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How Modi handled the messaging of his biggest challenge

By Shekhar Gupta
Last updated on: April 12, 2020 10:26 IST
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'He has a gift none of his eight predecessors, from Manmohan Singh to Rajiv Gandhi, had: Being able to speak directly and convincingly to a large enough section of Indians who will take his word for gospel,' notes Shekhar Gupta.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi interacts with leaders of political parties, April 8, 2020. All Photographs: Press Information Bureau

The wretched coronavirus story overshadows everything else in the news environment and it is not about to go away any time soon.

But you know what, I am done with it.

At least for this week. Give me my old-fashioned politics any time.

But then, much of politics, barring the odd barb traded here and there is also under suspended animation.

Therefore, we seek refuge in politics with a touch of coronavirus.

On how Narendra Damodardas Modi has handled the messaging on the biggest challenge of his public life.

Let us begin with the messenger in him.

He has a gift none of his eight predecessors, from Manmohan Singh to Rajiv Gandhi, had: Being able to speak directly and convincingly to a large enough section of Indians who will take his word for gospel and his order like a papal bull.

He is more than a worthy rival to Indira Gandhi on his ability to read the popular mind, especially that of his voters.

No surprise that he has chosen to do all the messaging of his government by himself.

He makes a bunch of statements, some platitudes, some shrewd nudges, and the rest then dutifully take over.

Within the hour of his finishing a speech, or even a half-speech like on Friday, April 3, morning for the Sunday, '9 minutes at 9 pm' event, his entire Cabinet, top party functionaries, social media warriors, RSS and BJP-linked intellectuals all start tweeting passages from it.

In fact, after each of his four speeches to us in the coronavirus season, you could collate almost the entire text by just adding up the tweets of these key handles.

When he speaks, they echo him, and nothing else.

It ensures the 'purity' of the message. Everybody speaks in his voice.

That sorted, we come to the message itself, and how it has kept its central thread but changed in nuance.

Helped along, of course, by his belief that no matter what he says or does, a critical mass of his people, and his core voters -- which is a lot of voters -- will believe him anyway.

And even if he messes up, as with demonetisation, they will forgive him.

Imagine what effect would it have when he went on air with his Mann Ki Baat on March 29 and apologised to the country's poor for 'inconveniencing them'.

Millions of hearts would have melted immediately.

Next, he will almost never say what he is going to do for you.

Run your mind over his most significant speeches, and definitely the last four: Two addresses to the nation, and then Mann Ki Baat and Friday morning's short Diya Jalao message.

Instead of telling people what he will do for them, he tells them what he wants them to do for themselves, and him.

IMAGE: Modi lights a lamp at 9 pm on April 5, 2020.

From Swachh Bharat to withdrawal of LPG subsidy to the better-off, to demonetisation and now COVID-19, through all the other initiatives he has unveiled, he has invariably asked people to do something.

Immediately, it makes them feel wanted, and responsible.

Who doesn't enjoy being taken seriously, and that too by such a powerful leader? He's got the gift of seeking a sacrifice from people and pleasing them instead of dispensing favours.

In these coronavirus speeches, he has done exactly this.

In the first one, he said he was going to ask them for a few weeks of their lives, but left it there.

It was like a little inoculation to sensitise public opinion for what was coming.

He asked for a day's Janata Curfew, which some of us had noted immediately was like a dry-run for a longer lockdown.

He also asked for clapping and cheering for doctors, medical personnel, police and others providing essential services.

He spiced it up with the idea of ringing of bells and clanging of thalis.

You can laugh at this as much as you wish.

Can you, at the same time, discount that tens of millions across the country did exactly that and ended up grateful for it.

If at all, too many of them overdid it, for loudness as well as time, scaring poor birds and animals.

The virus, in any case, isn't even a fully live being so can't be bothered with noise.

Mr Modi had neither promised, nor delivered anything.

The people, if anything, had over-delivered on his call.

There is a pattern to Mr Modi's 'apologies' too.

There was one in a speech in Goa when demonetisation had thrown the country into chaos, in suitably choked voice, that said, give me 50 days.

Just 50 days. If any fault is found in my intentions or my actions, I am willing to suffer any punishment given by the country.

Of course, who would punish a leader for such 'humility'.

Demonetisation was a blunder comparable with Mao's assault on China's sparrows.

But here was such a powerful prime minister taking such a big risk -- obviously with good intentions -- and asking you to endure a little bit of suffering for his and the nation's sake.

The Mann Ki Baat apology on coronavirus was more nuanced.

He wasn't saying sorry for a mess he might have created, but for the inconvenience unleashed by such a bold step, to 'save India from annihilation by corona'.

Please note that there wasn't a mention of the migrant labourers's exodus and crisis.

IMAGE: Modi interacts with ministers over COVID-19, April 6, 2020.

So, three lessons: First, Mr Modi promises you nothing in his messaging.

Second, he always asks you to do something for him and thereby the nation.

And third, that he never regrets anything he has done.

Never. Never a word like, I know we could have done this better.

The fourth lesson is the most important denominator of his style.

That he knows who he needs to speak to, who he should toss, and who he can't ignore but can address in kind.

Translated, this means his critics, the commentariat, the so-called liberal upper crust and elites will ridicule him for the juvenility of his ideas.

There will be hundreds of memes and funny social media mentions about 'taali and thaali', 'diya and mombatti', and so on.

He couldn't care less. That is not the audience he is addressing.

The other audience he isn't addressing but can't ignore is the poor.

He gets his majorities because they vote for him.

But they do not control the discourse.

Plus, the poor are smart, politically irreverential and more questioning.

Why risk it with them? The middle-class voter isn't any of this and she sets the agenda.

If she was more questioning, why would she be out on her 'balcony' with a thaali or a candle?

For the poor, Mr Modi's outreach is through direct and efficient delivery: Cash, LPG, toilets, housing and there must be more to come.

The message is not needed when money can work.

His direct delivery of benefits to the poor has been phenomenally better and less leaky than anything in the past.

A criticism we hear, and in fact express often, is that Mr Modi is infantilising India's people.

How else do you describe this taali, thaali, diya, mombatti, go-corona-go and other stuff we feel embarrassed about?

But you know what, Mr Modi knows who we are.

Or, why would we rush out on the streets with thaali-chimtas and bands celebrating the humiliating retreat of corona?

We even circulated WhatsApp links believing that this mass clanging would kill the virus.

On April 3, an eminent doctor, a former head of the Indian Medical Association no less, spoke some mumbo jumbo about how the diya-mombattis would empower our ACE2 receptors to crush coronavirus into chutney.

This obviously went too far for Mr Modi too.

In his next speech, therefore, he made a strong pitch against superstition.

He brought in caution on people herding together on balconies and streets, reminding them of the need of social distancing.

Anyone who says he can read Mr Modi's mind is either a liar (most likely) or avatar of Einstein.

See this from where Mr Modi sits.

If I were to see this, here is what I'd say: Oops! These people are infants.

But obedient infants. Every now and then they might go too far in their zeal to obey, but I can caution them.

Mr Modi is winning. Why should he be complaining? Or bothering with usual suspects accusing him of infantilising his voters when they are happy being just that: Obedient infants.

By Special Arrangement with The Print

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