16 May 2014 was an extraordinary day when dramatic electioneering yielded unforeseen results in the 30 years of Indian democracy. A centre-of-right, nationalistic dispensation came to power with the full majority and was driven by the stronger leadership provided by Narendra Modi. This former RSS-pracharak-turned politician, ex-Chief Minister left his undeletable stamp on every aspect of the 2014 election campaign. Be it cutting-edge media management that metamorphosed the Indian media landscape or a huge organisational built up that saw alignment of like-minded movements and organizations with the BJP’s poll plank. He was not only successful in arousing electorate to dream about their better future but galvanize electoral support for his PM run. Of course, the corrupt, ineffective tenure of UPA provided a conducive context for Modi to fair in the game.
But all of this would not have been possible, if the right perceptions were not built and carefully-crafted narrative was not delivered to the electorate through mainstream as well as social media. It was the success of Modi’s campaign and un orthodoxical media management that delivered success in this historical election. He was able to usurp the pole position in the campaign and own the dominant narrative of bringing in Acche Din for the people and liberate democracy from the clutches of corrupt Congress-led UPA regime. Finally, the numbers spoke, and BJP could get the majority on its own while the coalition NDA could reach greater heights due to higher vote share it got any time before. This strategy not only culminated in Modi’s leadership receiving a major boost but also presented him with a huge opportunity to alter the governance processes and give a new direction to the socio-political narrative of this country.
The first year of Prime Minister Modi’s tenure was spent in erecting building blocks of the governance machinery. It was proclaimed by him in his Shanghai speech too, as he said he had to spend this year in recasting the arrangements of 30 years of coalition-era politics. It won’t be unfair to say that many of his government’s achievements were underreported, and the larger sections of the mainstream media used trivial issues to hijack the governance narrative of Modi Sarkar. Needless to say that any political leader or a party loses half the perception advantage the moment it becomes the part of the establishment while traditional media thrives on the anti-establishment ideology. However, there seems to be a concerted effort by the large sections of the media to bury the good governance initiatives, under report achievements of this government, blow the shortcomings out of proportion. It is their attempt to create a perception that Modi government is similar to earlier governments, thereby creating a schism between the supportive electorate and its favourite national leader of the day.
Interestingly, the media management by the ruling party is nowhere near its earlier pre-election avatar while it is lamely allowing bad perception to crowd out the good governance narrative of its government. This could be surprising to many media watchers, who have praised media play by Narendra Modi just a year back. What must have happened during this year that the perception battle seems to be sleeping out from the hands of the ruling party despite its unblemished, scandal-free rule so far? Or is it just a lull phase in the media blitzkrieg that they want to lie low for now because its main strategist Narendra Modi is painstakingly busy in reinvigorating governance systems first?
Can the government of the day better its media strategy and get back on the top of the perception charts before the next round of state elections? Can the prowess of social media completely replace the entrenched mainstream media and ignore the melancholy created by the deep assets of the left-of-the-centre ideologues that continue to thrive in the Indian media industry of today? How long the media managers in the government will be in reactive and defensive mode to give away the first mover advantage in the perception battle to the inimical interests in the mainstream media? How government’s very own information and broadcasting machinery can be better utilized to build the good governance narrative? Let us try to unravel this mystery of dichotomous perception play and discuss the issues in this article series to find out a way ahead for these perception battles.
Modi Sarkar’s Performance: Portrayal by the Media
Except for the top-rated financial dailies, most of the mainstream media chose to ignore the depths of turnaround that Modi Sarkar was able to script in the fields of economics, foreign affairs, defence and public support. So you wouldn’t have seen great weightage attributed by the mainstream media to Modi Sarkar’s diplomatic sojourn beyond Modi’s public speeches in the US, Australia, China and Japan. You wouldn’t have read too many analytical pieces that made you aware of the strategic moves by India in developing deep assets in the Indian Ocean region. Mainstream media largely did not explain to its readers about the miraculous economic turnaround achieved by the Modi Sarkar.
