“The struggle of man against power,” wrote Milan Kundera, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
Public memory is usually a few months long. Beyond that, people remember what they are made to remember. We have no memory of the deaths of 40 million Indians in the cholera, plague and influenza pandemics that took place between 1817 to 1920. We don’t remember it because school history textbooks don’t tell us about it.
India’s opposition parties will attempt to make people remember for a long time the devastation caused by the second wave of COVID-19. Given the scale of the devastation, people may not easily forget it. Yet the opposition will have a hard time keeping these memories alive for too long.
Most opposition parties don’t have a direct channel of communication to the masses. They have very little space in the media, relatively small social media budgets, and hardly any WhatsApp groups, hardly any charismatic leaders who command attention, very few party workers to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party’s door-to-door direct persuasion of voters.
Most of all, they don’t have a coherent communication strategy that requires a campaign to communicate to the people. Twitter and press conferencing is not enough to be heard by 1.3 billion people.
The BJP will now try its best to make people forget these three horrible months, April to June 2021. We can’t say yet whether they will succeed in Project Amnesia, or by when. But here’s how they might try:
Pretend it never happened
The failure of demonetisation in 2016 and the pain caused by the poor implementation of Goods and Services Tax in 2017 were big issues. Yet the BJP made the people get over them by not talking about them. The opposition, the government’s critics, sections of the media may keep talking about it, but the BJP is very good at pretending something doesn’t exist.
Note how they stopped pretending one fine day that CAA and NRC are part of their agenda, or how they’ve stopped pretending they want to pursue farm laws even as farmers continue protesting. The entire world may provoke the BJP into responding on the topic but they won’t if they have decided not to.
Bring a new Big Bang
Pretending it never happened is not good enough. To make the public stop talking about Topic A, they need Topic B. This is not the same as finding small deflections, such as having a few opposition leaders arrested on corruption charges.
This needs a new Big Bang event, big enough to rival the one we need people to forget. A big new disruptive policy, a big new national security crisis, a big news season of state election victories. Opposition and critics won’t know whether they should talk about the previous issue or the new one or the next one. Speedy movement from one topic to another is key.
Deflect attention to Third Wave
While we are in the midst of a devastating second wave, the BJP is trying its best to already make us think of the Third Wave. Having been caught off guard by the second wave, all central and state governments will obviously be at their best for the third wave.
Notice how a baseless idea has been spread that children will be at risk in the third wave. So when the third wave is pre-empted or well-handled, the BJP can say they did badly in only one out of three waves, as if it was a three-match tournament. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath and RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat have already said as much.
Deflect with shrill nationalism
The lynching of a man from minority community in Haryana, false accusations at the Congress for targeting the Kumbh Mela, the Israel-Palestine conflict, are just some events that indicate the BJP is trying its best to deflect attention to Hindu nationalism.
This is mostly to prevent the BJP’s core supporters from getting disillusioned, but the opposition and the liberal critics often do fall into this trap. Sometimes they don’t have an option, because the persecution of religious minorities can’t be ignored either.
Blame the opposition
Offence is the best form of defence. The BJP follows this dictum every time it is in trouble. The BJP has already begun attacking opposition parties as if they are responsible for COVID second wave.
For example, a factually incorrect claim is being spread far and wide by BJP supporters, that the opposition Congress party was against vaccines, and that it was spreading vaccine scepticism.
Direct cash transfer
For a month or so, in December 2019, the state of Assam was rocked by violent protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. You would have thought the BJP would lose the Assam assembly election in 2021.
But the BJP government in Assam doled out cash transfer schemes to millions of people, making them vote for BJP despite not being happy about CAA. The cash transfer to farmers just before the 2019 general elections has become something of a model for the BJP to neutralise public disenchantment, making people forget their resentments.