One Year On, Modi Government Fumbles on the Messaging

Narendra Modi has to get his basic messaging right. Credit: YouTube screengrab

Narendra Modi has to get his basic messaging right. Credit: YouTube screengrab

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Cabinet members have embarked on an intensive campaign to articulate the policies and achievements of the government over the next few weeks as the NDA completes one year in office. About a hundred rallies are planned all over the country over the next fortnight and senior BJP leaders and members of the Cabinet will attempt to communicate the policies and achievements of the government.

One big reason why the BJP is going on this communication overdrive is clearly because it actually thinks the mainstream media has not projected its policies in the right manner. The bitterness against the media in general is visible in the casual pronouncements by the PM and his Cabinet colleagues. The PM has clearly hinted at the media’s so-called bias against the NDA in his recent informal interactions with editors and correspondents at finance minister Arun Jaitley’s residence. This is surprising because, going by their editorial stance, the overwhelming majority of the media is still reasonably well disposed towards the NDA. They are willing to give Modi more time despite the obvious problems the government faces due to the hype created by the Prime Minister’s ceaseless pronouncements of “Achche Din” from the time his Lok Sabha campaign began.

Let’s blame the media

Normally, all regimes, whether led by the Congress or BJP , start blaming the media towards the end of their five year tenure when fatigue begins to set in and observers begin to judge the performance of the government. However, in the case of NDA this seems to be happening rather early in the day. Narendra Modi should seriously reflect why this is so. Is this all a media creation? A more objective assessment of this phenomenon will tell a different story.

While it is entirely valid to argue that the NDA’s performance can be judged only after two to three years have passed, the truth is the people who have voted for Modi are still unclear about what Narendra Modi and BJP stand for after being in power for one year. There is a serious problem of political messaging that the BJP faces today. This is so evident in the totally defensive tone the party had adopted when it talks about the Land Acquisition ordinance which has not gone down well at all with the farming community. The BJP President Amit Shah is at pains to suggest “not an inch of land will be acquired for corporates”.

Earlier Modi himself said the government was not acquiring land for Mukesh Ambani. Instead, the land will be “used by the government for rural infrastructure, irrigation and housing for the poor, ” the BJP is desperately trying to explain.  In the past I have never seen such key policies being communicated in such a defensive tone by any regime. After one year, the BJP is facing a serious perception problem and is being seen as pro-rich. The Sangh Parivar’s yoga mascot , Baba Ramdev, has also gone public saying Rahul Gandhi is making an impact because the anti-farmer perception caused by the land ordinance is very strong.

The land ordinance and the emotions it has generated is just a symptom. The real disease is deeper. Narendra Modi will have to go back to the drawing board and examine all the things he had specifically said to the people of India when he began his election campaign early last year. He needs to analyse the serious contradictions in his political messaging over the past year and a half. His government’s actions today are contrary to many of his key pronouncements a year ago.

For instance, one of Modi’s first specific conceptual messages was publicly delivered in Delhi when he had said, “My economic philosophy can be encapsulated in just one word, Trusteeship”.  Now Trusteeship is a totally Gandhian concept in which all the resources of society are held in trust and used for the people. Subsequently, on many occasions the Prime Minister has reiterated the idea that his government will follow economic policies based on the tenets of Gandhi, Ram Manohar Lohia and Deendayal Upadhyay.

What would Gandhi have done?

The BJP must ask itself a simple question — How would Gandhi or Lohia have responded to the Land Ordinance debate? For conceptual clarity on this, the BJP can bring together a group of scholars on Gandhi and  Lohia, and put this question to them. Narendra Modi will have the answer. Gandhi never had great faith in a monolithic state apparatus delivering welfare to the poorest of the poor. The BJP believes the state will acquire millions of acres of land from farmers, without consent, and deliver welfare to the poor. Forced land acquisition would have been anathema to Gandhi.  If Modi is serious about implementing a Trusteeship-based economic model, as he had publicly proclaimed, then the NDA government’s current approach to land acquisition, agriculture, environment and forest right clearances will need a drastic overhaul.

Modi has invoked Swachh Bharat as a Gandhian concept. But Swacch Bharat too is not a superficial exercise. It also has something to do with altering the nature of consumption and production in society.  Nine months ago, Minister of State for Finance Jayant Sinha told me in an interview the government is confident it can marry Gandhian ideas with the imperatives of global capitalism. Now it seems the government is caught in a cleft, and getting mixed up in its messaging. It is falling between two stools. As both Modi and Jaitley have remarked with some exasperation, the government is being called anti-poor and pro-corporate even as big businesses complain nothing much is being done for them. Clarity is yet to emerge from this confused signalling.

So, first and foremost, Modi has to get his basic messaging right. Doing Jan Dhan Yojana and covering 8 crore people under accident and life insurance is all very well but they would remain quick fix solutions if the fundamental conceptual framework is not right. Once you get that right everything else will organically flow from it.