Modi was silent when he had to speak and spoke when he needn't have

Amit Khanna
Amit KhannaFeb 10, 2015 | 20:42

Modi was silent when he had to speak and spoke when he needn't have

The sheer ferocity of AAP's victory took everyone including the party by surprise. In a literal sweep, the jhaadu wiped out and the Congress and annihilated the BJP. The Congress doesn't even merit a comment anymore. BJP has over the past few months been busy squandering away all the goodwill it had generated in the run up to last year's General Elections and the subsequent victory of Narendra Modi. What went wrong so quickly?


Let me begin with something contrary to both conventional wisdom and public perception. BJP and Prime Minister Modi are not great communicators. They appeared so because Congress and other parties like SP, BSP, and TMC are far poorer than them. During the last General Elections, BJP had wind in its sail and a readymade plank to demolish a rotting ruling party. Political pundits generically ascribe it to the anti-incumbency factor. That's a conventional way of looking at politics otherwise successive governments of the same party would never be formed. Where the target was clearly defined and inherently weak a change in style of messaging and its delivery were easily achieved. To the party and Modi's credit they saw an opportunity and quickly capitalised on it. Too much credit was also given to advertising professionals where at best they had mediocre creativity. Carpet bombing across platforms also helped. Modi is arguably the most eloquent prime minister since Pandit Nehru and he delivered the simple message of hope by sticking to an agenda of growth and development.

I have often said at various forums that most politicians, sociologists and communicators have failed to understand that in a digital world change is fast and cataclysmic. In an age where attention deficit is no longer a disease but almost a genetic transformation and where access to media and information is swift and ubiquitous not only the response but even its communication has to change with alacrity.


The problem for the BJP began when the prime minister continued in the sloganeering and promise mode of electioneering for too long. His first visits abroad and immediate acceptance by global leaders made the PM think that he was on to a good thing. You can flog a product endlessly but you can't keep repeating symbolism. After seeing the stodgy rectitude of his predecessors, Modi was instantly liked by millions of India notwithstanding his controversial past. He was saying the right things at the right places at the right time. Even the multitude of acronyms sounded interesting.

But a few months down the line the conjurer's tricks started appearing repetitive. To add to this was that besides a handful ministers like Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Piyush Goyal and Ravi Shankar Prasad, few were at ease with media. Smriti Irani for one (though not the only one and quite in the Congress tradition of holier than thou) is an awful communicator, supercilious, patronising and smarmy. The average Indian is not willing to accept condescension any longer. Unfortunately some announcements and appointment of various statutory bodies were perceived as partisan and not merited. The way they were communicated was even worse. The people by large felt that they were not kosher. Appointments to bodies like UGC, ICCR, Prasar Bharti, and CBFC were all questionable. The middle class, the bulwark of the party, started to feel alienated. Out of turn remarks by junior MPs about Hindutva was off putting. More so when the PM remained silent. Tactically a communication blunder. Even if he was complicit in this fundamentalist agenda, Modi should have publicly denounced such pronouncements. That would have been clever strategy. Silence and weak defence by his lieutenants only added to the mess.


Suddenly in spite of the prime minister's continued attempts to drive change it appeared more like status quo ante. The red light culture prevailed as earlier. There were more promises, less delivery which soon started becoming visible. There was too much time spent on more promises but the people were still willing to give some leeway to the PM and BJP. Thus the state elections results validated the General Elections trend. After the initial masterstrokes like calling the SAARC leaders to the swearing in, to the prime minister's insistence on punctuality to Swachh Bharat and his visits to Japan, China, US/UN, Australia were lapped up by the masses at home. They had not seen Manmohan Singh or any other leader getting applauded abroad. Here was a PM who promised hope not only to his fellow citizens but to the global community. And he spoke so well and in English too. The problem lay in the fact that BJP was forgetting the basic tenets of communication in the digital age. Gloss and glitz do not a blockbuster make.

Which brings me back to my premise - that the BJP is not a great communicator. The BJP spokespersons who appeared across TV networks were (and still are) unduly aggressive, jingoistic, dismissive and contemptuous of the interlocutors, opposition and the people. When in Government you need to be seen as humble, approachable, diligent and courteous. None of the spokespersons had any of these attributes. The ministers too are by and large talking in generalities and obduracy. Almost an echo of some of Congress's cardinal mistakes over the years. Talking down to people and not brooking any dissent. "Mann ki Baat" works as long it is not sanctimonious. Doordarshan, PIB, DAVP are all relics of the past. Please get rid of them. And putting the prime minister's (and other ministers) photograph on every ad/commercial may work in North Korea or Turkey it won't cut ice with a resurgent India.

The semiotics too went awry. Back slapping Obama, calling him by his first name, somehow does not go with the Indian ethos which BJP stands for. Too many images of Investment summits and inaugurations are a legacy of yesterday's political imagery (Rahul Gandhi's walkabouts in bastis and villages is worse).

Of lack of safety for women. Of vandalising of churches. Of political indifference. Of unspoken silences. In the hyper connected always-on world, perceptions transpose quickly. Social media gets you instant applause but also instant brickbats. I had mentioned this to some members of the BJP's communication cell when I met them at a conference a few weeks ago. Trolling and constant quibbling do not work on Twitter or the internet at large. There has to be some spin even on positivity. The banal is passé we are a young society whose lingo, behaviour, even semantics, is different. One cannot vacillate between the sublime and the ridiculous all the time. You can't appear in a suit with your name inscribed on it. It's media hara kiri. The people should never comment about how varied your wardrobe or the menu. Never sing in falsetto in public life. A faltering note is forgotten but not a song in a fake voice.

Coming to the Delhi election. Beginning with the delay in holding the elections (and riding the Modi wave) to the campaign--it was all awry. The ruling party led by the Prime Minster went on targeting Arvind Kejriwal and unnecessarily shifting the focus to an average, fairly discredited party and its leader. Not only do you give it legitimacy and stature but also expose your own vulnerability. This time the advertising gurus also got it wrong. There was no promise of achche din. The messaging was flat and accusatory. Whose hare-brained idea was to get Nirmala Sitharaman to ask AAP 5 questions a day? You do these things when you are in the Opposition not when you are the ruling party. Social media too had only finger pointing and not values and hopes. For some strange reason, even the PM was off colour in his election speeches and I was surprised to hear him repeat himself--something he hadn't done during the General Elections. The final blunder was picking up Kiran Bedi as its chief ministerial candidate. Kiran looks and acts like a stern school teacher, full of rectitude and self-righteousness. No one has the time for such sermonising especially when your own rank and file see her as an interloper. 

The electronic media, especially news TV, is a honey trap. TV anchors' only concern is to whip up a debate under any circumstances. The tabloidisation of news is deliberate. Sensationalising and studio frenzy is a scripted exercise. Politicians and (many out of job media professionals) keep getting lured by this trap every night. Shouting and slanging get eyeball but it loses votes. Breaking news needs a bandage. However amongst the major mistakes was cantankerous ranting of the saffron brigade. These people have to realise there is a generational change in the country .The priorities of the large under 35 population is jobs, opportunities, shelter, social mobility and more. This brave new world believes in the cultural heritage of India and is arguably more demonstrative in matters of faith than the previous one but it guards it freedom above everything. It wants progress and prosperity and solutions, not promises. BJP has to realise and fast that. This is the new voter and she has to be wooed differently.

If they do and the prime minister acts they may still have a long innings. 

Last updated: February 10, 2015 | 20:42
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