Message from the Prime Minister: I won’t talk, even if you guys keep talking about my not talking.
Naturally, therefore, pundits are puzzling over why the great communicator of Campaign 2013-2014 has turned into a grim Sphinx. This critique is half-wrong. To expect Prime Minister Narendra Modi to communicate even at half the intensity and frequency of Prime Ministerial Candidate Narendra Modi was unrealistic, even foolish.
Just because the media isn’t getting a regular supply of PM quotes doesn’t mean the PM is failing at communication. The job calls for relatively infrequent but weighty and tactically-timed interventions.
But the media is also half-right. There’s no good explanation, with 100 days of the new government coming up, why the PM should communicate only through formal speeches and bland tweets. This is a rambunctious democracy that delivered a remarkable verdict for a politician – therefore in terms of unwritten but well-understood rules of democratic engagement, that politician should have talked in the real sense of the term at least once by now.
When you combine this with the PM’s gag order on his ministers, the whole thing looks even odder.
So, what’s up? Are the PM and the BJP brass thinking that their private communications in a whatsapp group should suffice? Obviously not. And let’s never forget Narendra Modi is a very clever man and he wants more than one term and he wants to leave a mark.
Therefore, the reason he is not talking is not because he’s acquired some delusions or because RSS is keeping him jumping or because he’s new to the job – he’s not talking because he has a plan.
And that plan, it seems, is that he wants his actions to speak for him – as in, he wants voters and the media, strictly in that order, to see what Modi does and let that achievement substitute for Modi talk.
Let your actions speak for you is of course a noble intention. But it’s a homily that, if followed as rigorously as the PM seems intent on following, can be high-risk strategy in the world of modern governance.
There are two reasons why this high-risk, one has to do with substance, the other, with image.
In terms of substance, the lag between wanting to do something and getting it done, or even getting it started, can be long or frighteningly long in any major country, and most so in India. Also, good intentions can produce perverse consequences.
So, the let-my-action-speak-for-me strategy of a non-communicative PM risks getting wrong messages out because the action-to-result equation is always a troublesome, especially when you start a new term. This is because expectations are the peak when a term begins while results, inevitably, are far away. What will fill the vacuum? People’s patience? It never works that way.
Indeed, talking less, say, two years into the term makes more sense than talking less when you begin the term.
This leads us to the second reason why Modi’s non-communication strategy is high risk – it can start curdling his image. What’s Modi’s image? That he’s a doer. How does he keep burnishing that image? By doing stuff, obviously, but because, as we noted, it takes time to do things, he keeps the image intact by talking about doing things.
A modern democracy is a beast that needs periodic feeding of juicy morsels. The juiciest morsels come from the most powerful. If the most powerful chooses to starve the beast, the beast will react. Indeed, if the PM listens carefully, rumblings have started.
These rumblings will not subside even if makes a staggeringly dramatic and substantive Independence Day Speech. That will suffice for a few days, sure. But the beast will still need periodic feeding. After all, the PM gave a fine parliament speech after the President’s address. But that worked for only so long.
Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi, elected with an impressive mandate by a voluble, impatient democracy that bought his image as a man who gets things done, risks blurring that image if he decides that Modi action is a permanent substitute for Modi words.
Message to the Prime Minister: Sir, start talking now and then, because all this talk about your not talking can be worse for you than you may think.
~ Saubhik Chakrabarti
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