Thursday, June 18, 2015

Narendra Modi and the Art of Decisive Messaging

If there is one aspect that has stood out in Narendra Modi’s election campaign as well as his one year of governance, it’s been the decisiveness of his messaging. His detractors have termed it as a reflection of his arrogance but it seems to have worked in his favour, time and again. And the reason isn’t too difficult to find. Indian voters gave a decisive verdict in the 2014 general elections and so they expect the same decisiveness from their leader. Indian voters are fed up of ambiguity and uncertainty. Prime Minister Modi caught the pulse of the people. His direct and, in some cases, iron hand messaging is a key component of his leadership style.

After a year in office, Modi’s approval ratings have remained fairly high, ranging from 66 per cent to 82 per cent according to various surveys.

Messaging can surely take some credit for such high rating. Prior to Modi’s victory, the atmosphere of uncertainty created by multiple voices and veto powers within every strata of government had brought governance to a grinding halt. Indians, particularly the youth, cannot accept it any more.
During the election campaign, Modi himself was the message because he seemed to personify the change that many Indians wanted. After his victory, his messaging began to evolve on various fronts - political and economic; domestic and international. 

Message to the political satraps

For most political satraps, Modi’s style has been a culture shock since they were used to dealing with a rather timid PM at least for the last decade.

As expected, Modi’s political detractors termed many of his actions such as the Land Ordinance as unconstitutional.  Some chief ministers termed his actions as harming the federal structure. But they forget or rather chose to forget that while laying out India’s federalism, the Constitution of India gives the federal structure a strong bias towards the union government. India’s founding fathers foresaw that a weak Central government would have dire consequences for the country, examples of which were visible in the UPA II regime where Chief Ministers began to behave like Prime Ministers of their states. They went to the extent of trying to dictate India’s foreign policy towards neighbouring countries. Modi is spot-on in his messaging to the states – Ready to forge a stronger partnership but remember your boundaries.

It has taken a year for most non-BJP chief ministers to recalibrate their relationship with the Centre. Those who are yet to come to terms with this can already see the writing on the wall.

For his internal audiences comprising bureaucrats and government officers, Modi’s messaging has perhaps been the most authoritarian - Show results or be shipped out, period.

Many bureaucrats and ministers have tacitly acknowledged the sword hanging on their heads at any given point of time. In fact, a chief minister who was handpicked by Modi to lead a key union ministry was seen asking some of his friends in the media to pray for him as he stepped into his new role reporting to the PM. Modi’s message of being a hard taskmaster has certainly been welcomed by India’s impatient voters.  

Economic message – the key

This has been the area of focus and the one that has delivered the most success.  The ‘ease of doing business’ message was perhaps the most eagerly awaited and widely accepted. For businesses, uncertainty is death. Modi’s firmness in resolve and action has helped rebuild confidence. This also formed the core of his messaging to international audiences - A Resurgent India that is keen to do business with the world.

The results have begun to show with the economy having turned around. While it may have given his detractors a reason to equate his pro-big business stance with being anti-poor, the people aren’t buying the opposition’s argument.

According to Mint InstaVaani poll, over 80% of people in the metros and 74% people in non-metros approved of Modi’s handling of economic development. Some economists dispute the latest GDP numbers as inflated but for the people on the streets, jobs are all that matter.  As jobs increase, that’s what 90% of the Indian voters care about and Modi understands that very well. His ‘Make in India’ message connects perfectly with the working class.  

Clearly, economic messaging has been Modi’s biggest success so far.

When the medium becomes the message

Modi’s choice of Hindi as the defacto language for governance is aimed at reinforcing his message of being closer to the common man. The Nehruvian legacy of using English as the language of governance is being questioned. During Nehru’s tenure (1947-62) Hindi was far less prevalent in India than it is today. Even the Eastern and Southern states of India which were traditionally been reluctant in accepting Hindi, have witnessed growing acceptance of the language. So, perhaps India is far better placed today to have Hindi as the language of governance than it ever was. Not surprisingly, Modi’s approval ratings seemed to be fairly high in the cities of Southern India. Bangalore and Hyderabad have shown higher approval ratings than Delhi and Mumbai.

Modi has also tried novel ways to engage with the people be it through social media (targeted at youth) or radio (aimed at rural poor).

According to a mood-of-the-nation survey by Axis-My India for IBN News, mass media (primarily newspapers) is viewed as the key platform for Modi’s communication. Despite all the hype around his social media push, just 20% say social media has been an effective platform for Modi to communicate. 30% and 23% feel Modi communicates effectively through radio (Mann Ki Baat) and TV respectively. Only 17% feel Modi reaches out best through public rallies while 4% say he reaches out effectively through interventions in Parliament.

Modi has converted almost every public platform into a mass media one – be it in India or abroad. So inspite of having given very few direct interviews to media, he has used them to deliver his message. However, there are strong voices within the mass media stating the Modi needs to be more open in his engagement with them. His one-way communication style may not yield results for too long.


The opposition continues to claim that Modi’s support base is fast eroding. The truth of these claims will soon be visible in the state elections. But it’s interesting to see how the electorate continues to react to Modi’s messages and to his style of message delivery.

So, are the so-called argumentative Indians being replaced by the impatient Indians? For now, that does seem to be the case which in turn means that decisive messaging is here to stay in Indian politics.