The story of BJP’s communication and Congress’ miscommunication

Narendra Modi used digital and social media brilliantly, and ages before others. In contrast, the Congress' gameplan looked slow, surly and sloppy. This made all the crucial difference.

 |  14-minute read |   13-06-2019
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The power of political communication isn’t a new phenomenon. Speeches, social media posts, media interviews, slogans, manifestos and advertisements — every component of political communication leaves a huge impression in the minds of voters, influencing voting behaviour.

Political parties have witnessed whirlwind success with messaging that builds an instinctive connection of the candidate with voters — Modi 2.0 is the perfect example of this.

As the second Modi government has taken shape, it becomes necessary to reflect on the story of the BJP’s communication — and the Congress’ miscommunication. The BJP’s ground-breaking victory is the result of political communication done right. And it’s time we understood how politics is all about storytelling.

Let’s begin by taking a look at Narendra Modi’s journey, the man who helped the BJP sell its story to the masses. After all, getting two majority governments in place is no easy feat.

When in 2002, the Opposition went bonkers labelling him as a 'mass murderer', this man was busy creating his brand — a brand that was soon going to overshadow all others. With carefully crafted campaigns and excellent use of state-of-the-art technology, he was ahead of his game.

He knew what the country was looking for.

bn-of374_indmod_m_20_061219012527.jpgI know what you want: Narendra Modi started cultivating his online persona in 2009, much before other political leaders. (Photo: PTI)

Sensing the disenchantment of a majority of the Hindu population with the then-government’s appeasement politics, Narendra Modi successfully built the imagery of ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ — someone who'd stand up for Hindu rights. The keyword was perfect. So were the keywords chosen later on.

Take the 'NaMo' acronym. Sounding similar to the Sanskrit term Namo which is used as a salutation for the Hindu gods, it was a classic moniker to attract traditional Hindus.

Modi, being the quick learner that he is, joined Twitter way back in 2009 and even got his website ready much before other political leaders in the country. In contrast, the Congress, which was at the centre at that time, did nothing to utilise the power of social media.

Carefully enough, Narendra Modi made his presence felt. So, when LK Advani lost the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, Narendra Modi was identified by the right-wing ecosystem as the ideal leader the BJP needed. And from there began his journey.

By 2010, he effectively established himself as ‘Vikas Purush’ a sobriquet he attained for his much-acclaimed Gujarat model of development for which he roped in megastar Amitabh Bachchan with the ‘Khushboo Gujarat Ki’ advertisement campaign. While the tagline 'Kucch din to guzaro Gujarat mein' was taking Gujarat in every home with Amitabh’s voice, it was Brand Modi which was indirectly being promoted.

The turning point, however, was his visit to Delhi's Shri Ram College of Commerce on February 6, 2013. His speech on development, governance and economic growth presented him as a visionary leader that the nation was longing to have. That one event changed not only the BJP’s narrative but the country’s polity too.

Prepping for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, BJP left no stone unturned in capturing the essence of communication to influence citizens through its igniting social media campaigns, 3D rallies and crowdsourced speeches.

Modi’s progressive thoughts resonated with the Indian public — and he took digital media to his advantage. From in-app and display advertising on mobile and computer devices to connecting with the Indian diaspora through Google+ Hangout, team Modi knew how to interact with different segments of the voters.

The digital blitz that Modi created overpowered everyone, including other leaders from his party too.

Narendra Modi’s connect with the masses became stronger with compelling precision reflected in catchphrases like 'Acche Din Aane Wale Hain', 'Ab Ki Baar Modi Sarkar' and 'Har Har Modi Ghar Ghar Modi'. The last one was particularly aimed at Hindus for it reminds of the much-loved Hindu chant 'Har Har Mahadev'.

Besides his terrific choice of keywords like 'Gareebon ke Massiah', his choice of rants also helped him create his story. From Congress being a corrupt party or the UPA’s failure to take a stance on Kashmir and Pakistan, all of this was smartly included in the BJP’s election campaign, touching a common Indian’s nerve.

