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