Tuesday, 5 July, 2022
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The unspoken words that help Modi retain public approval

Public disenchantment against the government — or against anything — needs articulation. That articulation has been wanting.

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Public opinion is an amorphous thing. “Public opinion is a term describing an ill-defined, mercurial and changeable group of individual judgments,” wrote Edward Bernays, father of public relations, in his seminal book Crystallizing Public Opinion.

For Bernays, the “obscure tendencies of the public mind” have to be ‘crystallised’. This process does not happen organically. Myriad forces shape the minds of individuals and through them, public opinion is formed. “The most obvious of these forces are parental influence, the school room, the press, motion pictures, advertising, magazines, lectures, the church, the radio,” Bernays writes. 

Bernays’ work in the field of PR shows us that public opinion is not a given. It is moulded.

Also read: The method in the madness of ‘jhatka’ policymaking

Everything is not fine 

Jagat Prakash Nadda, president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has said, for the second time, that US President Donald Trump lost the election due to his mismanagement of Covid-19 pandemic, whereas Prime Minister Narendra Modi handled it well with bold decisions such as the nationwide lockdown.

More than 1.4 lakh Indians have lost their lives to Covid so far. Even the per million death toll is especially stark given that India is a young country and Covid targets the elderly. The Modi government’s lockdown was supposed to end Covid in 21 days but did not. Instead it created a historic migrant labour crisis that took many lives. As a result of the ill-planned lockdown, the Indian economy is seeing a greater contraction than any other major economy in the world. Bangladesh has overtaken India in GDP per capita.

It is strange, then, that the president of the ruling party can claim and celebrate success in Covid management. He can do so partly because there is almost nobody to point out the failure. In the United States, there was an activist liberal media and a hardworking Democratic Party that went out to make sure it reached the last voter.

The media, opposition and civil society in India have all become part of the conspiracy of silence, a conspiracy so huge that India’s first recession in recorded history does not feel like an emergency situation. There is complete silence over what the government should do to end Covid or bring back fallen incomes or revive the animal spirits of the economy.

It’s not as if the public is not distressed about Covid or the economy, but that the public opinion on these issues is not being crystallised into a sentiment against the Modi government’s performance.

This is what makes the farmers’ protests on Delhi’s borders so significant. They break the conspiracy of silence that helps the Modi government produce an illusion that “everything is fine”. Protests like these become part of the forces that shape public opinion across the country, even for non-farmers. The nation is watching to see if Modi comes off as being a sensitive leader who handles dissent maturely.

Also read: Saving India needs saving Indian federalism

When the word gets out, it goes far

How public opinion is shaped can be summed up in these words of Urdu poet Kafeel Azar, sung memorably in a ghazal by Jagjit Singh: “Baat niklegi to phir door talak jayegi.” When the word gets out, it goes far.

We see this again and again in public discourse, the impact of words of dissent on the government. An invincible Indira Gandhi was shaken by Jayaprakash Narayan’s public movement against her. The Lokpal movement gave an outlet to people for their disenchantment with the United Progressive Alliance (UPA-2). There is no sign yet of the legislative rules to implement the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of 2019, thanks to the large-scale protests it caused.

This is why the opposition parties make a big mistake by not raising their pitch against the Modi government’s failures. Defeated, de-funded and demoralised, opposition parties wait for the public to rise, like with the farmers’ protests. They want the media to do the opposition’s job. But only the opposition will have to do its job for itself.

A few weeks ago, in the market in Kalyanpur, a kasba in Samastipur district of Bihar, a man wouldn’t stop telling me how terrible Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had been to people. Not letting migrant labourers return to their own homes, doing very little to alleviate people’s economic suffering during the lockdown, and have you noticed the price of potatoes lately?

He was not your reticent voter who is apprehensive of expressing his political views to an itinerant claiming to be a journalist. He was loud and vocal. He was Halwai by caste, BJP-voting community, so he wasn’t a traditional opponent trying to do propaganda. Did you see what migrant labourers went through? How they walked thousands of kilometres? How some died? Nitish did nothing, he said. I was, by this time, bored of his whine. What about Modi, I asked him.

“Modi is fine,” he said. You think the lockdown was useful? Yes of course, he said, but Nitish should have made better preparations to implement it. I pointed out to him it was the Modi government that shut down the trains, and asked people not to move. Wasn’t it the Modi government’s responsibility to give you better economic relief than Rs 500 a month, I asked, since it was the Modi government that imposed a national lockdown? And as for the price of potatoes, it has gone up not just in Bihar but elsewhere too, because checking price rise of essentials was the central government’s responsibility.