While one party has been successful in articulating its narrative so well that it won an almost impossible mandate once again, the other party which had ruled the nation for 60 years has now witnessed its second consecutive defeat due to the lack of communication — or, rather, miscommunication.

Much before the Congress lost to the BJP in 2014, the public has been seeing the Congress through Narendra Modi’s eyes — he has successfully labelled the Congress as a corrupt, anti-national, anti-Hindu party, and a dynasty-driven party. But what has hurt the Congress most is its inability to change these four perceptions in the past five years.

Miscommunication is the root cause of this inability.

The Congress was pretty late in understanding the power of social media. The resurgent Congress social media in 2017, under their new social media head, had the wrong focus.

A look at Narendra Modi’s timeline or the BJP’s timeline will reveal that almost 99% of their messaging is about Modi, his welfare schemes and his vision. Now, when you compare this with the Congress party’s or its leaders’ timelines on social media, almost 99% of their messaging revolves around Narendra Modi.

The BJP sells Modi — and so does the Congress. Imagine the amount of digital space that Modi gets. And the mind space that follows it.

The Congress party hardly ever sold Rahul Gandhi’s vision. And its social media strategy, rather than acting as a catalyst to their success, acted as an impediment. More so when it circulates memes on Narendra Modi through its official social media handles. This delivers a messaging the youth is no longer interested in. Yes, the BJP also spreads memes on Rahul Gandhi. But it does so through its external ecosystem — not from the party’s official social media handles.

In the digital world, you get just a couple of seconds to catch your viewers’ attention. So, if most of your social media engagement focuses on attacking Modi, you are bound to lose ground.

Needless to mention, the entire social media strategy of the Congress looks murky and needs an urgent overhaul. 

Escaping Nationalism = Embracing Poll Defeat

Following the Pulwama attack, the Balakot air-strikes gave Narendra Modi another byname — 'Rashtravadi'. His 'Hum ghar mein ghus ke maarenge' statement ignited the josh across the nation.

But Congress and its messaging were missing from the scene. The Congress failed to embrace nationalism openly and forgot to remind the nation that it was their PM Mrs Indira Gandhi who actually went inside Pakistan and hit it hard, splitting it into two and changing the map of South Asia forever. Congress leaders, instead, asked for proof of the air strikes.

While Modi was building his Rashtrawadi image after the Pulwama attack, Congress leaders, like Navjot Singh Sidhu, were busy showing solidarity towards the neighbour by asking if an entire nation can be blamed for the actions of a few. Not to forget he had also hugged Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa earlier. This type of communication is not just negative, it's fatal for a party which is already trying hard to escape the 'anti-national' pigeonhole.

In hindsight, the messaging that the Congress party spread when Rahul Gandhi visited the JNU campus, where student leaders were allegedly chanting anti-national slogans, is as damaging. 

While the BJP has successfully built an image of a nationalist party working towards protecting Bhartiya Sanskriti, the Congress ecosystem fancies left-leaning personalities like Kanhaiya Kumar, Jignesh Mevani and Swara Bhaskar. Ergo a large section of society drifted away from Congress.

For the Love of Foot-in-Mouth!

The Congress party and its leaders have time and again missed the point of setting the right narrative. So, when Rahul Gandhi’s aide and Chairman of the Overseas Indian National Congress, Sam Pitroda, questioned the terrorists' death toll in the Balakot airstrike or made reportedly remarks like entire Pakistan can’t be blamed for the 26/11 attack and such incidents “happen all the time”, it evinced the Congress’ impassivity.

Lately, he kicked up another storm by using the words 'Hua toh hua' when asked about the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.

But then, this sort of negative communication is not new for Congress. Many of its leaders are repeat offenders.

Mani Shankar Aiyar's insensitive remark on Narendra Modi’s tea selling background in the run-up to the 2014 elections was another embarrassment for the communicatively crippled Congress. The BJP was quick to portray Modi as a ‘Chaiwalla’ — and it set the stage for the BJP’s 2014 victory.

