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Triage: A winning strategy for the BJP

By Rajeev Srinivasan
April 08, 2009 15:31 IST
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The concept of triage first arose in field hospitals, where doctors had to decide what to do with large numbers of war wounded and very limited resources. Over time, they developed an empirical method of optimisation, by dividing up incoming patients into three groups: Those who were hopeless, those who could wait for attention, and those who could only be saved if they got immediate care.

The medical staff would pursue appropriate methods with each of these groups. The hopeless cases they would give painkillers to, make them comfortable, and let them die in peace. Those who were lightly wounded they would give first aid to and prepare them for further care, not immediately, but as soon as feasible. The last group, for whom emergency surgery could mean the difference between life and death, they would prioritise and operate on immediately.

This rough-and-ready method has been proved to be rational, in a utilitarian way -- it provides the maximum benefit to the maximum number of people. Many companies have also adapted this principle, because it turns out that there is a natural ordering in rough triads -- one third of the people agree with an arguable decision, a third oppose it, and another third can be convinced either way.

The mistake that the BJP made in 2004 -- and presumably will not repeat in 2009 -- is to ignore this rather universal principle. Thus, there exists one group of people who fundamentally agree with the BJP, one group who will never vote for them, and then there is the prize: The fence-sitters, who are liable to be convinced by rational argument or appeals to sentiment.

Naturally, there is a proper approach to each of these groups. The first, your natural constituency, should be kept happy with rhetoric and substance that appeals to them -- you surely do not want to lose your allies. The second you should simply ignore, and give them up for lost. The third, the undecided, that is where you should use the full force of your resources, to convince them to vote for you.

In 2004, the BJP, for reasons best known to itself, ended up doing things that simply didn't work. They alienated their friends through distancing itself from their agendas. They attempted to pander to their staunch enemies, with foreseeable results, and ended up looking foolish, and further alienated their friends. As far as the undecided were concerned, they did try -- they came up with the relatively truthful 'India Shining' slogan but were surprised when the staunchly anti-BJP media trashed it.

In other words, their efforts and good work went in the wrong direction. It remains to be seen whether the lessons from this failure have been fully internalised. The fact of the matter is that there are certain groups in India that have a knee-jerk antipathy towards the BJP. This is either rational (in the case of some entities which are part and parcel of imperial cults seeking world conquest) or the result of brainwashing (in the case of innumerate social sciences types who have been fed a steady diet of disinformation throughout school and college).

There is absolutely no point in appeasing these groups. Any effort spent on them is a waste. So the best tactic is to completely write them off. There is no need to condemn them -- speak softly but carry a big stick, as the American said -- but no need to cozy up to them either. This is especially true of the English-language media (ELM for short). A case in point is the editor who promised the then-dictator of Pakistan some years ago that they (the media) would ensure that the BJP would be out of power. Instead of trying to win the approval of such people, the BJP should consider them irrelevant, which in large measure they are.

As for other incorrigible enemies, such as media people with ideological rigor mortis, it appears as though the BJP is not actively pandering to them as they did in 2004. The fact is that the media is easily swayed through certain carrots, and especially, certain sticks. A few discreet prods in sensitive spots will easily bring the media back into line, once the BJP gets into power. The ELM will crawl, grovel, do somersaults, sit up and beg like a trained dog -- all that is required is the application of a little judicious pain to their bottoms.

Secondly, there are certain groups that seek guidance from outside, from their handlers in various foreign countries. They may smile fetchingly and coo sweet nothings in the BJP's ear, but it must steel itself against sweet talk, because all this conceals -- to mix metaphors wildly -- an iron fist inside the velvet glove. They have vested interests diametrically opposed to India's national interests.

The BJP should not trust their honeyed words, and certainly should not promote their interests, however nice their siren songs, over those of its friends. This has been a failing on the part of the BJP before -- susceptibility to flattery, an unfortunate and common Indian fault.

The BJP has to treat its friends better. Its core constituency will never vote for the others, but they will be dispirited and demoralised if the BJP does not take care of their needs. Given the demographics and the proliferation of single-agenda, personality-cult regional parties, perhaps this core constituency alone cannot bring the BJP to power (although that is a debatable assumption). However, their absence in the game, including their refraining from voting, will guarantee defeat. They are necessary, but perhaps not sufficient.