The articulate man suddenly found his lips sealed and looked away. End of conversation.

Also read: At the peak of his popularity, why Modi is going after dissenters

The questions not asked

With the exception of the CPI(M-L) Liberation on a few seats, almost nobody spoke against the Modi government in the recent Bihar assembly election. Tejashwi Yadav, Chirag Paswan, the media, the public on the streets, the Yadav and Muslim core voters of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) — everyone was speaking against Nitish Kumar.

This was because Narendra Modi was widely perceived to be too popular to speak against. Yet Modi’s invincibility also seemed to come from the fact that no one spoke against him. Nobody asked questions of the failure of the lockdown to end Covid in 21 days. Nobody asked about the economic relief to those who lost jobs. Nobody asked about a shrinking economy.

The questions not asked — the absence of a counterpoint — only made Modi even bigger. I would go to the extent of saying that the opposition made a mistake by focusing only on Nitish Kumar and forgetting Narendra Modi. By contrast, in the 2015 Bihar assembly election, the Nitish-Lalu combine made people question Modi on things such as the rising prices of dal with the memorable slogan ‘Arhar Modi’.

Simply put, the opposition to Modi won’t succeed unless the opposition is expressed.

The author is a contributing editor. Views are personal.

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  1. Mr Shivani Vij,

    This is not about one or two articles that you write; it is is about everything you write.

    First of all, what credentials do you have to speak about someone of a stature like our beloved PM Sri Narendra Modi.

    Do you think all those who have given roaring mandates in 2014 and 2019 do not know what they are doing? Why do you think world leaders are in awe of him?

    Come to your senses Mr. Vij. Do not try to shed crocodile tears. If writing nonsense is your job, look for something else. Better still, go to….

  2. What a big man!! managed to shut down a Halwai all by himself and that too while raising the flag for Lalu’s son? Nitish Kumar where the state of Bihar seems to be finally growing but instead maybe Lalu’s son needed to be elected to save the “democracy and the things Power puff girls are made of”.

  3. The nation will be stagnant under voters like that Halwai man. Is there one major impetus for economic growth that Modiji can be attributed to so far? All his grand announcements are explosive like demonetization or GST or the farm bills. His method is more style than substance. Modiji simply cannot execute with quiet professionalism and attention to detail. He simply cannot follow through on his vision. Smart Cities, crores of jobs, Make in India, Ease of Doing Business, Skill India….all fell through. Projects like toilets, gas cylinders, free health insurance etc. he has been able to achieve because these projects are not complex to execute and can be executed through District collectors. Some of his other successes are an IIT in every state and more AIIMS but these education institutions these cannot by themselves spur economic growth.

    He must be the luckiest leader in the world today…to get votes even without performing well enough.

  4. You cannot selectively pick events to suit your narrative. It wasn’t as if opposition wasn’t raising the issue of the botched lockdown or rising prices or the working class left to their fate by this “suit-boot ki sarkar.” It is not just in Bihar 2015 that the opposition raised issues – they did so in Bihar 2020 and many other elections as well. Just because a strategy led to success the first time around and did not lead the the expected result the second time does not mean that only “journalists” have been raising people’s issues and opposition has stopped doing so. Stop patting yourself in the back. It is unbecoming of you to believe that only you know how to oppose Modi. No one in India has been able to do so successfully over the course of multiple elections and in multiple states. Till someone figures how to do so, we will have to endure Baar baar Modi sarkar and its attendant consequences.

  5. Your article states “media, opposition and civil society in India have all become part of the conspiracy of silence”, If so how are you writing this article?
    I don’t think , you have left any opportunity not to oppose Modi. So called pseudo intelligent journalists are more dangerous.

  6. The author says- the lockdown was supposed to end covid in 21 days.

    Hello? Who could claim that when the whole world was still finding out about covid? Even if someone said that at that time, how naive of the author to hold that person to his words now in retrospect!
    Pls be realistic.

  7. Doesn’t youth spread covid to elders. ?
    Whats the population density of the highly populated US and Indian cities and their mortality rate ratio. ?
    Whats the ratio of metro vs non metro infection and mortality rate along with population density, plus mortality rate during lock down and post lock down.

