Narendra Modi remains popular even when he makes mistakes or is unable to deliver. These have nothing to do with people trusting him. There are voters who say, ‘If Modi is doing it, it must be right.’
Modi is not the only politician who enjoys such trust. Naveen Patnaik in Odisha is another such man. There is no dearth of examples from the past and present, from the MLA-level to the Prime Minister level, of leaders enjoying unshakeable trust.
Let us break down the factors that drive public trust in politicians.
Service vs power
It is a big ask when a politician expects you to trust her with your vote for five years. It is a fixed deposit you can’t withdraw. You will only open a fixed deposit if you trust the bank to deliver the returns.
People want to know if a politician will be around to serve the people, or will they enjoy power and forget the people. This is a dichotomy between social service and power. This is why we often hear politicians say they want to serve the people, power is only a better means to do so.
But some of our politicians don’t even make such claims, they don’t even understand that they must position themselves as social workers rather than power players. This is particularly true of politicians who inherit their political careers. They are unable to understand that public trust is not part of the inheritance. So, it was a pleasant surprise to see 30-year-old Aaditya Thackeray make this point in an interview with Pradeep Chhibber and Harsh Shah for their book, India Tomorrow. Thackeray says:
“Elections matter to us because you have to win elections and once you win you can do a lot of good. But the whole transformation for me in terms of politics as a concept has been from focusing only on elections to those five years between elections.”
Thackeray goes on to explain how the Shiv Sena works as a social organisation, with unions and coaching for Marathi youth to crack entrance exams and partnering with NGOs for drought relief and running ambulances, and so on. This is partly why the Shiv Sena is strong enough to survive the Modi era.
Even Gandhi wanted the Congress party to disband after Independence so that it could transform into a new social service organisation, called the Lok Sevak Sangh.
Always be around
Another important factor in building trust is accessibility. We often hear voters say this about their elected representatives: ‘He never visited me in five years. He was never around.’
It is impossible to be accessible to over 138 crore people. Since the number of seats in our legislatures has not been increased with the rise in population, a Lok Sabha MP today represents around 25 lakh people. The chimera of accessibility and 24×7 hard work is then built through visibility. People even within the Congress complain that Rahul Gandhi is inaccessible but nobody says this about Modi or Amit Shah.
Modi is so visible, making a thundering speech here and releasing a gimmicky video there, that it convinces people he works 16 hours a day. Who knows, maybe he works only 10 hours?
Even when Narendra Modi goes abroad he makes sure he doesn’t ‘disappear’ from the minds of Indian voters. He addresses an NRI audience, speaks on domestic issues, makes sure that we don’t really feel the prime minister is not around. Rahul Gandhi’s endless foreign trips would rankle less if he did something similar.
Consistency builds trust
Nothing builds trust like consistency. People go to their favourite restaurant again and again because they know exactly what the food will taste like. A politician who is consistent with her ideas, policies, objectives, visibility, even clothing and body language, is able to win the trust of the people.
An inconsistent politician says one thing today and another thing tomorrow. A BJP worker in Uttar Pradesh once told me why he thought the party declined in the early 2000s. “People felt we cheated them on Ram Mandir. We said Mandir Mandir and then forgot about it.”
When Rahul Gandhi suddenly stops going to temples just because elections are over, it breaks trust. The next time he goes to a temple before an election, even his supporters won’t be able to claim it is genuine faith, and not an electoral gimmick.
India’s most inconsistent politician is a certain chief minister of Delhi. One day he’s selling Lokpal and then he forgets all about corruption. One day he’s attacking Modi, next day he’s looking like an NDA ally. When the public can’t tell which way a politician will go, they don’t trust you. This is partly why Delhi’s own regional party is doomed to remain just that.
This point can’t be overstated. To look like one’s goal is people’s welfare and not power, to always be visible, to appear consistent and make up for one’s inconsistencies — for all of this and more, politicians need to be in campaign mode all the time. Any point a politician has to make has to be a campaign. Press conferences and one-day events won’t do it in a world suffering from information overload.
Modi typically comes up with an over-arching slogan that lasts a year or two. Everything he has to do becomes part of this campaign slogan. These days it is ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’, before which it was ‘$5 trillion economy’, before which it was ‘New India 2022’ and so on. Under the umbrella of visionary-sounding slogans, he’s campaigning all the time. Just look at how he’s been hard-selling a banality like the National Education Policy. When Modi has no campaign pitch to offer he’ll release a peacock video.
Permanent campaign seeks public approval on a daily basis, not just before elections. If the people like you all five years, they don’t suddenly lose trust in you when your opponents start attacking you before elections. They’ve been trusting you forever.
In the India Tomorrow book, there’s also an interview of Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav, where he is asked: “Politics is a 24×7 job. You are a politician and so is your wife, Dimple. Has this posed any difficulties in your personal life? How do you manage your personal, public, and political life?”
Yadav replies: “If you would have asked this question two years ago, I would have said that it was difficult. Currently, we are in the opposition so we are a bit relaxed.”
Narendra Modi has been permanently in power since 2001 because he is never relaxed. There hasn’t been a day when he hasn’t been trying to occupy the people’s mind-space.
Permanent campaign is the marketing of trust.
The author is contributing editor, ThePrint. Views are personal.