Narrative Building in Contemporary Politics


Political Narrative Building: Why Building a Narrative is a Critical Political Campaign

by Rajesh Sinha   12 April 2023

One of the important factors responsible for the often talked-about decay in contemporary politics is narrative building and its consequent impact on common people, media, academia and even international politics. It is important to note that while narrative building has been popular, especially since the early 20th century yet its proliferation in recent times in the backdrop of social media, it has suddenly evolved into more of a destructive tool rather an informative one that its initial proponents probably wanted it to be.

Narrative building has been in practice in most of the politically and socially active societies since medieval times. Rulers used to do a positive narrative building then to further their dominance over subjects. In recent decades, this exercise has become more popular as Public Relations (PR) exercise. Later on, the evolution and progress of capitalism has further created lobbies and pressure groups to promote, sustain and develop interests of respective groups in the state. The usage and disproportionate influence of lobbying by varied pressure groups in shaping and changing state policies is most significantly visible in the politics of the US.

The advent of internet and subsequent proliferation of social media however, has brought about a tremendous change in the narrative building domain. And one of the biggest casualties of this narrative building process has been, ‘truth.’ Be it politics, diplomacy, international relations, entertainment or business, narrative building has taken over like never before and its sway over public reaction has been awesome, if not objective.

In the context of Indian domestic politics, since long the current ruling party Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has been painted as Hindu-supportive and Muslim-bashing communal outfit by the other political parties, including once dominant Indian National Congress (INC). And since 2014 when BJP under the stewardship of Modi has increased its hold over Indian politics, the western media taking a leaf out of Indian politicians, have coined a new term, ‘Hindu Nationalist Party’ for the BJP, demeaning the democratic credentials of Indian state, polity and people.

As BJP continues with its incessant growth trajectory, it too has used the narrative building process to the hilt, to promote itself and decimate the opposition. It has started using Gandhi more vigorously than ever before as panacea of all ills plaguing Indian society and polity, Nehru has emerged as its favourite punching bag. So one does not come across any constructive criticism of Gandhi but Nehru is blamed for all the ills affecting India.

Another instance of narrative building taking its toll on facts, is the idea that castiesm is still all prevalent and pervasive in Indian society. While one scarcely finds any virtue in the ancient caste-system yet claiming that a big part of Indian system is still plagued by it, is surely jumping the gun. So much so that in their endeavour to demean the Modi government, some Indians residing in the west has started stoking the caste issue for problems in Indian society and even in the west (the recent legislative support for casteism as a prevalent discriminatory practice in the US) is one fine instance of opportunistic narrative building.

Opportunistic storyline building for political and commercial interests have increased manifold in recent times. While Christianity and Islam continues to be the state religion of many countries and widely followed by ruling elite across the world including the US, UK, Canada, middle-east, Africa and other regions, the Modi administration is being deliberately projected as the so-called Hindu nationalist government.

The fact is that state policies and actions by current government in India continues to be only as effective and secular as it used to be before 2014 (when Modi stormed to power), yet its perfectly legal and justifiable actions in bringing thousands of NGOs under greater legal framework, was publicized by Indian and western media as stifling of dissent and democratic values. So much so that lobbying by pressure groups (in the guise of human rights organizations) like Human Rights Watch went on with public appeal to big corporate in not making investments in India. Greta Thunberg, proclaiming as a climate crusader, went on to oppose the perfectly framed Farm Laws in India that was in interests of small/marginal farmers (Indian government ultimately had to withdraw proposed laws that turned out to be in the interests of rich farmland owners).

In international relations, the painting of an insecure Russia under Putin as villain and Islam being under global threat are instances of false narratives being widely accepted. While invasion of Ukraine cannot be justified but addressing valid security concerns of Russia, would’nt have led to this sorry state of affairs that has allowed western armament manufacturers to further flourish.

Similarly, the positioning of a world plagued with Islamophobia by Erdogan and Imran Khan, to further their political and national interests have resulted in a revese narrative of the religion under threat. The fact is that there has been an unprecedented increase in attacks on non-islamists in India, US, UK, Europe and Africa by Islamic radicals but a false story of persecution is being propagated by selective institutions, academicians, media and NGOs, financially supported by big businesses.

Media too has gone into this game of narrative building in a big way. The Chief Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal has assiduously created a narrative of doing great works in education and health domains. The fact is that except rhetoric, not much has improved on the ground but many Indian and western journalists continue to project his work as revolutionary which is a lie, false narrative.

Another area where the conventional domain of state sovereignty has been explicitly compromised is academics. There are many instances in the liberal democracies like India, US, UK, Australia, Scandinavian countries where native academicians allegedly due to financial and other interests, have been seen questioning every action of the state and playing the freedom of expression and victimhood card frequently. In India, there have been a big spurt in such cases and specific institutions/universities have emerged as pockets of anti-state activities under the guise of dissent and democracy.

It is important to understand that while freedom of expression is an important cornerstone of any liberal democracy, the so-called ranking of nations on parameter of happiness, democracy, press/media freedom done by external, mostly western agencies have huge instances of bias, prejudice and vested interests. To accept them as paragons of honesty and truth is simply out of question. The way a country like China, on account of its growing economic, political and military power, brazenly rides over the western media, virtually buys them out with big donations/advertisements to get positive coverage and advocacy journalism, raises big question marks on the proper interpretation of freedom and increasingly menacing role of narrative building in contemporary politics, diplomacy and international relations.