South Asia Journal 31 October 2019
When Mr. Narendra Modi first stepped into office as Prime Minister of India, Nilofar Suhrawardy came out with a book on him. The book, Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015), was first one on the subject. Her latest book on Modi’s return to power following a stunning victory of his party – Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2019 parliamentary elections is first one on the subject. The book’s title, Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? gives the impression of it being politically in favor of Modi and against Congress. There is nothing surprising about this as most books written about present Indian premier are either strongly critical of him, his right-wing policies and supporters or are highly appreciative of the same.
The writer has acknowledged that given the reservations and differences she entertains towards his policies and communal bias of saffron brigade, “It was not easy task working on this book.” “Finally, putting aside my criticism of his policies, I focussed primarily on his communication strategies,” she states. From this angle, the writer has attempted to objectively analyze communication strategies of Modi as well as his rivals, particularly the Congress party.
Some of the key points of Modi’s communication strategies taken note of by Suhrawardy include the attention paid by the premier in going “overboard” to enhance his image for the people at large. She has also pointed to importance given by Modi to strategically time his moves. The issues highlighted from this perspective include his washing sanitation workers’ feet at a Hindu religious ceremony, his anti-Pak card, playing upon triple-talaq issue and several other political cards. The writer views Modi’s anti-Pak as being politically motivated for electoral gains. She has described it as Modi’s “master-card” which silenced his rivals.
In her opinion, Modi’s “triple-talaq” – card, displaying his concern for Muslim women was in essence motivated towards winning votes of secular Indians. Modi expected the hype raised over this to silence criticism of anti-Muslim bias displayed by right-wing elements through cow-lynching incidents, assassination of secular Indians, etc.
The writer has compared Modi’s communication strategy of 2019 polls with the one he used for 2014 polls. This point also been used to elaborate a feature of Modi’s strategy which has not been given much importance in other writings about him. In 2014, Modi’s decision to don the secular mask has been viewed as a political necessity for him in view of Gujarat-carnage (2002), the anti-Muslim riots which took place in Gujarat when he was the state chief minister. In 2019, the secular mask was not used by him. In the writer’s opinion, he did it deliberately as it would have provided his rivals’ opportunity to target communal incidents that occurred during his first term and question his silent approach towards the same. The writer points out that Modi was extra-cautious about hiding his weak points from the public and targeting those of his rivals.
In comparison to regional politics exercised by Modi, electoral strategy of Congress and anti-BJP regional parties has been described as a weak one. At the same time, the role played by regional parties in helping BJP win has been taken note of. These include key regional parties in Bihar, Odisha and some other states. Dominance of regional parties in states, where BJP failed to gain a single state has also been referred to.
Political moves made by Modi to win support of people as there being no other alternative to him as the national leader have been pointed as a key strategy of his. In this context, Modi’s indulgence in negative campaign against Congress and its leaders have been deliberated upon. The book also points to failure of Congress to effectively counter negative campaign against it.
Incidentally, BJP, Congress and other parties have not been spared criticism for their nature of campaign. While the communal bias of saffron brigade linked with BJP has not been ignored, the fact that their electoral campaign in favor of Modi was spread over a considerable period of time has been pointed out. In contrast, the rival parties’ decision to align has been criticized as having been taken a little too late. The writer views their alliances’ significance being confined to a few stage shows and having been taken when voters were probably already moved by BJP’s Modi-oriented campaign.
Some of the issues raised by the writer have been deliberated upon in her earlier writings too. These include her opinion against Hindu and Muslim vote-banks, Ayodhya-issue’s failure to win political support, Modi and other politicians’ dress consciousness, negative impact of demonetization and other economic moves of BJP government along with a few other issues. However, her analysis would have remained incomplete without referring to these.
Critically speaking, while acknowledging the strong points of Modi’s communication strategy and taking note of weak nature of opposition parties’ campaign, the writer has subtly not refrained from referring to few sensitive points of the subject covered. These include criticism showered at Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) being tampered with, Modi’s Pakistan-card and role of outlets of media as well as other means of communication.
While describing Modi as a “master-strategist,” the writer has pointed out that this specifically refers to his communication strategies exercised for electoral gains. She writes, “With due respect to communication strategies of Modi, please note that electoral triumph of these do not also signal his success as a great politician, diplomat and/or a leader at various levels. In fact, the purpose of this book is not to elaborate upon these aspects. Study of these would only be possible in the coming years when history would stand witness to what have Indians gained by Modi’s stay in power. This book is primarily devoted to focussing on communication strategies engaged in by Modi to ensure his electoral success. As mentioned earlier, before it is too late, opposition leaders need to take a few cues from how Modi has proved himself to be a master strategist.”
The writer has accepted that as a Muslim, while writing the book, she did entertain apprehensions of the reactions it may provoke. But rather than not cover the subject, she decided to pen her views. So far, communication strategies in the Indian arena have not been the key subject of books written on politics. Many are devoted to biographies, governments and leaders in power, their policies, accomplishments, criticism and so forth. This is the first book to be published on Modi’s victory in 2019 parliamentary elections and also the first to focus on his communication strategies.