    Also whats the mortality rate of india during various seasons prior to covid and during covid.

    Please state these facts as support then we could weigh in on your opinion.


  8. HA HA HA, Rahul Gandhi tried very hard to criticize Modi, but look at what happened to him. He lost his credibility.
    Because Modi delivers, both from a policy perspective and personal ethics perspective, some things do go wrong. When things go wrong, people figure, if the other guys were in power would everything be ok? The answer to that question is a resounding no. So Modi is still the best choice warts and all.

  9. BJP is here to stay for another 20 years at least. In fact after another few years India will become a single party country. No matter what happens to economy, people, GDP or anything else this fact will not change.

  10. You guys still think midi is winning because of no opposition. Come out of your chit parties and go to villages. You guys will never learn. People trust in opposition parties, radical liberals and armchair critics is aryabattas invention. This guy is rakhi savants of Indian journalism

  11. Not enough to articulate shortcomings by being bitter, negative and with a defeatist mindset.
    The step of offering an alternative narrative that is credible and delivered by someone who people can trust is of utmost importance .
    The TINA (there is no alternative) factor is a powerful operator in business, politics and in life in general.

  12. Tbf I don’t rate, I certainly don’t respect this Vin guy only known for Radia tapes that Gupta ever so diligently tried to hide from public memory. But even by that already low standard, this piece is so ill-informed and incoherent logically that HIS WHINING, actually makes me pity. All this toxic energy and hatred for modi, if only if it didn’t smell so clearly a propaganda piece, people mightve actually agreed. Then again you have no credibility so idk, may they wouldn’t have anyway..

  13. It’s like movie matrix where everyone lives in an imagined world and thinks it’s real until some brave people come to rescue them. In this case these brave people are farmers according to you. Wow! I love your imagination. Why don’t you write fiction. Also you often give advice on how to take on modi. Why don’t you join a political party and see yourself if your strategies would work. There’s a difference between writing and actually make it happen.

  14. This guy is a visceral Modi hater. No wonder he cannot see any good in the innumerable policy initiatives Modi has successfully launched since 2014. He is sore that Modi continues to command an approval rating of over 65% even after 6 years as PM. Sadly, he has to wait till 2024 to “educate” the people of the evils of Modi and the need to vote him out.

  15. Criticism, justified does produce results but criticism alone does not suffice ,offering alternative vision is equally important. Tejashwi, with pop in jail and rahul with almost fifty years of picnicking can hardly offer credible alternatives .

  16. Your efforts to “mould dissent” against Narendra Modi is heroic. However, people were not ideal all these years. There was a manufactured dissent of “award wapasi” in 2015, and later against finishing off Article 370, CAA – all which crumbled on its legs. You should have a deep introspection on why these efforts continue to bite mud. Lack of truthfulness and clarity of vision could be something you should be searching. We can only sympathize when you hinge your arguments on unscientific facts such as “Covid targets the elderly” and India’s deaths are on the higher side of the spectrum. Going by US rates of fatalities, our deaths should have been ten times more in the range of 1.2 crores, not the 1.2 lakh we see today. The global average of deaths per million is around 200. In the US, it is nearly 900 per million population. In India, it is 100 per million. The US did not have a national Covid policy and in place of any semblance of administration, there only a clown circus. So please give credit where it is due.

    Now, this could not have been achieved without strict lockdowns. However, hard it has been on the people, we see legitimacy in the decision. This pandemic, as with any other pandemics and natural disasters, does not follow a well-revealed pattern or provide us with a timetable in advance. Multiple peaks are coming and going around the world. Those who decide and act on Covid should have studied what happened in 1919, which obviously you have not done. Early lockdowns are always better, the virus loses virulence as it “passes” through the population. Yet, all our best-laid plans are shredded to bits by these events. Refrain from your quixotic quest to pin down Narendra Modi on the 21-day deadline. It just shows the intellectual emptiness of your arguments.

    The same lack of decency is seen when you say, “Indian economy is seeing a greater contraction than any other major economy in the world.” Covid is raging the world at different paces. Those who escaped the initial wave are caught up sooner or later. Taking GDP number of a quarter and extrapolating it for the whole year is plain deception. In the end, all countries are going to come out equally bruised from this crisis, with some like the US and China with a more enormous human collateral damage.

