If Narendra Modi stops to think of the last 17 months of his stewardship of India, he can break them down into three phases: A dream phase that lasted around six months till November 2014, a yo-yo phase when legislative (coal, insurance) and economic successes (diesel decontrol, coal auctions, Jan Dhan Yojana etc) were being rudely dismissed as sideshows while his enemies drafted a new negative narrative around him (church attacks, ghar wapsi), and a downhill phase where all his enemies at home and abroad have gained complete control of the mainstream media discourse around the Central government.
The Supreme Court’s decision to unceremoniously dump the Modi government’s biggest legislative success — the National Judicial Appointments Commission — is really a signal that the courts no longer fear the power of an elected government. And if the BJP coalition manages to lose Bihar, Modi’s enemies will be on a rampage.
This is astonishing for even now Modi’s achievements outweigh his failures. But if the dominant English media narrative is one where the devil’s horns can easily be painted on Modi’s head, it is because the prime minister has been unable to gauge the power of the forces ranged against him, and has failed to build the right kind of allies so that he can ultimately win the war of perceptions.
Three failures will cost him plenty and could conceivably derail his administration: A pathetic communications strategy — assuming there is one at all; a failure to surround himself with competent people, including friendly critics; and an inability to distinguish real friends from ‘frenemies’ (friends with negative agendas).
Modi’s communication strategy is simply not working. Making a rousing election speech is Bihar and speaking from the heart at a Mann ki Baat session are, of course, important, but they can achieve little when your rivals have a better strategy and, moreover, control the mainstream English media, with allies in the powerful international media, the Indian and international Left, and the Christian Right in the US.
The English media mafia’s strategy is simple: First, ratchet up small incidents as big issues, keep adding up unrelated negative developments and build hysteria, demand statements from the PM and lay a trap for him. If he makes one, demand more action and point out any failure anywhere in the country as more talk than action; if he stays silent, that will be considered damning in itself. Modi’s enemies have the advantage: If any allegation sticks, they will claim vociferous vindication; if it doesn’t, they will shrug it off and look for the next incident to collar him.
Nothing illustrates this better than the so-called “church attacks” in Delhi and rape of a nun in West Bengal last year and early this year. Most of the Delhi “attacks” turned out to be random events, and the Bengal one turned out to have been perpetrated by a Bangladeshi. But no apologies were given for this irresponsible muck-raking.
Modi himself seems to have learnt the wrong lessons from the “church attacks” incident. He went out of his way to assure church leaders and even personally attended an event to celebrate the canonisation of a Keralite Catholic. But his efforts went in vain as RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat made a negative comment on Mother Teresa — not without basis — and Modi’s efforts to appease Christians after the “church attacks” came to nought.
The lesson Modi seems to have learnt from this fiasco is that making strong statements does not help and this attitude possibly resulted in his his long silence on the Dadri lynching, where he spoke too little and too late. The media laid a trap again and Modi has walked into it.
What Modi needs to really learn is that as PM he will have to make appropriate statements on many developments. It may help sometimes, it may boomerang sometimes, but he cannot keep mum. Of course, he needs to make political judgment calls on when to make what kind of statement — some are merely meant to show empathy and concern, some may need follow up action. He clearly needs a media advisory team that gives him the right advice that is also politically astute.
The second thing he needs to be clear about is that he has to create his own media constituency. The English language media is a paper tiger, but it has international clout. But the Indian language media is equally powerful locally and capable of counter-balancing the English language media’s mischief. But, surprisingly, Modi has made almost no effort to build this constituency. He should have had the regional media eating out of his hands, but he has remained equally aloof from them. This is inexplicable. If I was Modi, this is the media I would woo continuously and put the Lutyens media in its place.
The third point to underscore is that communication is everybody’s job. The government’s two best communicators are Arun Jaitley and Amit Shah. They should be deployed more in media ops, and every member of the cabinet should be given a brief to reach out to the media.
Media outreach is particularly important when you are frequently going to have to counter the nonsense spewed by the Sakshi Maharajs and assorted Sadhvis, not to speak of various RSS or VHP functionaries. While these people can be asked to pipe down, you can’t always ensure this, especially when a hostile media is trying to get these people to say something outrageous. And this is true not only for loudmouth parivar elements, but even others. Personal restraint snaps under media pressure, and people say things without thinking — as Gen VK Singh’s “dog” comment suggests. It is highly improbable that he was equating Dalits with dogs and his sharp statement was more a reaction to the media, but the damage gets done nevertheless.
Clearly, Modi needs an instant damage control media department that puts things in perspective before someone’s statement hits primetime without official clarification. In the era of sound-bite journalism and instant outrage on TV and social media, the government’s responses must be well-thought-out — and also instant. There is no sign that this is happening in the Modi government despite repeated mishaps with the foot-in-mouth league.
This is particularly needed as the Sangh leadership is a frenemy — it supports Modi, but has its own agenda. Moreover, the Sangh’s leadership possibly fears that Modi can easily make them irrelevant. The Sangh cadre is all for Modi, and so is the party grassroots and the youth population at large. The Sangh knows that a political party is always going to be more powerful than a social organisation and Modi’s popularity is also a threat to its power over the BJP. This is why it drops a clanger and embarrasses Modi at crucial moments — as Bhagwat did with his remarks on reservations before the Bihar elections.
It is possible for Modi to both manage the Sangh and the government, but only if he surrounds himself with capable ministers and not stooges and yes-men. He needs more Nitin Gadkaris, Suresh Prabhus, Manohar Parrikars and Sushma Swarajs than the JP Naddas or Smriti Iranis. The latter should be given more political roles and less ministerial ones, for that is where they will shine. Crucial ministries like health and HRD cannot be left to lightweights without the intellectual capacity to handle the issues that need urgent handling.
To sum up: Modi needs to do three things right away: Set up an ace communications team, induct more talent while shifting underperformers out to different roles, and, most important, learn to separate friendly critics and competent allies from mindless supporters and truly intemperate Sanghi voices.
2016 can become another turning point for Modi as the time is ripe; Modi’s critics have actually overplayed their hand by unfair and excessive criticism, and this is the time to neuter them through an effective media outreach and communications strategy.
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