Narendra Modi—the master of the message—is losing the plot

It ain’t easy.
It ain’t easy.
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abid
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Such was his wizardry that, in the heat and dust of the 2014 general election campaign, Narendra Modi could appear at dozens of rallies at the same time, luring voters with his promise of acche din (good days). The Congress party, struggling to connect with a young electorate, was no match for his tweets and Facebook posts—and occasional selfies. Elsewhere, on television screens and newspaper front pages, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) strongman broadcast his vision with consummate ease.

Modi’s vice-like grip over the narrative scarcely slipped after he was coronated prime minister in May 2014— a spectacle in itself, with many of South Asia’s leaders in attendance. New Delhi’s famously leaky bureaucracy was asked to plug the holes. Ministers were ordered to work more and talk less. And with no high-flying media advisor appointed, the prime minister’s office (PMO) firmly took control of the government’s messaging apparatus.

Fourteen months later, Modi’s much-vaunted communication machine is coming apart. Not only is the prime minister struggling to get across to the very people who voted him into power, he isn’t faring well with his own lot on certain issues. And a new propensity for silence on key issues hasn’t done him any good either.

This week was a case in point.

On the morning of Aug. 3, India discovered that the government had blocked 857 pornographic websites because it didn’t want such content to become “a social nuisance.” After two days—and one night—of much debate, the ban is now to be “partially lifted.” “A new notification will be issued shortly,” India’s information technology and communication minister Ravi Shankar Prasad promised.

The government’s rationale for such a move, and the subsequent reversal, is entirely unclear. Its piecemeal communication to the media has been confusing and hardly convincing, especially considering the supreme court’s disinclination to ban pornography. And the interwebs have been conveniently handed another India joke. 

Important matters of censorship and freedom of expression aside, pornography thankfully isn’t the sort of stuff that could rattle India’s idling economic engine, which Modi so vehemently promised to revive.

But being able to successfully sell an amended land acquisition legislation—one that India Inc. staunchly backed and purportedly desperately needed—was key to Modi’s avowed economic reform agenda. The prime minister, in spite of his gifts, couldn’t even entirely convince his own ilk of its merits. Allies like the Shiv Sena and the Shiromani Akali Dal refused to play as a team on the issue.

Meanwhile, fresh from a mysterious sabbatical, a renegade Rahul Gandhi tore into the Modi government on the land bill, wresting control of the narrative, not long after Anna Hazare threatened to march to New Delhi with a small army of protesting farmers. The two men—both written off as past their political use-by dates—swiftly sidelined the prime minister.

Amid this ruckus, the BJP’s messaging on the land bill was uninspiring and eventually unsuccessful, and for that the bill has now been almost entirely jettisoned.


Such muddled communication, sadly, isn’t quite the exception lately.

Consider the latest round in the alleged shadow-boxing between Modi’s growth-focussed finance ministry and Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor Raghuram Rajan’s inflation-fighting central bank.

First, a revised draft of the Indian Financial Code appeared with a proposal to remove the RBI governor’s veto power on monetary policy. Predictably, the idea kicked up a storm about the government attempting to blunt the RBI’s autonomy, to which the finance ministry reassuringly declared that these were “recommendations” by the Financial Sector Legislative Reforms Commission (FSLRC), established under the previous government.

Within a week, however, Justice B.N. Srikrishna, chairman of the FSLRC, declared that the commission had nothing to do with the current proposal. “These are modifications that the government wants,” he told the Economic Times.

If that wasn’t enough confusion on the autonomy of a key institution, the finance ministry subsequently clarified that it actually wasn’t the FSLRC’s proposal to take away the RBI governor’s veto power. So, who exactly drafted that provision?

“It is people of India’s report,” finance secretary Rajiv Mehrishi reportedly said. “There is no need for ownership.”

Surely, for a government seeking to reassure investors of its credentials—especially after the damaging retrospective taxation fracas—such episodes of indecisive communication don’t exactly burnish its track record. All the while, the likes of credit research agency Moody’s are closely watching, even warning that diluting the RBI’s powers could lead to a ”dangerous road ahead.”

Sound of silence

But bigger—and more damaging—headlines have been crafted out of the prime minister’s affection for stoic silence, while his political managers floundered to contain the government’s first significant set of scandals.

After brewing in the hinterlands of central India since 2007, the Vyapam scam—or the Madhya Pradesh Professional Examination Board scam—dramatically re-emerged in early July with the successive deaths of a television journalist, a veterinary officer, and a medical college dean.

By some accounts, over 40 people linked to the scam—that apparently involved middlemen finding high-scoring students to replace actual applicants to take tests—have died unnatural deaths, prompting massive outcry against Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s reluctance to order a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry.

Initially, the BJP leader was left to fend for himself in the face of growing protests, while India’s home minister Rajnath Singh, too, fended off demands for a CBI probe.

Modi—an aggressive advocate of a corruption-free government on the campaign trail—chose to remain conspicuously silent. Within days, Chouhan changed tack and finally brought in the CBI to investigate.

The unusual stillness of Modi didn’t help when his cabinet colleague and India’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj got pulled into the “Lalitgate” vortex later in July. The BJP stalwart apparently helped Lalit Modi (unrelated to the prime minister)—the fugitive architect of the incredibly lucrative Indian Premier League cricket jamboree—secure travel documents for a visit to Portugal for his wife’s cancer treatment in 2014.

Lalit Modi, who is based in London after fleeing India in 2010, had his passport cancelled in 2011, though it was later restored. Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje was purportedly also a prime actor in the incident, drawing significant flak from the opposition.

Although BJP heavyweights, including party president Amit Shah and home minister Singh, came out swinging in defence of Swaraj, the Rajasthan chief minister seemingly got rather little of such shielding. And amid the entire fiasco, the prime minister had nothing to say.

That resounding silence—which attracted jibes of Maun (silent) Modi, not unlike his predecessor, Manmohan Singh—has come to provide opposition parties with much ammunition. Some of the political gunpowder has already been ignited, triggering bedlam in the Lok Sabha, the suspension of 25 Congress members of parliament, and threats of a continuing logjam into the parliament’s winter session. Key legislation, including the critical Goods and Services Tax Bill, hang in the balance.

The biggest victim? The prime minister and his reform agenda.

There is, nonetheless, enough time to make amends. Maybe a dozen Modis will simultaneously reappear at the upcoming hustings in Bihar, regaining control of the narrative and the promise of the mythical acche din.

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