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Friday, June 19, 2015

Impression management - Narendra Modi must ensure that the good news eclipses the taunts

By Swapan Dasgupta

As nations and societies get more and more interconnected, headline management has become a key feature of statecraft in democratic societies. The information overload and the mushrooming of media in all their forms have made it increasingly necessary for those involved in public life to try and influence the shape and form in which 'news' is disseminated to the wider world. Just as it was impossible in an earlier age to mould the bush telegraph - or its Indian variant, bazaar chatter - to suit 'national interests', political players of the early-21st century are discovering that the widespread empowerment of citizens that inevitably flows from easy and free access to information can lead to all sorts of complications, some entirely unwholesome.

Western societies, where 'information'- some real and others half-baked or entirely imaginary- is in over-abundance, have created a new breed of professional spin doctors who are now an indispensable part of any political establishment, perhaps as important as those who seek public office. Governments and political parties are often likely to devote more attention to headline management than to other, more crucial, aspects of statecraft. At the same time, the bid to mould public communications has become intertwined with image management. This blend has ensured that what is communicated is on a par or even less important than the perceived public image of the person who says it.

In the British general election, one of the main reasons why the major chunk of undecided voters chose to vote Conservative inside the polling booth was their lack of faith in Ed Miliband, the leader of the Opposition Labour Party. Despite the unrelenting anti-Conservative messaging of the intelligentsia, the BBC and the more articulate sections of metropolitan England, the Labour leader could not overcome the disability of an image that deemed he was too remote, too Left-wing, and too lacking in the common touch. While Labour had the upper hand in policy matters, the Conservatives prevailed on the question of leadership and, by implication, trust.

For the past six months or, more particularly, since the Bharatiya Janata Party crashed to an ignominious defeat in the Delhi assembly election, the Narendra Modi government has been at the receiving end of unflattering headlines. From the outbursts of individual Hindu extremists ranting against 'love jihad' and threatening to celebrate the life of Nathuram Godse to opinionated gripes against expensive monogrammed suits, the frequency of foreign visits, the hidden agenda of World Yoga Day and the cross-border operation against Naga rebels, there is a growing impression that the Central government has lost control of the narrative. This impression may well be at odds with the opinion polls that revealed a wide level of satisfaction with the prime minister's performance over the past year, but it is nonetheless real. When ruling party functionaries complain that every trivial incident is being blown out of proportion by a cussed mainstream media, they are not entirely wrong. The old pre-September 2013 pattern of Modi-can-do-nothing-right, which, ironically, helped the then Gujarat chief minister to capture the national imagination as a doughty crusader against a venal establishment, has reappeared but with more damaging consequences for Modi.

The 'conflict of interests' charges levelled against the external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, and the Rajasthan chief minister, Vasundhara Raje, in connection with the travel documentation of the flamboyant cricket impresario, Lalit Modi, have brought pre-existing strands of negativity together to produce an almighty controversy.

There are facets of the kerfuffle that are worth considering. First, till the subtext of the hacked emails was packaged into a news bomb last Sunday morning, the headline projection of Swaraj was in sharp contrast to that of the prime minister: the 'good Sushma' was routinely juxtaposed against the 'imperious Modi.' A tribe of reporters with a nodding acquaintance with the internal dynamics of the BJP were, in fact, licking their chops in anticipation of a day when Swaraj would emerge as an alternative power centre to Modi, the inheritor of L.K. Advani's dissident mantle. Yet, the moment the controversy erupted, the potential embarrassment to the external affairs minister was equated with the possible first step in the unravelling of the Modi sarkar. Those baying for Swaraj's blood have intensified their attacks because they can detect the possibility of bringing Modi's overall ratings down a notch or two. The more ambitious dream of a government becoming prematurely dysfunctional is a development that greatly assists in boom time for those the prime minister described as "newstraders."

Secondly, it is an open secret that Modi's prescription for effective headline management is to bypass the mainstream media - more accurately, leave its handling to the Press Information Bureau and the ministry of information and broadcasting - and focus purposefully on connecting with individuals on the social media. Backed by wonderfully choreographed events - such as the Vibrant Gujarat summits - this approach worked remarkably well in selling the "Gujarat model" during the 10 years of UPA rule. It contributed in no small measure to the building up of an alternative narrative to the mainstream media's unrelenting focus on the riots of 2002. Why is this approach faltering today?

