George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Shaw meant his quip to be an observation and perhaps a warning about one of the biggest pitfalls in human communication, but Narendra Modi seems to have based his entire communications and public relations strategy on it. For no one else in the history of Indian politics has ever talked so much without saying so little, and no other Indian leader has managed to dodge the burning issues of the day as completely as our current prime minister has.
The most recent example of Modi’s ‘illusion of communication,’ is, of course, his much-publicised ‘non-political’ interview with Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar. The very fact that this was dubbed a ‘non-political’ interview creates the illusion that the prime minister has given enough ‘political interviews’ during his tenure, and that he can now relax and give a ‘non-political’ one.
The fact is that Narendra Modi has not addressed even a fraction of the issues he should have over these past five years. He has not answered the questions that needed to be answered and he has not given a single genuine, unscripted ‘political interview’ during his stint as prime minister.
Despite all his Mann Ki Baat radio broadcasts since 2014 and scripted TV interviews with selected channels like Republic TV, Times Now and ABP, Modi has not communicated with the Indian public in the true sense of the word.
The word communication itself comes from the Latin word ‘communis’, which literally means ‘to share or make common’. Real communication is a two-way process where there is an exchange, a mingling, or a coming together. It involves common ground where you and I can meet; where if I have questions or concerns, you respond in such a way that my questions are answered and my concerns are allayed, and vice-versa.
Not so with the prime minister of India who has decided to talk about whatever he wants, whenever he wants to talk about it.
The real, burning questions in the minds of millions of people of India remain unanswered, and they look something like this:
- What was the point of demonetisation?
- What did it accomplish and who did it actually help?
- Did it reign in the black money?
- Did it put an end to terror attacks?
- How did GST benefit the small trader (or anyone else for that matter)?
- If demonetisation and GST were such good ideas, then why is unemployment as high as it is today?
- Where are achhe din?
- Where is vikas?
- Where are the crores of jobs that were promised?
- Why does the prime minister follow abusive trolls on Twitter?
- Why does he maintain a studied silence when ghastly incidents of communal violence flare up, and why does he only offer a weak one-size-fits-all response, days after the event?
- Why are we all being asked to be chowkidars long after crooks like Nirav Modi and Mehul Chowksi have flown away?
But these are the very questions the prime minister refuses to answer, and continues to do scripted event after scripted event, dodging the real issues at hand, and instead answers questions like:
- Do you like mangoes?
- How do you like to eat mangoes?
- Do you ever get angry?
- How do you manage your anger?
- Do you still have a sense of humour?
- Why do you wear the clothes you do?
- How little do you really sleep?
- Do you watch movies?
- Do you hum movie songs to yourself?
- Does your mommy come and live with you sometimes?
After five years of a tenure that has created seismic dislocations in Indian society, the very fact that the prime minister of the largest democracy in the world chooses to give a ‘non-political’ interview (also known in media circles as ‘a PR puff piece’) to a Bollywood actor, and that too at the height of the election season, suggests rather clearly that the most powerful man in the country is running scared.
Much has already been said about this bizarre and somewhat surreal interview. Compliant media channels have hailed it, non-compliant channels and news sites have flayed it, social media has lampooned it, the opposition has lambasted it and NDTV’s Ravish Kumar, at his sarcastic, sardonic best, has gone so far as to do an entire ‘non-political’ spoof of his own Prime Time show on it.
Despite being called a ‘non-political’ interview, the interaction had plenty of political content in it. The prime minister took several digs at the opposition, mentioned the RSS at least three times, bandied about his ostensibly buddy-buddy (‘tu-tadak’) relationship with former US President Obama and talked about how his political opponents send him kurtas and sweets.
Clearly, there is no such thing as a non-political prime minister just as there is no such thing as a non-Catholic Pope. It is not possible to say, “The Pope gave a non-Catholic homily at the Vatican today”.
Many have called it ‘a clever PR coup’, but Modi’s tete-a-tete with Akshay Kumar is more of a last-gasp PR exercise than anything else, once again in brazen defiance of the spirit and letter of the Election Commission model code of conduct (MCC). Modi’s PR team has tried very hard to portray him as the genial old uncle with ascetic tastes and habits, profoundly unconcerned about money, power or fame and a living example of simple thinking and high living.
What they have unwittingly ended up doing is depicting him as a self-absorbed, self-referential narcissist running from reality.
Somebody should have reminded Modi early on in his tenure that if he was meant to pat himself on the back this much, his hinges would have been different. But it’s a bit late now. Instead of going down in history as the great statesman who lifted India out of the morass of its ever-present problems, the 14th prime minister of India will forever be remembered as a scared, insecure man who needed a pantheon of Bollywood actors, an army of social media trolls and a gigantic public relations machine to keep his illusion of communication afloat.
Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescent issues to help make schools bullying-free zones.