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“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” by Abraham Lincoln
Many studies have been conducted to explore how reputation impedes/ enhances the growth of private companies. But very few articles have explored the importance of reputation, narratives and network in a political party/ organisation. This article will explore how loss of reputation has played a major role in the decline of Indian National Congress (INC) – a political party in India – and how the superior reputation of BJP’s leader Mr Narendra Modi has helped his Party win consecutive elections. The article would also analyze the importance of narratives and network in a political organization.
Indian National Congress (INC) was founded in 1885, to fight against British imperialism in South Asia. Since 1947, when India attained independence, to 2014, INC has ruled India for a total of 57 years out of the 67 years. Since Independence, most of the presidents of INC and Congress Prime Ministers have come from the Nehru – Gandhi family – Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. From 2004 to 2014, congress ruled India for 2 successive 5 year terms, with a non-Gandhi, Dr Mahmohan Singh, as prime minister. However during this time Sonia Gandhi, Italian born Wife of Rajiv Gandhi, held presidency of INC. Until 1999 federal elections, no party apart from congress has ever completed a full 5 year term. So therefore it would not be an aberration to say that until 2000s India was a single party democracy, which was dominated by the INC.
In 2011, Rahul Gandhi, SON of Rajiv Gandhi, was projected as the next prime ministerial candidate of the Congress. During the same time, BJP, the main opposition party of India, elected Mr Modi, to run against Mr Rahul Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi proved as someone with no match with Narendra Modi’s political acumen, rhetorical ability and administrative experience. Modi comes with 15 years’ experience in ruling a wealth Indian state of Gujarat. BJP constructed a strong narrative to dent the reputation of Rahul Gandhi and it proved hugely successful owing to both the campaign and Rahul Gandhi’s behaviour.
In 2014, INC under chairmanship of Rahul Gandhi, faced a humiliating defeat at the hands of BJP and Modi. In Fact in that election Congress party secured just 44 of 545 parliament seats — the lowest tally in its history. In 2019, though BJP did not do a great job, it did not improve its performance much- winning 52 of the 545 parliament seats – recording its 2nd lowest tally historically. But Modi’s 1st term between 2014 and 2019 wasn’t exceptional, in fact the Indian unemployment rate stood at 38 year low; there was a growing Agrarian crisis; and the SMEs were killed due to demonetisation. Though the opposition, under Rahul Gandhi, vigorously fought on these failures, its electoral performance did not improve much, congress just managed to win just 8 additional seats, thus securing its second ever historical defeat. So how did INC, face existential crises from being a hegemony just a decade earlier, why wasn’t Congress able to capitalise on the failures of the BJP government.
For any organisation, for profit, non-profit or political party, reputation is very important. Reputation is of two types – Capability and Character reputation. Capability reputation deals with the ability of an organisation to get work done whereas character reputation deals with the perceived goals and true intention of an organisation. Also for any political party the reputation is both Organizational and Individual. Organisational reputation means that reputation is collective, and assessment regarding an organization’s capability to do good is based on its characteristics and qualities. Another reason why reputation is very important is because of perfect information – as people cannot see the behaviour of the organisation and its characteristics, they use the cues left the company and its personnel form a perception about the organisation and this perception is prone to behavioural biases.
INC lost both – Capability by elevating Rahul Gandhi and perceived nepotism & Character by numerous corruption scandals. The congress government since 2009 was also involved in various scams which included two of India’s biggest scam ever: 2g scam and Coal scam. The 2G scam accounted for discrepancy in issuing of 2G spectrum licenses that cost the indian exchequer more than Euro 20 billion, and Coal scam costing indian exchequer more than 10 Billion. Both these scams received wide public attention, and Prime Minister was directly linked to both these scams. Besides the economy between 2011 and 2014 also slowed down. Though the economy slowdown was due to steep increases in oil price – public perceived the same due to lack of administrative capacity.
Most congress leaders including Mr Rahul Gandhi involved in a flamboyant life style. Rahul Gandhi’s favorite hobby is flying. Moreover he has also garnered a reputation of holidaying abroad in Europe/ South America. During a discussion on farmer sucide at the parliament, Rahul Gandhi was spotted in a chartered plane somewhere in Europe. These kind of behaviour created a perception among people that Rahul Gandhi as an Elite, who doesn’t care about the masses. Furthermore Rahul Gandhi suffers from Adverse selection problem or lemons problem: Lack of information about a person/ product would make people underestimate/ overestimate the product and here more perceptions come into play.
