Personalities, Politics and zero sum games
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

Ideas have changed the landscape of the world throughout history. Starting write-ups with clichés is one among a long list of enduring ideas. Mediocre ideas have rarely made much impact. But it is the really brilliant ones and the atrociously bad ones that have been extremely penetrative. Regardless of the merit of ideas that have changed the world remarkably, there is one attribute common to most of these ideas – they were comprehensively intelligible to a very minuscule but powerful few who steered the course of collective destinies.

For any idea to become accepted its articulation and its illustration are the most crucial dimensions. As Eleanor Roosevelt once astutely observed, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” Hence the success of any political idea depends on how well it is articulated to cater to those who associate contemporary political life with ideas, those who look at politics as a chain of events without necessarily perceiving the undercurrents that led the events and those who perceive politics only through the prism of personalities who represent those ideas.

In a country where heavy intellectual asymmetry combines with universal adult franchise to dumb down electoral discourse to absurdities, ideological principles, however benign cannot affect outcomes much. But what can affect the outcome is the packaging. The best way to package an idea is to brand it. This brand creation obviously revolves around a personality who represents the ideology exemplarily. When any political party footsoldier goes around trying to feel the political pulse of the people, he will understand that there are only two things they often care about – their immediate daily life concerns and their perception of the local or national face of the political party. Thus developing an aura around some personalities who exemplify the principles you want to popularize is the easiest way to make an esoteric idea percolate down to the masses.

While there is a mass reach related expediency in making personalities a centre of propaganda, there’s also the small matter of personalities who become as important as the ideological principles simply because they bring the force of their conviction and herald a paradigm shift in the implementation of ideological principles. Here the messenger becomes the message. Such people are rare. But when they arrive they need to be utilized to their maximum potential because these are people who appeal to the whole spectrum – from those who evaluate ideas while voting to those who look for mascots.

In the collective psyche of the nation, most prominent public figures have a particular idea or a persona associated with them – be it consciously created or natural.

For example, Nehru had a certain persona associated with him and a lot of it is said to have been carefully cultivated while Gandhi created an aura out of the sheer force of his personality. Gandhi as the messenger of independence from the colonial rule is so well entrenched in the nation’s psyche that there are people who are reaping some, if not heavy electoral benefits just out of his name even today.

In the case of Narendra Modi, he’s seen as either an assertive Hindu or as a development deliverer by his admirers whereas his adversaries have tried to create a persona out of him that suits their interests. Modi’s case assumes importance because he’s increasingly being seen as a lone no-holds-barred, no-punches-pulled sort of politician from the BJP stable who takes the Congress, Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh on without any botheration over unnecessary niceties. This could be because he has been like that throughout his days in Gujarat and his public appearances.

Whether he can replicate the same persona even after getting touched by the perfumes of Delhi are still to be seen. But this persona of an uncompromising combatant, while helping Modi to an extent has brought to the fore frictions between two groups – one regards him the only man who doesn’t take prisoners thereby hinting everyone else from the BJP at the Centre is sold out and the other which regards the blind devotees are making Modi bigger than the party and the ideology.

Much is made of the perceived dichotomy between the message and the messenger. This is a very alluring argument to take sides in because it allows one to bask in the idealistic sunshine by saying principles are bigger than personalities or to appear a realist by saying the lack of belligerence in the Central BJP is due to the deals they’ve struck with adversaries.

But the fact remains that in a universal adult franchise based model where most of the populace does not and cannot vote on core economic or ideological issues, the messenger who can translate ideological principles into tangible and illustrative concepts becomes paramount to beat the entrenched socialists and unrelenting populist powers that rule the roost. While the message of efficient governance or a strong and resurgent nation is a good one to transmit, there has not been much of a constituency for it in terms of electoral gains because of the inherent reconditeness of these topics. Some packaging and personification needs to be associated with the message for it to be able to percolate to all the layers of the electorate.

The argument of messenger versus message is a zero sum game. There needs to be a strong message with good political imagination in packaging it. And there needs to be a messenger associated with the message to provide it impetus in terms of illustration of the message. And neither can supersede each other or the ground realities that dictate electioneering.