What to tell the public — and how

Vinati Dev | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on June 30, 2015

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Parties in India should try to sell credible, authentic and pragmatic measures instead of hollow, saccharine rhetoric

How governments communicate their policy choices to the public is as important as the policies they make. This is all the more important for India which is poised to enter a phase of politically hard, second-generation reforms. It is important that all parties recognise the importance of political communication. Shoddy articulation of plans or rhetorical opposition will no longer be acceptable. Political parties must choose their words — and when to say them — with care in order to see their mandates through.

Take the ruling BJP: its tone and message must be guided not only by its vision of reforms, but by the necessity of consensus building, negotiationand execution. The government must relentlessly pursue the difficult path to reforms and prevent its own allies from undermining the agenda by using street language that conveys a medieval mentality in its own ranks.

While election sloganeering is replete with extreme positions and harsh words, policymaking and consensus-building require nuanced communication that strives for a balance between collaboration and confrontation.

Indeed, communication in extremes won’t work — as most major debates cast in binaries are now passé, even though they will continue to be employed for political expediency.

Reality bites

The BJP must not forget that even though it faces little political competition for now, the cultural and economic landscape it has inherited is not vastly different from what its predecessors had.

It still has the arduous task of rejuvenating India into a modern industrial society, reduce poverty and manage the aspirations of hugely different economic, cultural and religious constituencies — and the monies to achieve the same are scarce.

Economists have long pointed out that as economies grow, inequality rises before it diminishes. The political consequences of economies in transition will have to be managed. Here, nuanced communication will be important. The land acquisition debate, yet to be carried out in Parliament, is a classic example of where binaries such as “pro-business” and “anti-farmer” will derail India’s chances of creating a process of land acquisitions which is fair and transparent.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley for his part has tried to explain the concept of “eminent domain”, but the battle for hearts and minds on this Bill will be fought elsewhere.

Is each of the BJP spokespersons an ‘evangelist’ for reform? No. The FDI in retail debate, for example, will be another long battle drawn along economic class lines.

Similarly, the government has to convey that achhe din cannot be achieved without hard work. Barring Bollywood, no one in India can sell ‘dreams’, it just doesn’t work and it is very different from selling ‘reforms’. Even the films have had to reflect realities post-liberalisation.

Get active

The Congress ought to focus on themes that convey reconstruction, reconciliation and credibility. With just 44 Lok Sabha seats , the party has no option but to appear to be a progressive opposition with “better solutions”.

A “we told you we were better” approach will be seen as laziness at best and intellectually defunct. If it cannot move beyond the already null-and-void rhetoric of ‘ Garibi hatao’, it will soon be irrelevant. If Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s first speech, padyatras, and selfie portraits are a window to the Congress’s communication strategy, it is setting itself up for another false start. Take its communication strategy on the agrarian crisis; Rahul and other ‘pro-farmer’ comrades must see that while immediate and substantial relief during bad monsoons and crop failure is an absolute necessity and requires urgent action by any government, the agrarian debate in India has moved beyond raising MSPs.

The agrarian landscape is too complicated to be seen as a monolith for which the Congress is the only messiah.

Rahul’s communication should have focussed on showing better alternatives to providing livelihoods for 80 per cent of marginal farmers who simply won’t survive in agriculture — rain gods being favourable or not.

Be authentic

Further, those agitating on behalf of farmers must be authentic ambassadors. The Congress vice-president is not. People do not forget that the timing of his sabbatical coincided with the most important legislations being discussed on the floor — the Land Acquisition Bill, for one, which has direct bearing on farmers’ rights.

If indeed the Congress wants to negotiate on the Bill, it should bring to the floor leaders who speak of “highest possible compensation”, “transparent processes” and the need for social and environment audit.

Unfortunately, an unprepared Rahul surrounded by second-generation, indecently-wealthy political scions — a few prompting him in Hindi — cannot make for authentic storytellers for Indian farmers. Rahul seems to forget that his father, the late Rajiv Gandhi, was most authentic at the UN and in India when he spoke of “modernity and technology”.

In this case, modernity matched his experience, upbringing and persona. An ill-prepared cheatsheet on minimum support prices not only betrays the Congress’ ability to reinvent its ideology but also its communication strategy.

Again, the agrarian debate shifted gears a while ago; bad monsoon and farmer suicides are symptoms of structural issues which populism cannot address.

And while such a lazy response may bring much media mind share on the Congress, it will be short-lived. Backward looking, self-congratulatory discourse won’t work. Thus far, the Congress’s political communication neither conveys progress, nor progressiveness. And, therefore, unlike credible opposition parties, it neither holds a mirror to itself, nor to the government. Indeed, in the absence of a more informed debate on any national issue, the Congress will not only be doing injustice to their own party, but to the very important “voice of opposition” in a democracy.

Voters needs voices that convey an effort for better negotiated solutions — not dramatic rhetoric. The public tearing of an ordinance and the “power being poison” speech was plenty to scar the imagination of one generation.

If the Congress’ fortunes are indeed tied to the resurrection of Rahul Gandhi, then hopefully the party will make sure that the re-imaging of the scion addresses three core issues: thought leadership on key national issues; solution-based responses to policy problems; and a law-and-order-referenced approach to communalism.

The writer is an entrepreneur

Published on June 30, 2015
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