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Looks like Unity: In the game of statues and perceptions, we can win by 'going local'

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how larger-than-life figures are stealing our attention. Today, we will focus on the most damaging kind of attention bandit — the big politician. Democracies are big stages for attention-stealing political stunts because leaders’ fates rest on, basically, audience voting. One can think of democracy as one massive reality TV show — and it is often about as ‘real’ as those reality shows are.

In this game of attention-stealing, the prize is control over the perceptions of the audience. Since we live in the age of an information explosion, we do not have the time to check the accuracy of our perceptions. News comes at us so fast that even newsmedia organisations are eschewing fact-checking.

Apart from being inundated, we are also concerned with events that are so distant, and so complex, that we do not have the resources to get to the bottom of them. So we outsource this digging to commentators and opinion-makers. And since we rely on these opinion-makers, of course, people in power do everything they can to influence them, using intimidation or money.

The Statue of Unity. Reuters/Amit Dave

The Statue of Unity. Reuters/Amit Dave

When it comes to perception management, the BJP has shown a genius for it. Indeed, they have been so good at it that they have exposed the Congress for a complacent, outdated organisation. And as a marketer, I have been fascinated by the creative use of Photoshop by BJP supporters: from bullet trains transplanted onto an Indian platform to claiming a picture of Guangzhou is actually Ahmedabad, to really creative graphs.

I think the BJP caught on to the fact that we Indians don’t mind exaggerations; indeed, we even depend on them. We badly want to believe these things are real. They make us feel good. Think of all the shining hair and blinding smiles in shampoo and toothpaste advertisements; think of Bollywood spectacles. It’s no accident that two of Indian advertising’s biggest icons, Piyush Pandey and Prasoon Joshi, worked on BJP’s ad campaigns.

Which brings us to the current spate of statue-building. A statue or a monument has one of three uses. The first, and most noble, is a Keynesian purpose, where the Government builds a monument to inject liquidity and generate employment. Take the example of the Bara Imambara in Lucknow. When faced with an unprecedented famine in 1784, the then Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula employed 20,000 workers for fourteen years. Common men worked by day to build the monument, and noblemen worked by night to knock it down. As a relief measure, its success was marked by how long and to how many people it provided employment.

In contrast, the Statue of Unity employed 4,500 workers (including American architect Joseph Menna, and several hundred Chinese workers). It awarded the contract to the big multinational conglomerate Larson & Toubro, with a priority to finish the project as quickly as possible, within the five-year term of the government. They succeeded; the statue came up in 33 short months. Even though clever viral messaging (with 64k likes and 40k shares) is trying to spin this construction as a Keynesian measure, we can easily rule this motivation out.

The second reason to build a monument is to attract tourism. But if this was the aim, would the monument be built far from urban centers and existing infrastructure? And would a nationalist theme like ‘Unity’ be celebrated, as opposed to more universal themes like ‘liberty’ or ‘peace’ that will attract international tourists?

The third reason for building a statue is perception. And the Prime Minister himself said at a rally on 18 November in Madhya Pradesh that by building this statue, ‘we have shown India’s capability’, or, in other words, advertised it — the statue was built to play the perception game. But what did it really advertise? Will Indian companies be invited to build such statues in the rest of the world? In contrast, China has built its hard-nosed competitive edge in manufacturing to the point where California hired Chinese manufacturers to build the San Francisco-Oakland bridge.

To understand why our Government has built a massive advertisement instead of building capability, a concept discussed by developmental economist Lant Pritchett, of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, is particularly valuable. Professor Pritchett mentions that some developing nations copy the outward forms of a developed nation, without adding the substance. Why would a government prefer form over substance? It’s because solving actual problems is hard and time-consuming. It is much more possible to erect a façade of a robust nation rather than build its foundations. Pritchett calls this ‘looking like a nation’ rather than actually being a nation. What is the Statue of Unity mimicking? The Statue of Liberty in New York (though even the Americans did not spend money on it—it was a gift from the old colonial power, France).

But while this mirage may briefly obscure the reality — India’s poverty and its reliance on aid — its consequences will not be averted by a statue. With farmers committing suicide and continuing poverty and malnutrition, every minute and rupee spent playing the perception game exacts terrible costs. Some of these compromise — you guessed it — our unity itself.

Sardar Patel understood that unity is not just about building the right symbols, that the foundation of unity lies in people not being discontented and hungry, as farmers’ marches in Mumbai and Delhi have shown they are. He famously said, ‘My only desire is that India should be a good producer and no one should be hungry, shedding tears for food in the country.’ The man would not be content with a statue that only looks like unity. Indeed, even as the final touches were being put to the Statue of Unity, migrant workers from the Hindi belt were fleeing Gujarat after being systematically targeted due to a paucity of opportunity, so much so that migrant workers working on the statue itself had to be given reassurances and increased police protection.

We are not free of the blame. We are easily distracted by big, flashy jumlas, and don’t really have the time left over to assess, or even notice, the real, slow, difficult work that is needed for us to meet our national aspirations. Governments insecure of their hold on power will inevitably spend money on what is easy to manage — our perceptions — than harder to do, which is transform our reality.

So how to climb out of perception into reality? We can start by going local. Politicians may be able to fool us about distant things, but they cannot fool us as easily about our immediate environment. Our democracy was designed as a local democracy, not the national, Presidential one it has become. In 2019, let us use sites like myneta.info, run by the Association for Democratic Reforms, to become more aware of who is running in our constituency. Let us track how they are voting and performing in parliament. Let us read local news. Instead of voting for the party that fits our ideology, let us vote responsible people into our political parties.

And as for the BJP and its supporters — I still remember the India Shining campaign. As a young teen, for a few short weeks, I actually believed we had made a great leap forward. But then the elections happened: the BJP lost, and the UPA was in power for a decade. The trouble with making tall claims in marketing, as any marketer will tell you, is that if the gap between perception and reality becomes too big, the consumer punishes the marketer. Remember Mayawati’s statuary in Lucknow, and its electoral consequences? The BJP may be acing the perception game, but that’s not going to be enough.


Updated Date: Nov 21, 2018 10:56 AM

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