Written by Aarti Subramaniam.
In November 2015, during his first visit to the United Kingdom after being elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi faced what many would consider unthinkable in India – a press conference.
BBC correspondent Justin Rowlatt initiated proceedings by asking Mr. Modi about allegations of growing intolerance in India. Mr. Modi answered:
“Any incident in any corner of India—whether is it one incident, two or three—in a nation of 125 crore Indians, whether one incident is important or not, that does not matter to us. Every incident is grave for us. We do not tolerate it under any circumstances. The law takes strict action against this and it will continue to do so. And India is a vibrant democracy with a constitution that gives even the most ordinary citizen security of every kind, and is committed to protecting their thoughts. And we are committed to this.” Next up was the Guardian. “…There are a number of protesters out today who are saying that given your record as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, you do not deserve the respect that would normally be accorded to the leader of the world’s largest democracy.”
The Prime Minister side-stepped the rather impertinent insinuation that he was underserving of respect, but stated:
“To keep the record straight, I would like to give some information. I came here in 2003 and received a big welcome and respect and participated in several programs. The U.K. has never stopped me from coming here, has never imposed any restrictions. I couldn’t come here due to a lack of time. That’s a different issue. So this is a wrong perception. Please correct it.”
Modi’s oratory prowess during election rallies is well-documented, but if anything, this incident proves that he was adept at taking – or bypassing – searing questions. Which is why the Prime Minister’s refusal to confront some hard questions that have dogged his government through its four-year tenure is baffling to say the least and does gross injustice to his own hard-nosed communication skills. Of course, the Prime Minister cannot answer for every single incident in the country. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister’s obligation to speak on certain matters of national importance is far more critical in such a diverse society even if the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) does not deem it important.
The BJP’s 2014 communications campaign was innovative and fresh, and it is perhaps time to infuse some of that into the functioning of the Government.
While the scope of this article is not to lay out the issues that the PM should have addressed, suffice to narrow it down to four recent cases that serve as an example to make a larger point. First, the Padmavat-related attack on the bus carrying school children in Haryana. Second, the controversy surrounding the Rafale deal. Third, the Nirav Modi-PNB-scam. Fourth, the burgeoning Non-Performing Assets (NPA) crisis. Each of these could have been tackled head-on to limit the political and perceptional fallout arising from them with a condemnation and/or clarification.
For instance, a severe public censure in the case of the attack on hapless school children by the Karni Sena would have made the PM’s address to school children only weeks later a little less ironic. Instead, there was a deafening silence. The Rafale deal is a classic case of the Government being defensive even when the facts seemingly bolster their arguments and potentially undercut the Opposition’s charges of corruption. With regards to both Nirav Modi and the NPA situation, barring perfunctory warnings, the Government has chosen to pass the buck to the previous UPA Government, instead of aggressively communicating the steps it is taking to mitigate the crises.
While the Prime Minister of India has maintained a studied silence, the media and Opposition have had a field-day (justifiably so) at his expense. In fact, that the PM’s refusal to address these issues have become a bigger headline in the media than the issue itself, is a telling story. Modi’s distrust of the media – the English media in particular – requires no reiteration. Notwithstanding, officials of the Prime Minister’s Office and the BJP’s top brass need to re-examine the sustainability and long-term gains of keeping the Prime Minister sequestered from the media altogether. The BJP’s 2014 communications campaign was innovative and fresh, and it is perhaps time to infuse some of that into the functioning of the Government.
The BJP will be inclined to argue that their party, and the PM, are targets of a vicious agenda. They refer to Manmohan Singh’s limited press interactions to bring home their point. The other strand of argument is to say situation ‘X’ also occurred during the previous UPA Government’s tenure or situation ‘X’ is the UPA legacy which the NDA inherited. This strategy of constant allusions to the UPA is hardly expedient in the long run given its fast-waning novelty and the risk of coming across as a carping Government that has little to offer by way of changes to the status-quo. Much like the Congress needs a new agenda from its staid secularism narrative, the BJP cannot act as if it is still in the Opposition and duck by deflecting to the UPA’s misdeeds.
Modi is not Manmohan Singh. His tenure has not been plagued by the kind of back-seat driving or coalition one-upmanship that marked the UPA. Indeed, his mandate empowers him far more than any other recent Prime Minister in recent history. Having repeated targeted Singh as ‘Maun’ Mohan Singh, the PM cannot afford to become Maun Modi now.
While prominent Cabinet Ministers hold regular briefings in the event of ‘breaking news’, the political Brahmastra that is Narendra Modi has been untapped for four years. If the BJP is willing to risk the Prime Minister’s exposure in every single election since 2014, what prevents them from doing the same in fire-fighting allegations of Governmental acts of omission or commission?
In a changed hyper-active social media landscape and outrage-driven news-cycle, passivity is no longer an option. The Government needs to be seen to be on the front-foot and not playing catch-up. Social media cells can only reap limited dividends and the mushrooming of these cells across party-lines no longer makes it an exclusive monopoly. Perhaps, weekly – if not daily – PMO briefings (à la White House briefings) offer the PMO the opportunity to seize the narrative, while at the same time shielding Narendra Modi from directly appearing in front of the media.
Meanwhile, across the aisle, Rahul Gandhi’s social media stock is on the rise. It is important to underscore that increased visibility or sound-bites do not automatically translate into electoral successes. Indeed, the Congress mandarins would be ill-advised to read this as a sign of Rahul Gandhi’s nation-wide acceptability. The newly-elected Congress President has a long way to go before he is considered a serious and viable alternative to the incumbent. Nevertheless, for better or worse, perception matters in politics.
Notwithstanding the teething troubles in the implementation of GST or the chaos ensuing after demonetisation, Prime Minster Narendra Modi’s reputation and popularity have remained unscathed in four years, as a number of recent polls suggest. Tapping in to that unsullied reputation becomes imperative for the BJP if they are to convincingly dispel charges of inaction vis-a-vis of corruption or mal-governance as alleged by the Opposition. And that is where the PM’s word becomes a critical weapon in the battle for 2019.
At an election rally in November 2013, then PM candidate Narendra Modi declared: “Manmohan is the Prime Minister, it’s his government that is in power but they are asking Modi for answers… Congress party targets us but they don’t answer questions themselves.”
Words to live by, some might say.
Aarti Subramaniam is a Journalist working in India. Image Credit CC by Narendra Modi/ President of Russia.