There are a few points on which the friends of the BJP feel alienated from the party. One is the furious backpedaling on Hindu issues. There are several emotive issues: For instance, the unfair treatment of Hindus as second-class citizens in almost all spheres of life. An example is the downright unparliamentary language used by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi in reference to Sri Rama. There is a considerable feeling of hurt religious sentiments among many Hindus. The fact that they do not riot or cause a law-and-order problem does not mean people do not care.

Similarly there is the Ayodhya issue, the Amarnath issue, the Article 370 issue, the murder of Swami Lakshmanandana, the increasingly bold vilification of Hindus by various missionaries, the virulent Hindu-bashing by Communists and the DMK, the continued diversion of funds from and pauperisation of Hindu temples, and the feeling that the Indian state has set out to deliberately support Christianisation -- including the covert release of coins with Christian symbols.

The BJP counters this sentiment by saying that these are things that will cost it support from the various splinter parties that it will need to form a government, and that the key thing is to capture political power. They will point to how the Congress -- let us note they only got about 10 seats more than the BJP in the 2004 election -- nevertheless were able to vault into a position of almost dictatorial power through astutely using alliances. Let us win first, the BJP says. They do have a point, but BJP leaders and allies must be muzzled from saying things that unnecessarily estrange or discourage the core constituency: and they do say these things.

And finally, the real battleground: The vast uncommitted. A few years of increasing material wealth, as well as a burgeoning population of youth who have come of age with no particular inferiority complex vis a vis the rest of the world -- this has resulted in a cadre of people who have an enduring personal interest in the well-being of India as a nation and a civilization. They are not aspiring for foreign passports.

Many of them, who are apolitical and apathetic, can see that the changes in the economy have come not because of, but despite, the Nehruvian agenda. They realise that State control of the 'commanding heights of the economy' has been a monumental disaster everywhere. They understand that the Congress can only imagine a Stalinist, interfering State. They are not natural allies of the Congress, and much less of the Communists.

These professionals should be willing to concede that the future lies in liberalisation, privatisation and infrastructure building that the National Democratic Alliance embarked on during its stint. Congress rule in 2004-2009 has brought nothing but the same old-same old in new bottles -- subsidies, sops to vote-banks, deficit financing, corruption. The Rs 200,000 crore that they printed out of thin air is going to be a huge albatross around India's neck going forward. While the Congress will blame the global recession for India's plummeting fortunes, the fact is that they have put in systemic hurdles.

These people also have security concerns that have been worsened by the Congress' fecklessness. The invasion of Mumbai, the virtual takeover of most of Afghanistan and Pakistan by the Inter Services Intelligence and its friends the Taliban, the overthrow of the Hindu kingdom of Nepal and its annexation by forces friendly to China and Pakistan, the failed State of Pakistan, the military coup that almost overthrew the new government in Bangladesh, the ongoing end-game in Sri Lanka -- all this demonstrates that the situation in India's near-abroad is getting to be catastrophic.

Furthermore, the evidence suggests that India's internal security issues are grave. There are clearly sleeper cells that are providing succour and sustenance to enemies of the state. They strike at random civilian targets, their blood-lust spent on innocent bystanders. No big city -- Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad -- is safe for ordinary citizens. The average person can see that a lot of this has come about because of the implicit abdication of its responsibility by the Congress, including the emasculation of anti-terrorist laws. Terrorists trained in Kerala, for instance, have been found attacking Indian security forces in Jammu & Kashmir.

Given the bleak economic climate, the security issues and the general anti-incumbency sentiment, it should be possible for the BJP to appeal to the large class of undecided and new voters. Besides, many of them are probably not averse to the appeal of cultural nationalism. It is an observed fact that affluence brings about a certain pride in one's roots and background and civilisation.

Thus, by wasting no energy on the naysayers, ensuring that the faithful do not stray, and spending more of their efforts on the undecided, the BJP should be able to successfully work a triage strategy and ride it to power in 2009.

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Rajeev Srinivasan