However, Mani Shankar Aiyar didn’t learn from his gaffe. In 2017, he triggered another controversy with his crude remark on the PM, calling him a ‘neech aadmi’.

So, did Congress learn anything from these communication blunders? No.

439870-sonia-rahul_061219010945.jpgLook, it's Modi! Congress' social media failed to project Rahul Gandhi's vision and concentrated mainly on Modi. (Photo: PTI)

Of late, Rahul Gandhi stoked a social media war with the ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ campaign. The jibe that he took at the PM, who used the word ‘Chowkidar’ during his 2014 election campaigning to portray himself as the country’s watchman, had a negative connotation — it should have been avoided.

Congress and its leaders shouldn’t have forgotten that even though the BJP’s popularity was dwindling in the last couple of years, the PM was never seen as a corrupt leader. So, when the BJP quickly retaliated with its ‘Main Bhi Chowkidar’ campaign, it was bound to surpass the Opposition’s negative campaign. So much so that the BJP’s campaign gained nearly two trillion social media impressions in 74 days, overshadowing the Opposition’s campaign by a huge margin.

Public Communication: Mastered by Narendra Modi

Communication in politics has a lot to do with not just words but by the way you participate in the public fora. From verbal to written, visuals to body language, everything matters when you project a political party and its vision. A political communication strategy should, thus, focus on all mediums, be it print, TV, radio or digital.

Make no mistake about it; Narendra Modi has brilliantly used all mediums to successfully spread his messaging in every part of the country. When he first became the Prime Minister, half of the country didn’t know who he was. Fast forward to 2019; there’s hardly any part of the country which hasn’t been hit by the Modi wave.

A huge credit for this goes to his ‘Mann ki Baat’ programme which, although mocked by some as a monologue, reached even the remotest villages and millions of people every month. His candid recent chat with the Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar too worked wonders in reaching an ordinary Indian who isn’t interested in politics and its workings.

Modi surely knows how to strike a chord with the general public. He knows that one-way communication is persuasive. And his in-your-face messaging has helped him build Brand Modi, whether you like it or not.

On Twitter, he acknowledges his well-wishers and supporters and even greets them on their birthdays. Most BJP leaders have followed suit.

modi12_061219011555.jpgInfluencing People: Unlike the Congress, PM Modi keeps his supporters close and his rivals even closer on social media. (Photo: PTI)

Congress leaders, on the other hand, don’t reach out to people. Blame their arrogance or insecurities, but you would hardly see them retweeting their supporters’ tweets, sharing their articles or indulging in a conversation with them. Quite typical of the party's ostrich strategy. Isn’t it?

To cite a personal example here — despite my opposition to PM Modi, he continues to follow me on Twitter for years now.

And despite passionately supporting Rahul Gandhi, he still doesn’t follow me.

Perhaps the Congress party and Rahul Gandhi have failed to learn that you can’t win votes without public interaction. That’s a communication gap that Congress has been unable to bridge.

Taking Stands on National Issues

In an era where political personages and parties should portray themselves as power-wielding agents of change, the Congress has merely reduced itself to a slow-moving, aged elephant that refuses to cut the shackles of poor communication. The party never took any stand on national issues like the Ram Mandir, even after ceding the entire space of Hinduism to the BJP. Their spokespersons never participate in debates on the Ram Mandir — and ironically, this is the same party whose PM Rajiv Gandhi opened the locks of the Ram Mandir.

Also, most of the Congress spokespersons suffer from Hindi phobia. They are too elite to speak their country’s national language and hope to win the nation. Some of them even don’t know their own party’s history.

On the contrary, most of the BJP spokespersons articulate their thoughts well, especially in Hindi. No wonder a majority of Indians resonate with them.