    Your call to the opposition, which is not just “defeated, de-funded and demoralized”, but also dynastic, casteist, corrupt and jailed (or to be jailed) as well, is acceptable. But this sorry group is not going to legitimize your call to manufacture the dissent. Ultimately it is your cancel culture that plays out – “halwai” and “BJP-voting community” are the limits to your woke-liberal thought.

  17. “As a result of the ill-planned lockdown, the Indian economy is seeing a greater contraction than any other major economy in the world.” Yes, ill-planned lockdown is the major reason why India is performing poorly on the GDP levels. Before the “ill-planned lockdown” took place, India was doing wonders with the GDP. Or Sir, maybe, government’s lockdown and overall policy of Coronavirus wasn’t that much failure as you tried to make of it?

  18. You are a pathetic Modi hater. Will you ever write one piece of news which you consider positive about Govt. I look at your name and donot even care to read what you have written. Today I clicked by mistake . After reading, my frist reaction was that it must be you ,only to confirm

  19. Didn’t RG ask these very questions and at right time. We seem to be much cleverer than RG’s perceived intellect.
    We haven’t had a situation in our living memory when the media questions opposition more. Even progressives like SG who actually have been speaking about undue popularity of NM are even more critical of RG.
    I dont think any other government would have brought such half baked legislations in the name of reforms.

  20. This man, a compulsive Modi hater who has thrived on abusing Modi every third day starts his article by quoting some foreign author. This is the slave mentality of most so called anti Modi brigade. They always look up to the west for certification. Secondly by quoting a white man he also gives the impression that he is well read which in the subsequent paragraph article after article looks quite similar because abusing Modi doesnt need a good education. Moat of them in media dont have otherr skills and so they opt for journalism. Also journalism pays well if you worship the Antonio Maino clan and become their defacto spokie in the media or elsewhere. Kumar Ketkar is enjoying his RS berth at the mercy of congress, the reward he got for incessantly criticising and bad mouthing Hindus, RSS, Modi, at times even distorting history and more recently justifying emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. This article is just one of the series of craps which is published week after week, which is a manifestation of huge pent up frustration of the Gandhi family worshipping brigade in the media who want the people to hate Modi, vote him out and bring the corrupt, communal and Anti national congress back to power. But if wishes were horses beggars like Shivam Vij would have rode long back and would’nt have allowed May 2014 event to happen.

  21. This article has so many presumptions. First myth is that covid targets elderly that has been already rejected by WHO as well. The mis management of covid crisis is another disastrous remark, the government was not prepared. The crisis arose due to the Labour laws which did not allow the center to intervene. You say Democrats are hard working that’s another personal opinion that you cannot standardise with every viewer. This article is unfortunately very opinionated, where in all the facts have been based to support opinions. Please report the facts to viewers, don’t spoil it with your opinion. There are many media outlets doing the same thing as broadcasting their opinions we don’t want you to be our brain we just need facts.

  22. A few hundred people are shouting against the Centre. Obviously they have become the pawns of some others, because a) they are not ready even when the demands were accepted, like MSP, b) now they say, that their voice is against Modi’s centralization plans??!! Does it mean that some people want a decentralized India? That won’t happen henceforth. Those times are over. What is that they demand? a) MSP? OK the govt is ready to discuss. b) Others issues… yes govt. is ready to discuss. They want that the govt. should withdraw the law unconditionally; on what ground? They don’t know. And paparazzi level prestitutes support and exhort them. For them news important. Hee… hee…

    None can save your kind of media…

  23. Modi has won the war of perception so far. His strategy of connecting with last person is yielding rich dividends. Critics have not yet realised and appreciated this fact. Even if there are shortcomings, people have not questioned his intention. Viz sees nothing good in Modi. This kind of journalism (?) does not do justice and bring credibility to his professional work.

  24. That conversation is typical of how millions of ignoramuses think and vote in this country. Most of the public are clueless who don’t know what the Constitution is, what democracy is, what an elected representative should do for them. All they know is that they possess a voter id card and know they have to push a button on the EVM for every 5 years..

  25. No sincere analysis or position of why he thinks any of the law is wrong and in a largely agri country of 1.4 bn how many are actually against it, no not saying it will be a legitimate protest if all farmers come, still handful of Punjabi rich farmers and their clout are against backed by lobby of middlemen. Shivam vij a congressi activists wrote this while keeping hands in his pants that the government will fall, cause otherwise pappu can’t do anything, sit down, Modi has faced worst

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