Has Modi lost the Narrative Dominance?

Modi’s PR machinery, which achieved such narrative dominance during the elections, has failed to take a hold of public discourse in the recent past.

It’s barely 18 months ago when there was jubilation from all corners when Mr. Modi took the office of Prime Minister of India. In the analytical circles, it was largely commented that the Modi narrative of development won the election much before the results came out in May 2014. Modi campaigned by building on the narrative of development, higher economic growth, rising incomes of the Indian population, etc. He promised better roads and bridges, better educational facilities, healthcare and overall, a better standard of living. He was especially successful in reaching out to the middle class. He tapped into their aspiration and made them believe that he would deliver in realising those aspirations. He also succeeded in getting the support and backing of the business community by his emphasis on governance over government. He made assurances of easier procedures to do business, cutting red-tapism, and improving the investor confidence in the India story. Given all of this and the exhaustive election campaign trail, the result of the elections was decided a long time before the actual votes were cast.

There were other narratives too. Competing, but not compelling – ‘The ‘Harbinger of Death’ and the communal agent. Godhra was thrown about without any hesitation. There were other stories existing as well. A dictator and an autocrat in the making, who would centralise all power. However, these narratives failed to gain traction despite a protracted effort by the opposition and Modi won the election with a comfortable margin. Modi’s PR machine, spin doctors and campaign managers were simply better.

This post is not to deal with whether the promises made by Mr. Modi were kept up; rather, it is to explore how he lost the narrative dominance in India. The issues that have been discussed in the media recently have nothing to do with what Mr.Modi achieved or failed to achieve. There have been a few achievements surely, but that has not gained the kind of national attention that his promises gained. The opposition has been extremely successful in taking charge of the national discourse and has diverted it from economic issues to more political ones. Dadri got more attention that the rural electrification program; ‘intolerance’ over the fact that 2015 saw the largest FDI inflows into India (double than that in 2014), Rohit’s death over Startup India. This is not to say that any of these issues are not important, but it is a cause of wonder as to how the BJP’s PR machine has entirely broken down and allowed their achievements to be sidelined while simultaneously giving way for constant criticism. The very same BJP’s campaign managers who successfully deflected attention away from these very issues and fears of communalism into the development story are failing miserable these days. Where are the spin doctors now?

Modi’s silence has not helped either. An extremely vocal person against his critiques during the election trail, he now barely responds to criticism. When the entire nation is worried, justified or not, over intolerance or minority persecution in the country, it is the duty of the Prime Minister to speak up and placate the citizens. Silence from him is handing over the narrative dominance to the opposition.

There’s also an appreciable lack of ‘chest-beating’ from the BJP about their achievements. People are not barged with full page ads, social media campaigns, etc about their achievements so far. There are a few ‘bhakts’ who religiously try to highlight the economic achievements, but these are not taken seriously as the label itself is designed to remove credibility.

Whether the BJP has actually achieved all that they wanted to or not is an entirely different matter. Achievement, usually, in Indian politics has nothing to do with publicity. And what the Modi government desperately lacks is clear messaging, a publicity strategy, and a hold on public narrative. They have allowed themselves to be sucked into issues from which they would rather stay far away.

Anupam Manur is a Policy Analyst at the Takshashila Institution and tweets @anupammanur

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