If there’s one thing Prime Minister Narendra Modi knows better than any other politician in India today, it is the art of optics, messaging and connecting. With his very public phone calls to Olympic and Paralympic medalists, Modi is serving a very important political purpose — of reaffirming himself as a prime minister who is like a ‘family elder’ and a far cry from the image of his predecessors. It is almost as if he is trying to surpass the ‘chacha Nehru’ vibe.
It is not uncommon for politicians to associate with moments of glory and victory — be it Indira Gandhi’s televised conversation with Rakesh Sharma or Sonia and Rahul Gandhi’s midnight jeep waving the Tricolor ride after T20 world cup victory — but seldom does a leader make a public show of consoling defeat like Modi did after the hockey team’s loss at Tokyo.
These phone calls — from the Olympic women’s hockey team to Paralympic gold medalist Sumit Antil — are evidently orchestrated and entirely for public consumption, drawing criticism from the PM’s critics and rivals. But it is this very touch, as melodramatic and manipulative as it might be, that endears Narendra Modi to the voter, making him a spectacularly popular and distinct PM.
Criticising Modi for his optics, or expecting him to change is as futile in the context of Indian politics as it is trying to make factors like caste and religion redundant. The voter loves Modi for his antics, and they know him. The prime minister gives plenty of ammunition to corner him with — from poor policy formulations to inadequate governance and an intolerant, majoritarian party. But there is little point in wasting time critiquing Modi’s flamboyant approach to voter-connect or countering him or the BJP’s projection of him being a ‘PM-with-a-difference’.
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Gold medal in ‘outreach’
If there were to be a competition for tailor-made messaging and impactful outreach, Modi might just win. The Indian women’s hockey team may have not won a medal at the Tokyo Olympics but the prime minister was prompt in calling them up.
The visuals of members of the team breaking down during the conversation with the PM went viral, and were a powerful endorsement of the Modi-connect. Essentially, the messaging of the call was a ‘fatherly’ PM encouraging the young team despite a loss, and the team feeling connected and emotional enough to tear-up. Most importantly, the PM consoling them and gently coaxing them to not cry.
All the calls with medalists have been carefully planned and executed. With Neeraj Chopra, who won a phenomenal gold medal in javelin throw, Modi cracked a joke and said “Panipat ne paani dikha diya“, referring to the medalist’s hometown.
On Monday, the PM called Paralympic gold medalist Sumit Antil to tell him how he had “overcome difficulties” and “made the country proud”.
Modi’s BJP has mastered the art of social media, but is increasingly aware that other political stakeholders are catching up fast. The PM knows that a mere tweet, as carefully-drafted as it may be, will not distinguish him from others, and hence, a publicly broadcast phone call is doing the trick.
The PM’s messaging, more often than not, hits the bulls-eye and works wonders for him — covering elections on the ground from Gujarat to Tripura have shown me.
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The ‘family’ PM
Narendra Modi has very carefully cultivated this image he now revels in, of being an ‘approachable’ PM, away from the image of a ‘distant’ leader who was only visible or heard during elections or important occasions like Independence Day. Modi is projecting himself to be like a family elder who talks to his people on a range of issues, including the most mundane ones.
His radio address Mann Ki Baat was the first step in that direction. In 2018, as the show completed four years, I had analysed the transcripts of all episodes till then to understand how effectively had the PM used the platform for messaging — from explaining government policies to talking to children about their summer break plans, to wishing people on festivals and touching upon everyday topics like yoga, the weather and the stress of exams.
His addresses to the nation — especially during the early months of the pandemic — where he asked anxious people to bang utensils and light candles to ‘scare away the coronavirus’ were all part of this paradigm. So have been his interactions with students on Teachers’ Day, or his book Exam Warriors in which he coaches students on dealing with stress and pressure. The PM’s frequent video conferences with beneficiaries of various welfare schemes along with ‘Jan Andolan’ campaigns are part of the same trope.
Essentially, Narendra Modi wants to be seen like he is reaching the homes of his voters, is engaging with them, and in that sense, is one of them. Never mind that a lot of this may be in the form of monologues or choreographed interactions. The optics and messaging of these activities are clear.
This also draws a sharp contrast between his predecessors and him. Look at how silent and measured former PM Manmohan Singh was. Even Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a powerful orator and poet, was otherwise a man of few words.
Modi has turned the idea of a ‘distant’ prime minister on its head, steering interactions with people away from just election speeches and formal addresses from the Red Fort, to more routine affairs. And for a PM with a ’56-inch-chest’, who doesn’t mind spewing divisive ‘kabristan-shamshan‘ and communal citizenship talk, Modi is equally careful to cultivate this image of a ‘soft elder’.
We can be amused by his choreographed and completely unsubtle antics, but these are what hold him in good stead, electorally, politically and more importantly, conveniently, when he wants to distract from hurting issues like an economy in distress, sky-high fuel prices or a pandemic mismanaged.
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(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)