Advantage Modi: the success of the enrage and engage communication strategy
It's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, once again. His victory marks the launch of a communication strategy that has not been seen in Indian politics so far, a communication approach designed to enrage and engage. A PR strategy that is based on the one currency that matters most in political communication during any election, attention.
According to social media influencer and communications analyst Karthik Srinivasan, "Narendra Modi's campaign has been based on two main planks. The first is to attack the Congress party and the second is around the Balakot airstrike These are the anchoring points of the BJP's and Modi's narrative. Both are very aggressive and polarizing narratives"
The Balakot airstrike took place in February 2019 by India. This was in response to the suicide bomber attack on CRPF soldiers in Pulwama where 46 security personnel died.
Modi's 2019 election narrative marks a departure from the earlier 2014 approach of focusing on economic and social development and minimum government. If 2014 was about 'Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas' (inclusive development for all), then 2019 is about Phir Ek Baar Modi Sarkar" (Modi for PM again). The principal messaging has shifted from one of development to one of Indian identity built around the projection of Modi as defender, protector, saviour and nationalist.
Modi's 'brand positioning' as Srinivasan puts it is, "To enrage and engage."
What is the larger storytelling thread behind this approach? Srinivasan says that the tactical polarising messaging as aimed at gaining attention, the one thing that matters during an election at this scale."
All attention is good, the new political communication approach
Modi's campaign used several narratives and tactics to promote its principal messages and grab attention. The main ai to ensure attention stays on Modi.
The Anti- Congress Plank
Earlier this month, Narendra Modi, called out former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi saying he was the most corrupt politician by the time he died, even after starting out as Mr Clean in politics. Given the tragic circumstances of Rajiv Gandhi's death, many were upset by the targeting of a person who was no longer alive. Such comments are not considered in keeping with Indian culture's respect for the dead.
According to Srinivasan, Modi is pushing the narrative on the Indian National Congress and its key founders. While attacking the Congress and the Gandhi family is not new, to have a comment of this nature come from the Prime Minister rather than junior members of the party and its affiliates is certainly new opines Srinivasan.
Srinivasan shares the concept of the Overton window to explain what Modi is doing. The Overton window refers to the range of issues that are tolerated in public discourse and politicians who travel outside this range do not succeed in selling their point of view successfully.
Modi, says, Srinivasan is trying to redefine the narrative on Congress and the Gandhis and widen the acceptable range of commentary, specifically negative commentary, that is acceptable to talk about. So, he says, " There are people who will say he is wrong and people who will say, he has a point."
Sunil * agrees saying, " You may or may not agree with his point of view but Narendra Modi has been able to capture the imagination of the people in a way that Rahul Gandhi has not. He is one of the best orators we have today. Rahul Gandhi has not been able to capture the attention of the people in the same way. Don't forget that a lot of the communication is happening by word of mouth and Modi wins over Rahul in this due to his superior oratory skills."
Srinivasan agrees pointing out that, "Today, its the people who are the media. And the BJP and Modi understand that."
Srinivasan also points out that the Congress party was very late in starting their campaign outreach. He says, " They came up with their slogan, 'Ab Hoga Nyay'( There will be justice now) only in April this year, while the BJP has been working on their PR strategy consistently for 5 years now."
The Nationalist Plank
The other element of the Modi communication kit has been a muscular nationalism which he has used to frame himself as both being pro taking decisive action on national security and anti-corruption.
Senior print media journalist Sunil* (name changed) explains that Modi did not really have a choice but to take the nationalist approach because if he took the development plank, it would open up scrutiny on deliverables such as the job creation figures and the economic growth rate. This is also a position that the opposition cannot easily counter as no politician would like to be seen as anti-national."
Sunil* adds that for almost 20 years we have not seen a political leader who is seen as decisive. Modi, Sunil adds "Is seen as both decisive and very masculine and someone who would act against corruption. Corruption is an issue that matters across demographics in India."
This helped mitigate the impact of demonistisation as in the minds of disadvantaged it was a anti-corruption move.
There were several specific PR tactics employed by Modi and his team
WhatsApp was widely used to literally carpet bomb voters at the booth level. In a recent panel discussion senior journalist, Sagarika Ghosh said that 200,000 pro-BJP WhatsApp groups were operational in the state of Uttar Pradesh alone pushing content out.
Srinivasan who has been tracking BJP on WhatsApp since 2015 says that content is being both created and curated to millions. Srinivasan says, "The content includes fake news and the creation of a narrative on 'dark social'. The Congress party was completely blindsided by this. They are trying to create awareness organically which is rather naive."
Modi's strategy has been to control the message through narrowcasting and speak directly to voters via WhatsApp and other social media channels or even at rallies. Invariably the main messaging has been about nationalism, his role as protector and attacking the Congress party.
According to an analysis by NDTV of Narendra Modi speeches, scanned for a month from March to April 2019, the word Modi was mentioned by Modi 176 times, the word terrorism 127 times. In contrast, development was mentioned 76 times and jobs only 7 times.
When Modi did talk about economy and development, these were via interviews to carefully chosen journalists in the mainstream press; where Srinivasan says he could control the narrative.
In comparison, the Congress party stuck to social media and mainstream media interviews, basically broadcast communications. Srinivasan says, " Rahul Gandhi actually did speak a lot to the media and did quite well on Twitter in engaging people. However, this has not translated into votes offline."
At the end of the day, Congress's messaging approach remained highly top down which was not carried forward effectively by party cadres. In contrast, the BJP in addition to having decisive and centralised communication has a strong network in the shape of the RSS shakhas (branches) that carried Modi's message forward."
Many would say that Modi's PR style is part of a rising global trend of centralised and divisive leadership styles seen in nations such as the US, Turkey, Russia and China.
Much like Donald Trump, Modi is able to enrage and engage and take the narrative where he wants.
The dangers of that are that if much of that is based on fake or incorrect messaging. It's, therefore, a narrative that is tough to maintain long term with deliverables that matter to people about daily living.
According to Jon Allsop in the 'The Media Today' newsletter of the 'Columbia Journalism Review', " The Computational Propaganda Project at the University of Oxford found that between mid-February and the eve of the first round of voting, in mid-April, “the proportion of polarizing political news and information in circulation over social media in India [was] worse than all of the other country case studies we have analysed, except the US presidential election in 2016.”
Again, mainstream political actors have been key drivers of this trend: the researchers found that more than a quarter of content shared by Modi’s BJP was junk, as was one-fifth of information shared by the opposition Indian National Congress. The BJP has run a particularly sophisticated social-sharing campaign: one party official expected the signal to be boosted by over 1 million volunteers nationwide."
Narendra Modi's political communication is the most complete PR campaign we have seen in decades and defines a new approach to reaching the voter. If the Congress party wants to be relevant and thrive in 2024, it would need to better the Modi political communication playbook.