In Contrast to Rahul Gandhi, Mr Modi, has proved his ability by serving as a Chief Minister of Gujarat for 15 years, during his time as the Chief Minister he gained a very positive capability reputation for transforming Gujarat into one of the most developed provinces in India. Since Mr Gandhi is yet to prove his capability reputation whatever he proclaims against Modi – like lack of employment generation, agrarian crisis, people are not likely to take him seriously. They assumed that the real reason for non-performance of modi was due to external factors like global market slowdown or due to the bad shape of the economy during congress regime itself.
There are not many things more important in politics than the power of narratives. This is partly true due to the human tendency to depend a lot on rhetoric and narrative to understand the world around us (White 1980). Although any two politicians may say the share the same view but however the rhetoric they chose might enable people perceive them differently. The Internet and social media has only increased the importance of narrative.
In fact Hilary Clinton lost her election mainly because she failed to create a personal narrative that could inspire voters, which, her opponent, Donald Trump, chose to do very well. To get people’s attention is not easy, so the message has to be repetitive and simple. Trump chose repetitives such as “Let’s make America great again”; “Let us build a wall; He repeated these repetitives again and again, which thereby created a strong connect with voters. Similar to Mr Trump, Mr Modi has extraordinary rhetorical ability and impeccable knack for narratives that give him magical connect with the masses. Modi also uses powerful terminology such as “I was a tree seller”; “I was born and raised poor so i know what poor of this country want. Modi made people see him as one of their own and as somebody who would definitely represent them.
Also BJP and Modi successfully delegitimize Rahul Gandhi by successfully framing him as a Rich prince who does not understand the world, and he is in politics only because of hereditary. He was referred to as “Papu” meaning an innocent boy or a dumb person. Papu was used by all BJP leaders for over a decade in both parliament and in social media. The electrified IT Cell of the BJP left no stone unturned to make a ‘Pappu’ out of Rahul Gandhi, and soon memes, jokes and fake news was made out of Rahul Gandhi. BJP also successfully framed congress as a party of corrupt elites who does not have any concern for the poor of the country has a very strong whatsapp base – through which the message of the party both truth and fake news was propagated. The successful BJP propaganda was helped by poor rhetorical ability of Mr Gandhi, who made a lot of misreads during public rally. He in fact once even publicly mentioned that “Poverty is only a state of mind”. In Fact even an organisation like ISIS publishes an achievement report – In keep cadres motivated/ Gain legitimacy. But INC does not have such a strategy to keep the cadres motivated.
“For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Matthew effect. A political party and its leader are expected to have a strong social network. Political parties need to have strong network with various stakeholders- such as Media personnel, Corporate houses, Coalition parties. Personal network and reputation drastically increases the ability of the politician to attract political campaign funding.
Network is of two types closed network and open network. Reputation in closed networks are formed based on perception- Which some may not be true. If the leaders reputation within the network isn’t good then he may lose credibility with alliance partners, and party members. As per insider information, Rahul Gandhi has garnered reputation within the party of being someone who doesn’t listen and has an attention span. One of the prominent members of congress from North East, Mr Himantu Biswas, left congress for BJP because when he was having a serious discussion about loss future of congress, Rahul Gandhi was found playing with his dog. Closed networks – Media circle, Rotary, Freemasonry, Delhi Gymkhana club and Confederation Indian Industry would be an example of closed networks. Also unlike Mr Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi maintains a close circle coterie of servile flatters creating Echo chambers- A group who say what he has to hear. Definitely Echo chamber effect creates a negative effect on decision making of political parties..
For any organisation, a culture is formed on the lines of Solitary (Friendliness) & Solitude (ability to finish a task quickly and efficiently). Congress after Indian Independence also suffers from Ideological paralysis, which makes it difficult for the party to keep the cadres motivated towards a cause. The BJP on the other hand has a very strong ideology founded on the lines Hindutva – ‘cultural nationalism’ and its conception of ‘Indian nationhood’. This strong ideology helps the party leaders to be bound together. Role of gossips – The rumours about Rahul Gandhi has had a negative effect within the party and negotiating partners.
This paper, explored the relevance of Reputation & Narratives for political parties, and why the same is very important. The study also found that strong reputation gives the party and its leader legitimacy to operate. Other significant observation made was that how reputation could be manipulated and how people have strong irrational biases when forming opinions. Therefore in case of a large organisation the perception help by people may not be real. The study also observes that further research in necessary to identify what the INC should do to win over its reputation in-order to take on the juggernaut, the Bjp. Typical Rahul Gandhi propaganda photos – sent via whatsapp – to create a narrative that dents his capability reputation.
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