If big politics is now mostly about headline management, BJP has emerged its unassailable practitioner

Look back on the headlines screaming out of your front pages and causing prime time shoutrage about a week ago. These were all about nephew-uncle duo Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi and the money they had stolen from Punjab National Bank. In their wake came Vikram Kothari of Rotomac pens and sundry others, in the sub-Rs 1,000 crore zone. It seemed there was a run on PSU banks.

It wasn’t good for a government that came to power on the plank of fighting corruption. Critics and the Congress were mocking Narendra Modi for claiming to be the chowkidar (watchman) of public money. Commentators were saying BJP had lost its anti-corruption plank, especially as Nirav Modi had featured close to Modi in that Davos group photo.

Vijay Mallya and Lalit Modi, the names of two other celebrity tax/debt exiles, were added to the latest ones. The doughtiest BJP spokespersons were struggling on TV channels. Their argument that the theft took place under the UPA in 2011 was defeated by the CBI’s own FIRs. Those headlines were looking ugly. Then it all changed. These headlines died. New ones appeared.

No, I am not suggesting that Sridevi’s death had something. That was obviously a pure and tragic coincidence. But the larger change was man-made, or rather BJP-made. So think of the headlines as this column goes into print: Did Karti Chidambaram take $700,000 from Indrani and Peter Mukerjea? Did his father help in striking that “deal”? Karti is denied home-cooked food while in custody, but the judge has allowed him to keep wearing his gold chains, and so on.

The discourse has changed. He could have been arrested any of these days over the past several weeks. Please note he wasn’t arrested when he was leaving the country, but when he arrived at airport immigration. Because, if you want to control the message, timing is the thing.

This was a sledgehammer blow, but check out the other, more artful stuff that’s been happening. After remaining frozen for four years, the appointment of a Lokpal has made a comeback. As expected, the Congress protested and another set of virtuous headlines emerged. Then the latest, at this week’s cabinet meeting, the decision to pass an anti-fugitive law, whereby anybody not responding to enforcement agencies within six weeks will be declared a fugitive. You’d wonder what further difference it would make to Mallya or the jeweller Modis if they were also declared fugitive. Besides, the question we can reasonably ask: aren’t they fugitives already? On another day I would have dismissed it as ‘Lawlipop Politics’ (throw in a law when you can’t fix a problem). Not now. Because it serves the purpose beautifully.

Another set of leaks emerged saying the government may bring in new rules whereby immigration authorities will prevent all wilful defaulters of bank loans from leaving the country. Now, in terms of just legality and fundamental rights, who would decide whether a citizen is a wilful defaulter or it is a case of business loss? Further, isn’t it like the typical old Indian police method of posting cops outside any house that’s just been burgled—never mind that it failed to prevent the burglary?

Compare the state of politics today with just a week ago when the BJP was on the ropes. On every channel now, the BJP is back on the attack and the Congress is defending the Chidambarams. Elsewhere, the editorial commentary and talk is about Lokpal, anti-fugitive bill and immigration restrictions on defaulters. A new regulator has been announced to oversee the chartered accountants who in turn oversee the nationalised banks. These banks have apparently been also ordered to report to the CBI all wilful defaults above Rs 50 crore. CBI also registered a case against promoters of Simbhaoli sugar mills, including Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh’s son-in-law, for “loan fraud” on a PSU bank. Remember, it started with those fat-cat jewellers escaping before all this fortification was put in place, with about Rs 20,000 crore in all, that one of them featured in that Davos photo and another was addressed by the PM with a familiar “Mehul Bhai”, though in a light-hearted jibe. That was bad news, so forgettable, and forgotten.

Within a week, a government reeling under charges of failing to save such massive loot, being friends and complicit with alleged thieves, allowing PSU banks to be bankrupted under its watch, had morphed into the exact opposite: a government of relentless, unforgiving corruption fighters.

That’s the art of politics by headline management.

List the big crisis points in the nearly four years of this government and you will see the same strategy at work. The setback in Uri was set right soon enough with highly dramatised “surgical strikes”. Questioning that would amount to doubting the armed forces so the opposition also mostly shut up and applauded. When the pain of demonetisation seemed building to unacceptable levels, stories and pictures of several tens of crores of cash found in different parts of the country came up. In the course of time, it became evident that most of these pictures of cash-piles were fake. But for the moment, the mood had shifted.

The Rohith Vemula suicide saw the scene shift immediately to JNU and registration of sedition cases against “Bharat tere tukde” speeches allegedly by Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid, although nobody has as yet seen a video with either of them saying it. The crisis in Doklam was a more urgent issue and a simpler method was used: just “persuasion” with TV channels and newspapers to not make a big deal of it in the national interest. None of our commando-comedians who sound like they are itching every evening to carry out their own surgical strikes across the Kashmir LoC even mentioned Doklam.

 All governments try owning the message, but the Modi-Shah BJP has developed it into a fine art. All new headlines conform to the three essential attributes of Brand Modi for the voters: an incorruptible corruption fighter, an unabashed protector of Hindu-ised nationalism, shoulders so broad and chest so wide that no crisis ever brings a crease to his face. Because he knows he has done nothing wrong and that he is unassailable.

That’s why he has chosen never to respond to any setback. Compare that with Manmohan Singh and his government. They would go into hiding even if it was rumoured that somebody stole tomatoes from a subzi-wala (vegetable-seller) cart under their watch. They must see the Modi government’s performance during its crises with awe, and should also applaud its political genius.

This article was originally publeshed in The Print.