Take the national issue of Triple Talaq as another example. While debating over the Triple Talaq Bill which makes the practice of instant triple talaq a penal offence for Muslim men, Congress MP Sushmita Dev reportedly brought the controversial maintenance lawsuit, the Shah Bano case, back to the limelight. Note that it was the same case which led to the downfall of the Rajiv Gandhi government in the mid-1980s, accusing it of failing Muslim women. Whereas strongly endorsing the Bill, the BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi asked in which surah of the holy Quran is talaq-e-biddat mentioned.

The BJP, which, it is claimed, is regressive in its approach, was supporting the Triple Talaq Ordinance, taking a huge step forward towards making the country and its communities progressive — whereas, the Congress, that claims to be a progressive, liberal party, was seen clinging to orthodoxy and disingenuity.  

2019_2img14_feb_2019_061219012003.jpgTake A Strong Stand: The Pulwama terrorist attack divided the Congress and the BJP further on Jammu & Kashmir. (Photo: PTI)

Once again, the Congress failed to realise the power of right messaging in politics. Consequently, it failed to impress the nation.

Unable to understand the mood of the electorate, the Congress even doubled down on Article 370 and Article 35A. Never in my life have I come across anybody who supports Article 370. And Congress, in its 2019 manifesto, included that no change on Article 370 will be allowed — together with a review of AFSPA and reduction in the presence of armed forces in the Kashmir Valley.

The party’s stance on J&K says a lot about what it plans to do for the nation’s security.

And it isn’t reassuring.

Political communication doesn’t end with elections

Political dialogue is an ongoing process where execution activities are a dime a dozen. So, when just a few days after the results, the main Opposition Congress Party formally announces that its spokespersons would go off air for a month and the head of Congress social media wing Divya Spandana's Twitter account apparently gets deactivated, it says a lot about the way the Congress has chosen to communicate post-polls.

Silence is also a way of communication.

But in politics, silence is not gold. When you choose not to interact with the public, it either portrays you as a weak political player — or an arrogant one.

In contrast, the BJP is on the crest of a wave with the firepower of Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh, Nirmala Sitharaman and S Jaishankar in the CCS’ (Cabinet Committee on Security) 'Big Four'.

women-961261332_6_061219012249.jpgBreaking the Gender Bar: With Smriti Irani, Nirmala Sitharaman and Harsimrat Kaur in the cabinet, BJP has shown a modern, pro-women stance. (Photo: PTI)

The BJP is often known for its patriarchal views, because of its ideological fountainhead, the RSS, which is a men-only organisation. But it has taken a leap of faith by including women in some of the most critical cabinet portfolios. Recall that it was the previous Modi government which included Sushma Swaraj in the external affairs and Nirmala Sitharaman in the defence ministries for the first time in Indian politics, although Indira Gandhi held these ministries in the past but as additional charges.

Now, in his second regime, when Modi has made Nirmala Sitharaman India’s first full-time finance minister, he has set a benchmark for other political parties — especially the Congress, which advocates women's empowerment, but fails to act on it.

The BJP has shattered the glass ceiling in the political spectrum, and that speaks volumes about its right communication.

Also, while Narendra Modi was selling the story of India becoming a ‘Vishwa Guru’, the Congress launched its 2019 flagship campaign with the NYAY scheme. While the BJP was selling an inspiring narrative to develop India, Congress’ NYAY was not only poorly conceptualised but poorly marketed too. Rather than reaching villages and rural areas, it was being advertised in upmarket areas and airports. And, not just that — it reminded the nation of the almost five decades-old clarion call by Indira Gandhi of ‘Garibi Hatao’ — hinting at the Congress party’s failure to evolve its communication.

In a nation that has always valued words as much as actions, a lot needs to be written on the way politicos communicate.

For now, it's worth to stop on the note that if the Congress is serious about its revival plan, it has to start with getting its communication right.

Also read: Alvida, Secularism? Can Congress shake off the 'Muslim appeasement' tag, and emerge stronger?

Writer

Sadhavi Khosla Sadhavi Khosla @sadhavi

Entrepreneur, blogger and political analyst based in Gurgaon.

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