PM’s Politics of Communication by Samir Saran
The new Indian PM ran an efficient and professional campaign that was arguably even more innovative than the first Obama campaign.
Author and eminent scholar Dan Hahn described successful political communication as one where “some will be attracted to what is said, to the position taken by the orator. Others will be impressed by the orator’s crafting of the speech-the organisation, the word choice, or the how the language is combined.” He might as well have been describing the NaMo campaign, where the combination of a message of hope, soft ideology and communication craftsmanship was able to attract a substantial number of voters within and outside BJP’s traditional vote bank.
The new Indian PM ran an efficient and professional campaign that was arguably even more innovative than the first Obama campaign. However, the million- dollar question is whether PM Modi will be able to institutionalise this communication expertise into a durable feature of his time in office or would he struggle, like President Obama has in recent years, to be able to communicate his initiatives and vision to large parts of the citizenry.
The first 30 days offer us a moment to reflect on the communication performance of the PM. It is a mixed bag. On the upside, we have witnessed deft public positioning, like the invitation extended to South Asian neighbours during his swearing-in ceremony or his visit to Bhutan, each appreciated as significant gestures and adding to his image as a progressive leader. We have seen the institutionalisation of social media by the Modi Cabinet to reach out to citizens.
And we now have #NaMo on twitter in person and in his official persona.
Yet, something is amiss. The PM’s persuasive presence during his campaign is now reduced to clinical digital chatter. The message therefore is incomplete and sometime unclear.
Other voices, some of dissent (rail price hike) and other incongruent, from within and outside his party are muddying the waters very early into his term in office. The communication code that he had cracked seems to have been misplaced and it is apparent that the campaign team that ably communicated PM aspirant Modi’s vision to many, is either avoiding the Delhi summers or is distracted.
During the election, candidate Modi was ahead of the curve. He was proactive and anticipated issues; he sidestepped curve balls and revelled in responding to provocations. After the elections, PM Modi has been playing catch up, been largely reactive and has failed to anticipate imminent challenges.
Modi has prided himself in being able to empower and use the bureaucracy in Gujarat, and now he hopes to do the same in Delhi. However, is his communication also going to be defined by the not so creative Delhi Durbar? Will slow moving bureaucratic systems do justice to a man known for his glib oratory and deft communication? Let’s take the swearing in ceremony as a case in point. The to be Indian PM invited Nawaz Sharif and other SAARC leaders (and Mauritius) for his swearingin ceremony. It was a grand spectacle that did create excitement and was largely appreciated and yet one was left with a hollow feeling the day after. We got to know what the MEA felt about it-its official statement offered standard, cut and dry and politically correct fare.
We know what every Pakistan watcher and self-styled foreign policy expert on television and on the op-ed pages thinks about it. But we still do not know what PM Modi thinks about it. What is this big-picture neighbourhood philosophy that he seems to be crafting? Or is there one? It was his show all the way, and his views and vision are still missing.
More recently, when the rapes and murders took place in Badaun and when the Muslim youth was killed in Pune, a calibrated communication response was required. While there may have been no need for the PM to react himself, a statement from the Home Minister, showing concern would have helped assuage the shrill response by civil society and the media. The government was absent on this count. PM Modi must realise that his victory is his to own alone, and so is all that goes wrong.
Silence is golden but there is such a thing as too much silence! These are early days and PM Modi is not really affected. Yet, a crisis could unfold at any point. That is the nature of government and systems must be in place. He has always faced a hostile media. This has not changed since his election. The honeymoon period may be shorter than anticipated and questions will be asked and the din will get louder each week.
During the election campaign, his masterstroke was bypassing media and engaging directly with people. He needs to do this while being in office as well. It will help to explain the big but potentially controversial policies he wants to pursue. Of course, he can’t do it every week or every day as he did during the campaign. As such he will need to think of a routine, and of a creative mechanism to manage public expectations and the media. The PRO cannot remain out of bounds for the media, not for the media’s sake but for the sake of the PM and for the policy line he wishes to perpetuate and guard. This is how governments work everywhere.
Twitter and other social media platforms are excellent communication tools and the PM has mastered their political potency faster than most Indian politicians.
In government, he needs to build a platform that combines social media with more traditional communications mechanisms. He needs to disrupt the lethargy of the Lutyens communication machinery by introducing some of his young campaign team into the mix and he needs to reinvent and revitalise # NaMo in his new role as PM. It was # NaMo that got him here.
The writer is Vice President & Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation