Mastering the political narrative.
As the Modi government completes four and half years in power, its popularity among voters is a mystery. Voters start getting bored of most governments by the third year. That thing called anti-incumbency begins to set in.
This should have been the case with the Modi government too. The Maoists are killing CRPF jawans, Kashmir is getting worse than ever before, unemployment statistics are frightening, violence against Dalits and Muslims and women remains routine. In other words, little has changed.
There’s hardly anything new about Modi’s New India. Soldiers continue to be beheaded by Pakistan despite a ‘surgical strike’, the Line of Control is still on fire, Pakistan is threatening to execute an Indian. The government strategy is to diplomatically isolate Pakistan, though it seems like India is isolating itself.
What, then, explains Modi’s unbridled political success? When even municipal elections are being fought in Modi’s name, it could be argued that Modi today is even more popular than he was in May 2014.
The secret of Modi’s success lies in his ability to define and control the political narrative. How does he do it?
1. Courage. Modi dreams and thinks big, and questions conventional political wisdom. That means taking high risks that may backfire, but the rewards are equally big. His trip to Lahore backfired, but risks such as demonetisation yielded high political rewards.
For the 2014 elections, Modi launched Mission 272+, openly declaring the ambition to win a clear majority in the Lok Sabha, something that nobody had managed to do in 30 years. The idea that India was forever going to be run by coalitions was conventional political wisdom, but the foremost secret of Modi’s success lies in challenging received wisdom and thinking out of the box.
Similarly, Modi’s BJP, manned by his aide Amit Shah, goes around thinking the impossible, establishing the BJP as a player and potential winner in states and constituencies where the BJP was considered unwinnable.
If you don’t even try, how would you succeed? Contrast this with the lack of courage and audacity in every other party. Other than the Aam Aadmi party, no party is seriously aiming to expand beyond their regional bases. Even the AAP is over cautious about which state it should contest elections in. The Congress party has forever hesitated to launch its ‘Brahmastra’ Priyanka Gandhi because what if she fails? Perhaps the war is already over and the ‘Brahmastra’ no longer a ‘Brahmastra’.
2. Communication. For Narendra Modi, politics is primarily a problem of mass communication. Last year, he said his government’s mantra was ‘Reform, Perform, Transform’. Some months later he amended it to include ‘Inform’ to the mantra. Critics would say his only mantra is ‘inform’.
From a prime minister who spoke very little, India went on to get a prime minister who speaks almost daily, often several times a day. And he is such a good orator that news channels say broadcasting his speeches live gets them good ratings. When public criticism of Manmohan Singh speaking very little reached a high, his office put out numbers showing he had given hundreds of speeches as prime minister. What they did not say is that the mild-mannered technocrat wasn’t meant to be a great orator.
It is no doubt Modi’s good luck that his chief opponent Rahul Gandhi is a terrible orator. Yet there is nobody, in the Congress or any other party, who can match Modi’s oratory. Voters say they like to listen to Modi, they feel good listening to him. Modi gives speeches like a skilled batsman with an appropriate shot for every kind of ball.
Why Indian politics has so few good orators is a mystery. Just like good-looking people are told to try their luck in modelling and acting, good speakers should get a good shot at politics. Indian politics is so full of dynasts, fixers, moneybags, caste Chanakyas and so on, that good public speaking is one of the last things to be rewarded within party systems.
Modi insists on having large crowds for his speeches, and not just during elections. His speeches are spectacles for TV, his public appearances carefully scripted to produce the best visuals. Whether as RSS pracharak or prime minister, in domestic elections or foreign relations, Modi believes in travelling all the time, travelling and spreading his word.
Modi’s constant message to his party, its elected representatives and workers alike has been to communicate, communicate, communicate. He recently told his party to get professionals from outside politics as spokespersons.
Modi boycotts and discredits media outlets who don’t sing his tune, a trick old-world politicians are unable to understand. By leveraging media outlets who are willing to be pliant to his narrative, he brings around the rest to favour him too.
When the Congress-led UPA-2 was putting cartoonists in jail under a draconian social media law, Modi was using social media to expand his constituency, to create his own narrative rather than let the Delhi media define him.
When the Narendra Modi app announced a survey on demonetisation, critics derided it for asking leading questions. Critics missed the point that anyone using the Narendra Modi app would already be a Modi supporter. The idea of asking leading questions in an unscientific survey was to give supporters talking points in favour of demonetisation. The NM app’s main purpose is to collect pro-Modi articles from the media and encourage the app’s users to share them on social media. The NM app is the best example of how Modi believes in 360-degree communication, bombarding people with his narrative no matter where they go, what medium they use. This creates a Network Effect around brand Modi.
3. Coherence. It isn’t just the volume of Modi’s messaging. He succeeds in setting the narrative because his message is coherent. After a Modi speech, you know exactly what he was saying, you go home with his message. He and his government are clear about what they are saying. It’s in complete contrast to the Congress, which, after taking endless time to come up with something to say, contradicts itself. Its leaders and spokespersons speak in different voices.
Coherence of message is so important that Modi comes up with trite acronyms that English-speaking liberals laugh at. As someone who has come up from the ground, Modi thinks and speaks in Hindi, and is thus automatically a better orator. In every speech he gives, he leaves voters with things they can remember. The Congress party, by contrast, is full of English-speaking babalog starting with Rahul Gandhi. Rahul Gandhi uses English words even in his speeches to rural masses.
You can summarise Modi’s message in keywords, a sign of coherence. Instead of the alphabet soup of acronyms, he’s used simple yet powerful words for his campaigns and schemes: Make In India, Swachh Bharat, Digital India, Mann ki Baat, Mission 272+. Any marketing professional will tell you how clarity of message is the first requirement of successful marketing. Before 2014 Modi’s message was that he’s the man with solutions for a nation whose governance was in paralysis. He could sell demonetisation with the simple message of fighting black money to remove poverty. He does Hindutva messaging by using symbols without making too much noise around Hindutva.
Coherence is reflected in everything, including the design of posters. They usually have only one face, his, one slogan and one symbol. Most political posters and hoardings are cluttered, leaving voters with no singular take-away.
We don’t even know what the opposition stands for. They are apologetic about both secularism and Hindutva, unsure about nationalism, unclear about what they are offering to voters. The Aam Aadmi Party is an anti-corruption party or a party of governance, a party of Delhi or national expansion? We no longer know. Such confusion is a reflection of their inability to draft a coherent message.
4. Consistency. The most coherent of messaging carpet-bombed on people’s minds may fail if the messaging is not consistent. The opposition talks about this today and that tomorrow. Modi is consistent in his core message.
Consistency requires doing something in a sustained manner over a period of time. A message has to be hammered in. Demonetisation came and went, but Modi used it to re-brand himself as a man of the poor, akin to Indira Gandhi’s ‘Garibi Hatao’ message. When demonetisation failed to destroy black money, he didn’t just give up. He changed the narrative to cashless economy. Yet the core message of fighting black money and poverty is one he is hammering in even today.
The issue of triple talaq has been pushed by the BJP for over a year now. In the UP election and elsewhere, it failed to become a top issue that would polarise Hindu-Muslim voters. And yet Modi and his party haven’t given up on triple talaq, they want to take it to a crescendo where every single person will have to consider the issue and take sides.
5. Campaign. If you don’t campaign you don’t win. The somnolent Congress party is usually the last to start its campaign. The Aam Aadmi Party got so busy campaigning in Punjab it forgot about the municipal election on its home turf of Delhi. Akhilesh Yadav wasted so much time in fighting for control of his party he couldn’t campaign.
Most parties start thinking of election campaigning at best a year in advance. Then there is Narendra Modi, who campaigns 24×7, 365 days a year as if it’s always election time. And in India, it is indeed always election time. Every year there are a few important state elections. Every election matters in deciding a party’s future prospects. Local civic elections, for instance, help create and strengthen local leadership of the party.
It is tiring no doubt, and that’s perhaps why Narendra Modi has made the audacious pitch for holding central and state elections together. As the opposition licks its wounds, Modi’s BJP is already preparing for the 2019 elections, organising meetings of workers, targeting new states, testing strategies.
The business of permanent campaigning isn’t merely about winning state and local elections. Permanent campaigning pre-empts the setting in of anti-incumbency. It’s an old American model Modi has adopted. Now that it has fully arrived in India, few politicians will be able to succeed without it.
It is the result of Modi’s permanent campaigning that when you point out demonetisation failed, Modi’s voters say, ‘At least he’s trying to do the right thing’.
6. Capture: If Modi has never been in the opposition benches, it is because he believes in capturing every opportunity, every space, every medium. Crises are the biggest opportunities. Six months before he became chief minister, there was a big earthquake in Gujarat. It’s the sort of thing that can make governments unpopular, but Modi saw an opportunity in it. By setting the narrative that Modi had done incredible relief work, the earthquake became a matter of Modi’s success.
There is no space Modi doesn’t believe in capturing. He’s captured the narrative of caste (he’s himself from an OBC community), class (demonetisation), nationalism, religion, gender (Beti Bachao), health (yoga), education (address to students in Mann ki Baat, they are tomorrow’s voters) and so on. If the speculation is right, he could capture the tribal vote in central India – still rather inclined towards the Congress – by making Jharkhand Governor Draupadi Murmu the next President of India.
There is no social media platform too small for him to be present. The AAP suspended its attention to Delhi to fight Punjab, it’s the sort of mistake Modi would never make. You don’t lose what you have, you keep adding.
7. Credit taking: This one is the most obvious. Modi doesn’t forget to take credit for what he does, and also for what he doesn’t. Taking credit comes from taking ownership. This is why it was important for him to address the nation to announce demonetisation, something the RBI governor should have done by protocol.
Everything that goes right in India, Modi will take credit. Every policy launched by the previous government, he will rebrand and take credit. It’s the sort of thing any smart politician would do, but many don’t do it as consistently and coherently as Modi does. The smallest of plans by the government is used to spin into a big game-changer, aggressively pushed as such into the media.