India, not long ago was being castigated as a near drop out from the BRICS dispensation because of its policy paralysis. Within a year, the same country laid its claim to be the fastest growing economy of the world. Was it just because the falling crude oil prices provided a relief to the government or was it because the overall conducive atmosphere was created to usher in new momentum in the economic activities? Mainstream media failed to document the paradigm shift in the welfare schemes, from being dole-out measures in the past to real financial empowerment measures by the Modi Sarkar sufficiently. It also failed to highlight in a big way the positive development in auctioning the natural resources like coal and airwaves.
There is not only a renewed interest in the NRI community to connect back with the homeland Indian economy but also resident Indians are much more confident about the present day dispensation. The politically vigilant electorate is now so active that it does not even spare Modi Sarkar from its fire, when it comes to hastening the pace of the governance delivery or bringing back the black money. Such show was not expected from the UPA government as it totally lost public confidence in its second term. But none of the mainstream media stories narrated a shift in the public mentality that is causing such participative behaviour out of grown confidence in the present day government.
Instead, mainstream media chose to ignore or underreport the achievements (rescue operations in Yemen before ‘prestitute’ controversy), blow shortcomings out of proportion (a minister carrying match box in the flight) and build malicious or false campaigns (Christians under attack, 10 Lakh Suit). MSM’s attempt of building a completely false narrative of Christians under attack backfired when it was proven that the crimes were not hate-crimes. None of the Christian places of worship, except one, were desecrated out of hate mongering, but MSM built its early narrative around the hate-crime theory and unceremoniously backtracked without correcting the narrative. It was proven by the likes of Rupa Subramanya in her articles (Crying wolf: The narrative of the ‘Delhi church attacks’ flies in the face of facts)and (The Communal Spin of the Post and the Times) about the fallacious and malicious intent of such media campaigns.
The sections of MSM did not either spare a chance in the first year of Modi Sarkar to portray Modi’s leadership in poor light. Be it the issue of his pinstriped suit, whose value was misquoted by a MSM newspaper and later correction issued. Or be it the case of taking legal action against non-confirming NGOs despite giving them a chance to fulfil their legal duties. Why do large sections of MSM wants its readers to ignore illegalities committed by the top-notch, international NGOs like Greenpeace and the Ford Foundation just because they carry a big brand name in their sphere? Why do MSM forget their duty towards the constitution, as the fourth pillar of the Indian democracy and highlight illegality committed by any big or small entity?
When it comes to projecting a challenge to Modi’s leadership, mainstream media is struggling hard to find a sustainable opponent. Firstly, it projected Arvind Kejriwal as an honest, dutiful opponent to Modi and carefully projected his Aam Adami image to the electorate. It was first successful coup by the Lutyens’ entrenched media elite against Modi when it supported AAM Adami party in its Delhi election campaign. Now the entrenched deep assets of the Congress party in the media are busy building a Rahul Gandhi 2.0 campaign. They are out of their mind when they try to pit Rahul Gandhi, who disappears for 56 days from the democratic battle, with Modi, who has not taken a single leave in the past 365 days. MSM had failed their readers when they did not assign their investigative journalistic resources to find out why and where was Gandhi scion during these 56 days and what was he doing during this vacation. It is left to rumour reporting or to the imagination of the readers to find out answers to these questions about Rahul Gandhi.
Thus, you could find attempts by large sections of the mainstream media to blow trivial issues out of proportion and go underweight on real, measurable achievements of the Modi Sarkar. The same sections of media had said in 2013 that if Modi becomes a PM candidate then BJP will polarize the electorate and lose the 2014 battle. It also did not find a Modi wave in early 2014 after Modi became the PM candidate. It did not recognize the mood of the electorate in mid-2014 and could not predict an absolute majority to the BJP. But surprisingly MSM did a volte-face during state elections in late-2014, only to debate whether Modi wave (non-existent according to them) is on the wane. These desperate attempts by the predominant sections of the MSM show that the large sections of the media and its entrenched left-of-centre elite were unfair critiques of PM Modi and continued to be so in the present.
Let us discuss in the next article in this series, why Modi Sarkar’s post-election media strategy needs a beefed up approach.
(To Be Continued…)
Author of this article is a media consultant and a former journalist; he writes under his pen name.