By Pranshu Sikka
There is no denying that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has effectively leveraged his communication skills over the years to emerge as the most visible and vocal leader of our times. Fuelled by his strong personality, and a certain ‘father figure’ appeal, he set out to tackle coronavirus by talking directly to people (or at least sustain that impression). From his 8 pm broadcasts to recorded addresses, getting people to clap and bang thalis to applaud health workers, or even light diyas to dispel the metaphorical Covid-2019 darkness, ‘brand Modi’ managed to make Indians obey lockdown orders in an unprecedented manner.
However, he could have achieved a lot more than just a cult following. With the right kind of communication, Brand Modi, for the first time, could have cut across political lines in the country to emerge as a voice of unity and sanity in these trying times. A stronger communication tactic, one that focuses on the work that is going behind building institutions that will effectively mitigate this crisis, would have done wonders for him. It could have been a big impetus to his efforts of fighting his perceived divisive image. Not just that, it could have helped his brand enter non-BJP states, and even non-core vote banks, thus reserving some political brownie points that he could use in the future.
So, where did Brand Modi go wrong? Firstly, he undermined the severity and duration of the Corona epidemic. Right from the Tablighi Jamaat incident, to the sudden mass exodus of migrant workers across different cities – all of this not only added fuel to the fire of a raging viral disease but also underscored how Brand Modi failed to make any impact on this section of the population through his charismatic speeches. The situation went beyond his purview, long enough for it to be declared a disaster.
Chief Minister(s) vs Prime Minister
Secondly, amidst the Coronavirus panic, many state chief ministers emerged heroes in their respective domains in fighting the epidemic. For instance, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was the first in the country to receive praise from all quarters for tackling the crisis in his state with aplomb. Right from consistent press meets to appraise the public, to calling out bigotry during these times, ramping up testing, and constantly assuring Keralites that they will be safe under his leadership, he elicited confidence from everyone in the country.
Even Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal did all the right things in the union territory’s fight against Coronavirus – from regular sanitization, housing homeless migrants, feeding people, and leading the country in ramping up the number of tests. It wasn’t just these two, even Orissa, West Bengal, Manipur, Goa, and a few other states managed the situation pretty well. This level of localized empathy worked in favour of these other CM brands, who got a chance to reinforce their commitment to the issues of their respective regions and fortified their stronghold. Even BJP’s arch-rival Congress didn’t directly lash out at the ruling party and managed to maintain a stance that sympathized with the Indian public while emerging as a supporter of all government initiatives at fighting the epidemic.
All of these factors have led to a relative undermining of Brand Modi and hurt his chance of emerging as the true stellar binding political force for the entire country. Going forward from here, it will be interesting to see how he uses these incidents as a lesson to chart out a new communication strategy.
With the end of the lockdown nearing, it seems like Modi has already started to implement some of the methods that his counterparts in different states have used to tackle the crisis. In an address to village panchayats across the country via video conference on Panchayati Raj Day, he has already said that the biggest lesson from the coronavirus crisis is self-reliance. He further said that the COVID created new problems that nobody had ever imagined, but this crisis gave new lessons to learn. The biggest lesson from the crisis, he pointed out was, ‘villages have to be self-reliant and self-sustaining.
Prime minister Modi may have realized that in moving from national to local, and pushing the onus of responsibility and outcomes on state-level authorities, he might be able to regain his brand strength. While this could also be a big setback to his national image, if it works, he will be able to reap the rewards too. In becoming a Prime Minister who overcame political barriers and managed to delegate responsibilities to state authorities efficiently, he could be seen as a good leader across spectrums. Obviously, there is a chance that it could backfire and people start to develop more affinity towards their local leaders. Moreover, this will be counterproductive to uniting people in a country that is already divided by physical, social, economic, political, and cultural lines. But it’s a chance worth taking; don’t you think?