What Modi doesn't get about political communication, despite being best at it

Amit Khanna
Amit KhannaNov 10, 2017 | 14:50

What Modi doesn't get about political communication, despite being best at it

Why is Indian political communication so poor and amateurish? Let’s look at what some experts in political communication have to say about the best principles of modern political communication.

According to experts David L Swanson and Dan Nimmo, political communication is "the strategic use of communication to influence public knowledge, beliefs, and action on political matters”. The duo emphasise on the strategic nature of political communication, highlighting the role of persuasion in political discourse.


Another scholar, Brian McNair, provides a similar definition as he writes that political communication is "purposeful communication about politics”. For McNair, political communication is beyond verbal or written statements. Visual representations, such as dress, make-up, hairstyle or logo of a party are also part of political communication.

Robert Denton Jr is a much-quoted political communicator and he says, “Nearly every topic that is fit for comment by someone contains the seeds for political and communication analysis. What we know about events is always revealed first through the communicator's skill and art.”

What is the state of political communication today? Amateurish, I would say.

Except Prime Minister Narendra Modi, all leaders are just not good enough to handle the change in this dynamics. However, Modi, too, needs to incorporate some changes in his communications. If he has to grow as a statesman, his engagement with media and people needs some formalisation.

Why does he shirk from a press conference or one-on-one with media? He could easily neutralise the opponents in the fourth estate with these personal encounters.

The other major drawback in PM’s political communication is his constant engagement with the beleagured Congress and Rahul Gandhi (a party with 47 seats in Lok Sabha should be ignored). By constantly talking about the Gandhis and the Congress, you are only giving them prominence. Unfortunate enough, all his ministers are committing the same mistake.


The government should talk more and the party should talk less. PM Modi also needs to keep a check on his ministers, chief ministers and MPs and restrain them from making public statements contrary to the government policies. There should be a single-line rebuttal by the official spokesperson of both the government and the party. Twitter battles and trolling won't help at the ground level. It only provides entertainment for the media and the idle.

If considered individually, PM Modi is undoubtedly the best communicator in Indian politics for decades. The party rides on his coattails and he has to lay down some ground rules for public engagement. Communication is not about winning elections alone. It is about keeping the citizens informed. The prime minister must also be seen more with intellectuals and thought-leaders to “impress” the large brigade of his detractors in this demographic.

Except ministers like Arun Jaitley, Niramala Sitharaman, Piyush Goyal, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Jayant Sinha and Smriti Irani, others need professional training on public speaking. I feel that today the BJP does not have a single competent spokesperson. People like Sambit Patra, GVL Narshima Rao, Shaina NC, Sanju Verma and others must be sacked immediately. They are ill-informed, needlessly combative and petulant.


They cannot converse fluently in any language and appear condescending. If the PM gets five additional seats every time he speaks, these jokers lose 10 seats for the party.

If BJP needs a course-correction, the less said about the Congress the better. They keep committing hara-kiri every time their representatives speak in public. Their former ministers and spokespersons are arrogant, pompous and besotted with the Gandhis with a single-point agenda of attacking Modi. They celebrate imaginary victories. These are the same set of people who helped decimate a 100-year-old party and they still have the same hubris.

In an age where trolls, bots and fake news rule they are foolish to assume that there is a resurgence in their popularity. They don’t seem to have learnt from their defeat. There’s no way Rahul Gandhi can turn into a leader. He has not offered an alternative vision or a concrete solution of how he will right the wrongs he claims Modi has committed. The Congress can at best hope to improve their vote tally a bit, but a victory is distant thunder. The other parties are still entangled in caste, religion and linguistic politics, and save a few individuals from different parties, are caught in time wrap and mostly ill-equipped for new age communication.

Photo: Indiatoday.in

Media and other thinkers are biased. If BJP has its right-wing brigade, the Congress has its left liberal group of Modi-haters. The bias is visible every night on 400-odd television channels. The nation is clearly not interested in them as their dismal viewership figures say. The total viewership of all these news channels on a regular basis is less than 5 per cent of the Indian population. A careful study of the social media will tell you that most of the political messaging (tweets, posts) is limited to a mere five million people of the 1,300-million population.

Same with the digital media. Web news carry personal baggage of the editors and the writers. Paid news, fake news, advertorials are further destroying their credibility. The standard of reportage has fallen to the pits (a few honourable exceptions aside). Many editors and correspondents act more like self-appointed arbiters of public policy than a conduit of information and the truth. The only way to neutralise is again to be sparse in enagement with them.

This brings us back to how does a politician prepare for communication in these hyper-connected times where attention spans are down to seconds. The sound bites cannot be the solution. A cogent point of view put across precisely is what will count. People are consuming news on multiple platforms, sometimes simultaneously. In a few years, traditional media will give way to a digital universe.

The ability to curate genuine news will be important for both the speakers as well as the media. Subliminal communication, personalised messaging, anthropological mapping of citizens and voters, targeted marketing and analytics will be required. Political parties have to equip themselves for this change. Every leader will have to be trained professionally and only a selected few should be permitted to speak to the media. Irresponsible statements by ministers, MPs, MLAs etc must be condemned officially to retain public faith. As audience, we have to be prepared for not only bots, fake news, micro targeting  but also for artificial intelligence, which create an even more invasive political messaging.

All this may sound far-fetched and even incredulous, but the rules of communication are being written and re-written even as we read this article. Transparency in public life will become a pre-requisite for the government, the opposition, thought leaders and media.

Last updated: November 11, 2017 | 11:38
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