Why the 2019 general elections changed the Indian media forever
The PM's communication channels have been tightly controlled, and he responds to the opposition's criticisms either on his own terms or not at all.
The Indian voter has voted unambiguously. Narendra Modi and his BJP-NDA government have been voted back to power with a brute majority. The BJP, on its own, has bagged over 300 seats. Barring three states in the South and Punjab, it has either sustained or improved its performance compared to 2014. It has made major new gains in eastern states such as West Bengal and Odisha, and turned around its fortunes in states such as Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh where it had only five months ago lost power to the Congress.
The Modi government failed on several counts over the last five years. It has not delivered on its promises on employment generation or on recovering black money. It has failed to bring to book perpetrators of many instances on murder and lynching of unsuspecting members of various minority population groups. It has fielded candidates charged with planning terrorist attacks and they have defeated senior leaders of the opposition. It has deeply polarized voters in the name of religion and patriotism. It has undertaken a number of grand public projects, and almost all of them were soon overshadowed by the launch of grander public projects, few of which were followed to their logical conclusion.
Yet, the image of Prime Minister Modi has only continued to grow larger and more influential with every passing day. He has emerged as a tough, decisive and efficient leader in the eyes of the majority Indian voter. The image has lately grown so strong that he did not bother to hold press conferences or grant interviews to the Press during the last five years. During the only press conference he did participate a few days ago, he did not speak for more than a few minutes. He did grant a few interviews to the media during the last few days, but the most publicized of them was conducted by a professional actor, in which questions were largely about his food, fashion and other lifestyle preferences.
There lies one of the major reasons for Modi’s unrivalled success. He has successfully bypassed the agency of the conventional media platforms as vehicles of his message. By conventional media platforms I mean largely the contrarian media organizations, and not ones which refrained from questioning his principles, policies or actions as a matter of course. To those friendly media outlets, he has on occasions granted favoured access. On the whole, however, he has not depended even on the friendly media outlets to conduct a regular and consistent interface with his constituency. Instead, Modi, or his campaign, since his candidature was announced for the 2014 elections, has focused on working out independent communication channels. These include the social media, his public appearances and freewheeling lectures such as those delivered in curated programs like Mann Ki Baat.
The other side of this communication strategy was a steadfast refusal to respond to any concrete charge levelled by the opposition. Whether it is on his expensive or colourful clothing, frequent foreign trips or suspect defence deals, the Prime Minister himself has chosen to avoid direct responses. He responded to them indirectly, by translating the charges in his own colourful languages as a slight to his integrity and honour by a group of entitled patricians. He literally did not join issues with the opposition, except on his own terms and from a platform that he could dominate totally.
That was precisely what he had been doing this evening too, while delivering what may be called the victory speech. Unlike Rahul Gandhi, who chose to briefly face the press earlier during the evening, Modi decided to address the large crowd, including journalists, gathered at the BJP headquarters in Delhi. Incidentally, only a couple of days ago, there was a split screen video clip circulating online of journalist Dipak Chowrasia interviewing Modi and Rahul Gandhi respectively. Chowrasia was almost deferential with Modi, but challenged Gandhi with sharp questions. Modi’s message to the conventional media personnel was loud and clear. Either they engage with him on his own terms, or he does not talk to them at all.
It has a connection with why Modi kept thanking ‘crores’ of ordinary BJP workers during his victory speech. It was not simply because they conducted a terrific campaign in the name of the ‘Bharat Mata’, as he said. It was also because they successfully carried his general message down to individual voters through a publicity blitzkrieg made up of targeted delivery of localized messages. Details of this network are as yet sketchy, but there were reports that the party had set up war rooms practically in every Block, from where local operators kept bombarding the local voters with highly targeted messages. This mode of campaign is different in nature and impact from traditional canvassing or publicity in that it involves far greater precision in targeting. It also requires a synergy with internet service providers and deep knowledge of how to exploit regulatory and legal grey areas. The latter emerge largely out of the gap between fast evolving technological innovations and the stodgy response of existing legal and regulatory regimes towards them.
The controversial NaMo TV is a classic example of this phenomenon. It went on air soon after the elections were announced, and stayed there until the exit polls were over. Every major cable service or DTH operator was made to carry it, and no information was forthcoming on whether or not the necessary regulatory permissions were secured. While the opposition did raise objections about its ownership, funding and licensing, those objections were made light of by the regulatory authorities. Finally, they channel went off air as mysteriously as it had come on, the consumers still unaware of its ownership or funding.
The party ran the campaign like a highly centralized corporation, mighty and mysterious with its operational details all in place but its details known only to a limited group of top initiates, akin almost to a secret service. There have been reports on the huge amount it had spent on placing advertisements in various conventional and social media platforms for several months before the election. Those gathered at the BJP headquarters this evening were probably a fraction of the thousands of dedicated foot soldiers of the Modi campaign. They marketed the image of Modi as a near divine figure to their local voters, masculine, incorruptible, workaholic and consumed by the interest of the country’s poorest, regularly, repeatedly and consistently. It was a classic case of neatly targeted consumer research based advertising of a brand, over and over again, until the consumers were blinded to a degree where they could not see any other choice.
There is no other explanation of how practically no charge of failure appears to stick to Modi, even in places where his party had suffered major reversals as recently as a few months ago. This minute targeting of the voter as a message consumer complements other tactical moves such as neat calculations about calibrated distribution of incentives and disincentives to prospective political allies or supporters. Observers have noted, for instance, how the BJP campaign has targeted the relatively disadvantaged groups within the backward classes and Dalits. It so happens that the political parties conventionally understood to represent backward classes or Dalits in practice often bring greater benefits to a relatively privileged section among them. That leaves a large majority among the disadvantaged jealous of that limited set of beneficiaries, and open to voting for other parties offering those very same benefits in return for votes.
In other words, the BJP sweep is only partly a result of the personal Charisma of Prime Minister Modi. That Charisma, for what it is worth, is built up and sustained, brick by brick, by a large number of committed workers of the party, who have mastered the technique of targeted message delivery down to the last individual voter. Even more importantly, Modi has changed the very idea of how to use the media to his advantage, to an extent where the conventional media has been practically forced to moderate its traditional role of a contrarian, interrogating a politician and interpreting and translating his message to its audience.
This is literally a Modifcation of the role of the media, that is, its autonomy as an agent influencing public opinion. From now on, no media outlet with aspiration to play an independent and contrarian role can hope to thrive in India, because Modi’s repeated success has given birth to a whole new kind of politics and politician, one who knows that he can successfully reach and manipulate his target audience even if he does not talk to the media at all. Whether or not it is a permanent change is moot question. But one of the enduring lessons of Modi’s return in 2019 is that the media platforms in India can never again hope to nurture the delusion of setting the public agenda entirely on their own.
(The writer teaches at Karnavati University, Gujarat)