There are no easy answers but some possible explanations are in order. To begin with, Modi's hegemony over Gujarat was near-complete after his second election victory in 2007. He could focus on expanding his influence over the rest of India with the full awareness that his backyard was totally under his sway. At the Centre, however, Modi has to confront with an old, entrenched Establishment whose influence is both deep and far-reaching. This Establishment has grudgingly accepted his 2014 victory but has never really reconciled itself to a prolonged spell of Modi rule. After the BJP's Delhi defeat, it has seized the window of opportunity available to the opposition by establishing centres of messaging that, ironically, grabbed the space vacated by the pro-Modi forces after the campaign structures were dismantled post-May 2014. It is significant, for example, that most of the online news portals that have emerged in the recent past - some blessed with resources - are spiritedly opposed to Modi.

The adverse headlines the government has been attracting in recent times appear to stem from its failure to make the narrative correspond with the larger political shifts in India. There has been a failure of political messaging whose impact is also being felt in the markets. As of now, the fall-out is limited to the domestic markets but unless the trend is checked it will begin to affect international perceptions as well.

Of course, successful messaging is also dependent on the robustness of the message; pure hype rarely endures. Here, however, Modi is on a much better wicket. He will now have to focus on more effective and imaginative ways of getting the good news to overshadow the taunts and sniggers. He has to join the battle frontally and make the moulding of the public discourse a key facet of statecraft.

The Telegraph, June 19, 2015


Christopher said...

Your attempt to downplay the over Rs 11 crore quid pro quo angle by comparing the quantum of amount involved with the value of scams of the UPA was surprising coming from a well known columnist like you and pathetic in its approach. Any comparison, if it has to be made at all, should be with the promises of good governance made by the BJP and the ground realities. If the BJP wants to hide behind misdeeds of the UPA, India is doomed. The voters know what the UPA did and that is why favoured a party which claimed to be different. The present PM promised 'na khaonga na khaane doonga'. He did not say, 'hum khaayenge lekin UPA se kum'.

Its like a pickpocket who stole Rs.100 wanting to be let off because another pickpocket before him stole Rs. 1000.

Don't you think so Mr. Dasgupta?

Anonymous said...

Sir you are right, we all know that there is no one in the public life who is "doodh ka dhula" they all have some dirt on them. Of all of them Modi is our best bet to work for the nation and take the nation out of slave & welfare mentality and to believe in our self. How does the govt manage the headline like CongI did for years, by giving favors and bone to media or use social media to expose them and believe their good work will come out over next 4 years?

anju said...

How neatly you have tried to insignify the Sushma Swaraj- Vasundhara Raje mess to an issue hyped by a section of a sidelined press with vested interests! For someone whose articles one has read because not only did they make sense but also because they seemed to be written by someone who believed in ethical journalism- can I now tell you Mr Swapan Dasgupta that you seem to have entered into a Faustian pact?
One says this not only on the basis of the above article but also on your utterances on various television channels. Mr Modi may or may not win the perception battle but you certainly seem to have lost yours.

Anonymous said...

Corruption can not be removed overnight. Narendra Modi trying his best to make India corruption free. Let us help him.
UPA / Congress government has looted India. They are most corrupt people in India.
God bless India.

Sambamurthy N said...

We the people of Our Bharat =India do vote always in all General Elections with deep Hindsight & Bit of Forethought analysing the present
At the time. We don't care who Wins or looses ; also who gets Majority and who remains in Minority .But we do wait eagerly forthe persons & the party we desired to win.We just wait for the new Government Team to settle down & Start delivering bit by bit what all they had promised us to do,once they are given the chance by us. Most of the time , of late , decades by decades the elected govt's are deviating
From their Poll Promises perhaps by the conspiracies of circumstances knowingly or unknowingly , Intentionallly or intonationally ,involving the ruling majority vs opposing Minority for their own selfish dispensations and not by ideological differences. Under such circumstances Fake & Bake headlines in 1x7Print media & 24x7 Sprint media start flying all over & the damage is not for those ruling or
Opposiing in the Govt but for the mammoth number of masses of the nation. Life goes on till next election is held and new gang gets in.
This situation remains for decades ; this time people have voted for a new paradigm shift ; hope the the persons at the helm & Assocites
Rise to the Ocassion and dismiss the myth rooted deep in our inherited culturally rich Society.

Jitendra Desai said...

Right advice.NDA government needs to learn to manage its media policy.But then what about MSM which is ready to pounce on anything that is on offer.Where was MSM when Raje and her son actually were indulging in to that scam? Why now? Sushma may know Lalit Modi but should that deter her from extending a simple favour related to his travel? Why such things are being blown out? Narendra Modi may be experimenting with his Gujarat model of ignoring news traders.Such a policy actually helped him win elections.May be more he and his government are demonised in the media more people will veer around to "save" him and his government.Bihar state elections will be test case.

Anonymous said...

It is time the Modi govt dealt with the corrupt journalists with the same ruthlessness but subtlety the way Congress deals with enemy journalists. Time to cleanup the corrupt Indian media establishment which has proved to be the main impediment to the growth and progress of India.