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Modi govt's communication problem

By T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan
June 08, 2021 18:07 IST
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The problem lies in the fact that those in charge of telling the government's side of the story lack the three things that matter most, namely, the ability to comprehend, communication skills, and the tricks needed for good articulation, observes T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan.

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Prasar Bharati has floated an international tender to set up a broadcasting outfit to push India's point of view abroad.

Well, good, one must wish all concerned luck.

But the government needs to first think about a problem that has dogged it since it came to power in 2014.

This is that even its domestic communication is quite useless.

Thus even when it does something highly desirable -- and whether you like it or not there is a truckload of such things -- it just isn't able to communicate it properly.

This is in sharp contrast to the UPA, which, even when it did very little, or did something wrong, it managed to convince everyone that it had achieved a lot of good.

Having given this contrast a good deal of thought, I think the problem lies in the fact that those in charge of telling the government's side of the story lack the three things that matter most, namely, the ability to comprehend, communication skills, and the tricks needed for good articulation.

Whammies galore

How can you communicate and articulate something that you don't understand?

This is true of the media as well.

As a journalist who has spent 41 years trying to explain complex ideas in economics, I can confidently say that most contemporary journalists are also as deficient in comprehension as those in the government.

So for the government it is a double whammy. Its own people and the media are both deficient in comprehension.

But unmindful of this, the government blames the media and the media blames the government.

Neither realises that the fault lies within, namely, poor comprehension.

GST is a case in point. It's a system that affects everybody, but one that only a few understand.

Unfortunately, those few are almost exclusively neither in government officials nor among journalists.

But even on the occasions where there is proper comprehension, the communication skills available to this government are grossly inadequate.

This actually stems from a very serious structural problem: You cannot communicate effectively in a language in which you do not think, namely, English.

The reverse is also true, as the UPA showed. If you think in English, as its best people did, you communicate brilliantly.

Finally, there is articulation. In modern media parlance good articulation is derisively dismissed as spin.

But spin is bad only if something bad is being presented as good.

It's not spin if something good is being properly explained. The UPA excelled at this.

Indeed, even inter-ministerial comprehension, communication and articulation seem to be missing.

Take, for example, the recent decision on fertiliser prices and subsidies.

Had the government announced the full subsidy in the same breath as the price increase, it would have come off as a great pro-farmer move.

The way it was actually handled makes it seem the subsidy was announced as a response to the fuss the Opposition made loud over the price increase.

There is one other thing, pointed out to me by my friend Brijeshwar Singh, a very scholarly, very retiring, and now fully retired member of the IAS.

He says "anchoring bias" plays a very important role, too.

That is, what you comprehend is very deeply influenced by your reference point (anchor).

Simply put, once you have an anchoring belief, it's difficult for you to change your mind. Facts become irrelevant then.

The result is that the government just can't get its version across properly even when it is telling the truth, which, arguably, is not often enough.

But sometimes when it is accused of lying, it is just articulating badly.

Copy the UPA

There are many people in the government who fully understand all this but are unable to communicate it to their bosses who believe that communication, articulation, etc don't matter because in the end it is your deeds that fetch you the votes.

But this approach doesn't always work.

Distasteful as it might be to this government, the way forward is to do what the UPA did: Increase access to officials, let ministers speak more about their ministries, let them hold regular briefings, and, above all, stop viewing the media as an enemy just because you don't like some of its members.

The problem rarely lies with the messenger. It lies with the message as well as the messaging. Both have been a huge problem for this government.

The messaging of the right messages has been pitiful while all the wrong messages have been messaged extensively and brilliantly.

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T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan
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