PM’s Letter to People, Mann Ki Baat: From Abstract to Political

PM and his communication team are aware that few at this stage would nitpick about boundaries that were crossed.

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Opinion
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PM Modi
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi's third Mann Ki Baat during lockdown has to be analysed in conjunction with his 'letter' to 'fellow' Indians. Both messages qualify to be regarded as ideal examples for citation in a lecture on the art of political communication.

The two messages did not have to justify their timing – Mann Ki Baat is broadcast on the last Sunday every month, while 30 May was the first anniversary of Modi Sarkar 2.0. In 2015, too, he sent out a similar letter to people, the difference this time being that it was also read out by him evocatively, enabling wider reach.

Given the challenges India, rather humanity as a whole, is facing, the prime minister and his communication team are aware that few at this stage would nitpick about boundaries that have been crossed through these messages.

Both the 30 May letter and Mann Ki Baat have an intrinsic political dimension and the prime minister seamlessly transits from the philosophical or abstract, to the practical and political.

When Mann Ki Baat was launched in October 2014, Modi categorically declared that the radio/TV show would steer clear of policy matters. Yet, in the latest Mann Ki Baat episode, while recounting measures taken by the government to alleviate the suffering of migrant labourers, the prime minister announced that "the establishment of a migration commission is being deliberated upon."

Hallmark of Announcements

The hallmark of Modi's announcements has been the refusal to mention either the steps already taken in this direction or pre-existing schemes in different garb or name. It appears the prime minister does not believe is sharing kudos with colleagues too. An instance of this is the decision of the Uttar Pradesh chief minister to establish a migration commission, called Shramik Kalyan Aayog. Modi did not mention this step while announcing his plan.

It is a different matter that adversaries of the state government have contended that such a commission will "not have an impact on the migrant crisis or bring about a systemic change" and that Adityanath has "fallen prey to making announcements without substance."

Modi's letter to citizens a day earlier is a clever tool. It ensures that amid anxiety and single-minded preoccupation with the omnipresent coronavirus, people should not forget reasons for which they voted Modi back into power after completion of a full term barely a year ago.

There is no questioning the correctness of the assertion that “it was after several decades that the people of the country voted back a full-term government with a full majority.”

However, a leader of Modi's calibre is aware that public memory is indeed short, especially when faced with a potentially life-threatening situation. He thus used the occasion to remind people not just about the dozen-plus 'accomplishments' of the government over the past year, but also the reason why they gave him a second mandate: surgical strike, airstrikes, OROP, GST, higher MSP, et al.

There, however, was conspicuous silence on demonetisation or eradication of black money, the clarion call to initially discredit the Manmohan Singh regime and pave the way for his entry into South Block.

Modi has clarity on who he is addressing. Had he not said earlier this year on 20 January at JP Nadda's inauguration as party president that at every stage there is "this toli (a group of opera singers, dancers, actors, or other performers) which has never been with us. So, because there is no certainty of them being with us in future, what is the point of wasting time to reach out."

In his two messages to the people, Modi did not waste his time in reaching out to those who may either be critical of the government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, he reached out to his supporters or even those who backed him last year but are a tad unsure of their future and critical of the handling of the crisis.

Modi's ingenuity lay in not looking at the bleak or mentioning it, but focusing completely on the positive. It is from the Modi approach of selective viewing that people like the government's law officer get the courage to label the media as "prophets of doom" for doing their job at considerable personal risk.

In each of his speeches since the video interaction in April with sarpanches from across the country, Modi has stressed the need for every citizen, each administrative unit, and the nation as a whole to become self-reliant or atmanirbhar.

However, the exposition remains sketchy because it remains a political device – providing the sangh parivar with the consolation of swadeshi-talk on the one hand. On the other hand, it is showcased to people as an unclear panacea to "usher in a new era of opportunities for every Indian, be it our farmers, workers, small entrepreneurs or youth associated with start ups" with the package for Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan.

Creating ‘Brand India’

In 2014, several months after being ensconced as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, he had unveiled at a party meeting his idea of creating “brand India.” He talked of his development strategy emphasising the necessity to be in “mission mode” in every sector from industry to education.  Atmanirbharta, too, is to be achieved in mission mode.

Catchy alliterations, extravagant slogans, and alluring notions – at a time beyond people's everyday comprehension – are the prime minister's recurring tools for political communication or messaging people. Most remain either transitory and get used less frequently till they disappear from the vocabulary. Months ago the prime minister was explaining how India will become a $5 trillion economy in 5 years. But there was no mention of this and instead, citizens were told that India shall astonish the world "with its unity and resolve in the fight against coronavirus, there is a firm belief that we will also set an example in economic revival."

The question of how this objective is to be achieved is not part of the political messaging.

Besides the fear of the coronavirus lurking around the corner, the migrant crisis has been the biggest humanitarian failure, both in terms of anticipation and in terms of managing it. Not acknowledging the migrant workers and their suffering is no longer possible. The prime minister. however, said that migrants' distress and torment have been greatly tackled by citizens coming forward to provide sewa or service.

Sidestepping accusations of the absent State, Modi communicated with his constituency that they have "proved that the notion of service and sacrifice is not just our ideal; it is a way of life in India. We are familiar with the dictum – Sewa Paramo Dharmah (Service is the highest religion); service is a joy in itself…" In Mann Ki Baat, Modi told people that the "battle against corona is being fiercely waged in the country through collective efforts."

These are possibly crucial examples to establish how Modi makes people partners in tasks that are primarily his because of the position he occupies. The sense of being partners in the 'project' blunts possible questions people may have about the prime minister's methods and approach and neutralises discontent.

To ward off criticism, Modi also devoted almost six minutes in Mann Ki Baat to talk about Ayushman Bharat, which has made no mark in making out health system any better.

Very few of Modi's addresses or missives can be bereft of political messaging. Pre-2014 India remains a period about which a question was flagged. But before that he claimed kudos for "safely transporting lakhs of labourers in trains and buses, caring for their food... But friends, the current scenario that we are witnessing is an eye-opener to happenings in the past to the country." There was no explanation that what exactly in the past is the prime minister wishing people to bemoan.

In his radio show, Modi said, "the distress our workforce is undergoing is representative of that the country’s eastern region (faces)." The country's eastern region (where elections are due shortly – Bihar and the  West Bengal and Assam in 2021) "possesses the capacity to be the country’s growth engine" but "needs development. It is only the development of the eastern region that can lead to a balanced economic development of the country... Ever since the country offered me the opportunity to serve, we have accorded priority to the development of eastern India. In the last few years, much has been done in this direction which gives me inner satisfaction."

Not much imagination is required to imagine how a certain lady will be fuming at these words especially as the visuals on Doordarshan accompanying Mann Ki Baat showed Modi alone taking an aerial view of the Amphan-hit West Bengal.

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