Agitate Or Perish

There is a guy I know from my school days. Throughout school, he remained in that wider circle of “guys I know” but never a “friend”, despite him being a nice lad and despite many shared interests — sports, similar tastes in books / movies etc. Looking back, it is easy for me to put my finger on why this nice lad who shares a lot of my own interests never made it to my “friends” list:

I didn’t count on him to stand by me, if push comes to shove.

In school, you subconsciously pick up these signs.

Who are the ones who slipped away first, when the principal showed up unexpectedly at the smoking adda?

Who risked their necks to distract the princi while you were kicking the incriminating evidence into the bush?

Who stayed above the fray in that scrap during the football match between 10A and 10B?

Who came out firing all cylinders, without wasting time to split hairs about who is right or wrong and without worrying much about what the teachers would think?

Trust, is what it is all about. Trust is not a science — one cannot earn trust just by being nice or just by professing interest in the value sets you uphold. Sure, he follows the same sports team that I follow, he has a bookshelf full of books by authors I love. That, is just a lifestyle statement, not any basis for trust.

Trust is something that needs to be demonstrated. That too, not just a one-off, but a continuous demonstration. It needs to be etched into your subconscious mind, that this lad will have your back. That is when you move him into that inner ring labelled “friend” — on the basis of demonstrated trust.

The relationship between an electorate and a political party is along similar lines.

A party can have an excellent manifesto, an elegant website, well-intentioned set of ideals and even likeable public faces. However, that alone does not foster trust. For that, like your friends in school who were willing to scrap for your cause, the political party needs to continuously demonstrate its end of the bargain — it needs to visibly agitate when its constituents are wronged or even perceived to be wronged. Like your school friends who would abandon their safe neutral zones and jump into the fray, a political party needs to come out swinging for its support base and not be straddling the safe middle-line, if they are to earn that trust, if they are to be trusted as the party that has their backs when a push comes to a shove.

Political parties, need to visibly agitate, not just to stay relevant but more importantly, to demonstrate to the electorate that “we have your back”.

Leaders like Arvind Kejriwal & Mamta Banerjee continue to agitate even when they are occupying the Chief Minister’s offices in their respective states — they are not stupid in doing this. They are demonstrating to their support base, that they care. It is also a firewall against ceding their political space to a new entrant. This is about defending their home turf.

As for parties in opposition, visible and continuous agitation, even unconditional agitation at times, is the only way to stay relevant especially when the established media has morphed into a government PR machine. No amount of social media finessing or suave parliamentary speeches are going to make them heard in this government-PR dominated media environment. An opposition party needs to agitate — visibly, continuously and if required unreasonably — to stay relevant and to reassure the electorate that, “we have your back”. Agitation is not just a useful propaganda tool; it is also a highly effective counter-propaganda tool.

If an opposition party’s agitation is for-namesakes or sporadic or conditional then they risk ceding their political space to others who agitate visibly, who come out swinging from the word go, who are not squeamish about losing a bit of their “nice folks” image.

Coming back to that guy I know from my school days: we ended up in the same college, where he continued to prefer sitting on a fence so finely defined that it might have cut his arse, than risking an actual position. On the other hand, there were others who left their own safe zones, agitated, demonstrated and scrapped for matters that affected all of us. They earned my trust and became my comrades while he remains, to this day, “the nice guy I know from my school days”.

Similarities with any political parties, if any, are not at all coincidental.


#1 Based on our Twitter-chat after I posted this piece, Sachin Tandon wrote an excellent counter-view, where he explores what transpired in the mind of that “guy I know from my school days”. As promised, I have linked Sachin’s post here. Please read!

#2 bottomlinesman has sent in the following response, a short but from-the-heart piece, here. Please read!

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