked much more full than the audience area. Videos shot and circulated by amateurs on social media mostly show media and police standing around …. no sign of real people.
Social media is not everything, but it is a better barometer than ever. Especially now that both sides are fully invested in flexing their social media muscle. The only thing we saw was paid hashtags from the secular side trending on Twitter, while the RW countered with jokes, ridicule and videos showing the lack of public participation. If there was some real public participation anywhere, I am sure the Congress machine would have picked it up and circulated it. But they didn’t. There was probably nothing to show.
Even in a few places where the bandh had some effect, it caused more embarrassment for the opposition. A 2 year old girl lost her life in Bihar because the protesters would not make way for an ambulance. Beyond that, the only images of the bandh were of Congress (paid?) “supporters” chanting praises of Modi by mistake. Images showing the opposition workers smashing buses and cars bring nothing but disrepute nowadays.
So far, so good. But what are the takeaways from this?
There are two obvious explanations. One is that the public has become wiser. The opposition is trying to do with petrol what it successfully did with onions back in 1998. But the country has moved on. And despite all of Ravish Kumar’s efforts, people have not failed to notice that petrol is the only commodity that is costlier today than in 2013 … that too barely. Price rise of pretty much everything else has been controlled. The incredible food inflation of the UPA years has become a bad memory. Prices of vegetables, staples, medicines, etc have all remained quite stable under Modi regime. And ultimately, GST has ended up lowering the taxes on most other items, including pretty much anything a householder might purchase, big or small. Eating out used to be taxed somewhere between 13% and 30% … now it is just 5%. If you account for the fact that incomes have definitely gone up in last five years, it is likely that household budgets are clearly less stressed than they were in 2013.
Maybe that is why the Bharat Bandh did not strike a chord. Nobody likes paying more, but people have matured enough to understand that one item might see a spike, but you have to account for the prices of everything else.
But BJP cannot afford to be complacent. The other possibility is that people have matured beyond the idea of bandhs and strikes. Even if they agree with the opposition on the issue of price rise, they do not agree with bandhs. Those are seen as outmoded forms of doing politics, reminiscent of the regressive days of Nehruvian Communism.
It is for BJP and its workers on the ground to spread their antennae and pick up signals from society. We know that Congress did not get support for the Bandh yesterday, but why? Did people reject the Congress premise (price rise) or merely the form of expression chosen by Congress (bandh)?