City City Bang Bang, Columns

Mann Ki Baat and Brand Modiji

If there is one thing that all the 3 year report cards issued to this government agree on is that Narendra Modi is an extremely popular leader, who generates a level of trust and respect that borders on superstition. His actions are presumed to come from a place of sincerity, something in stark evidence in the reactions to his demonetisation initiative. All criticism of the government- whether relating to the slowdown in economic growth post-demonetisation, its perplexing interest in all things bovine, or its risky efforts to intrude into peoples’ kitchens- seems to lack the power to make any dent in his image. In a time when faith in politicians is at an all time low, what explains his extraordinary ability to evoke this kind of presumptive trust?

There are many elements that go into the making of a brand like Modi. He strikes a deep chord with his aura of clarity and strength, speaks simultaneously to anxieties and aspirations, communicates using emotionally resonant metaphors, understands the power of branding key initiatives to generate a sense of activity and purpose and knows the power of enigmatic silence. But there is one specific note in his persona that is particularly interesting- his ability to convey a sense of empathy and intimacy while in most other ways behaving like the Great Leader. In the comprehensive communication mix that he uses, there is one that stands out for its intelligence and restraint – Mann ki Baat, his fortnightly address to the nation, where we get a clear glimpse into this aspect of Mr Modi.

An interesting combination of narrative strategies are used, apparently unselfconsciously. The overall sense is that of a comforting soundtrack that locates his government in our daily lives; an audio murmur that reinforces, without making heavy weather of it, some key themes of interest to Modi. The tonality is that of a kind, concerned family elder, who is sharing ideas, hopes and even doubts with his extended family. Modi speaks about subjects connected with government programmes with cleanliness being a recurring theme, as well as general life advice- the need to try new things -learn a language, travel in unreserved second class compartment for 24 hours, learn to ride an auto-rickshaw or cycle rickshaw, not just a two or four wheeler, utilize the summer vacation well, and so on. Even when government programmes are spoken of, the vantage point used is that of the ground level, with individual stories being the focus.

Audience feedback is woven into the narrative at many levels, and suggestions are played back. Not everything is agreed to, but a sense of listening to what is being said does get communicated. Modi uses a lot of open-ended statements, including some that convey doubt and uncertainty. ‘Sometimes, I think’, ‘But then I came to some new realisation’, serve to humanize the content, and give it an introspective personal touch. The sense is that of someone confiding in you, talking as he is thinking, rather than that of a prefabricated script. The content is loosely packed, with enough mention of the insubstantial- the weather, some references to sports, a lot of talk of festivals, so as to not feel too pointed and purposeful.

While advice is offered, usually there is little offered by way of direct intervention. The temptation to wave magic wands and confer individual favours is avoided, and this helps the broadcast rise above the transactional. This is not a raj darbar, where complaints are heard and justice dispensed, but a pravachan, where folksy wisdom is shared.

Unlike most of other communication that comes out of this government, there is little by way of pointed attack or hyperbolic self-congratulation; indeed political language is avoided, by and large. There are some references to the self in third person, but otherwise successes of the government are framed in terms of changes in peoples’ mindset rather than through delivered outcomes.

Hindutva rhetoric is largely absent in an overt sense, but religious practice as a part of everyday life is woven into the narrative. The broadcast is replete with references to Hindu saints, festivals as well homages to the right wing pantheon of past leaders, but this is one place where festivals and key figures of other religions find significant mention. The Christmas broadcast for instance began with a reference to Christmas as well as a quote from the Gospel of St Luke, before going on to mention the birthday of Madan Mohan Malaviya and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in that order.

Radio is the ideal medium for this kind of a fireside chat. Warm, intimate, with a voice that reaches out and fills space without any visual distraction. Radio creates the experiential illusion of community, a circle of trust, better than any other medium, and Mann Ki Baat finds an ideal vehicle for its ambitions in this form.

Admittedly, it can never be a primary tool that gives results of a dramatic kind, and this is not even intended, but it is invaluable in creating the overall persona.

Modi virtually rediscovers radio as a tool for soft propaganda, by making it do what it is capable of doing. Governance is broken down into its uncapitalised form; it becomes a more human endeavor, full of relatable purpose and sincere intention. This is a patient seeping, the irrigation of deep roots, the tending to and nurturing of a feeling. It communicates the confidence that the leader is in it for the long haul, that the time horizon at work is much longer than 5 years. Mann Ki Baat helps create a dimension to the Modi persona that rises above the din and clamour of the political, and it does so by going small rather than big. A low-key slow burn radio programme is one of the reasons why Brand Modi is now Brand Modiji- a subtle shift that carries with it emotional equity that critics find hard to shake.

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