How India’s Politicians are Talking Louder but Saying Less

Long before the campaigning for India’s national elections ensued, Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial hopeful for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, used 3D holographic projection to simultaneously address voters in 53 locations in Gujarat, the northwestern state where he was seeking reelection as chief minister in 2012. The stunt, which earned Modi a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records, remains potentially the coolest thing an Indian politician has ever done. It was also a teaser of how his campaign for nationwide elections would make unprecedented use of technology.

True to promise, Modi has used social media to disseminate his message widely: He blogs regularly, and has more than 3.5 million followers on Twitter and over 12 million likes on Facebook. But in a country where less than 16 percent of the population uses the internet (and that mostly in the largest cities) Modi has moved beyond social media. His most talked-about venture, Chai pe Charcha (“a chat over tea”), is a series of virtual town hall meetings that his team claims span more than 1,500 locations in 500 cities. In rural areas that lack broadband connections, the party employs hundreds of vans with screens to play DVD-recorded messages to voters.

Modi’s contender and Congress party scion Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, does not blog and is not on Facebook; nor does he tweet. But the importance of using technology to reach voters is not lost on him or his party. Party officeholders have emphasized the importance of social media in the organization’s outreach strategy in multiple newspaper articles. Gandhi himself has just begun using Google Hangout to meet party members across the country. Last year, the party launched (meaning “window”), a website designed to let Congress politicians share their views with those most active online, the youth and urban citizens. It was immediately panned as a social networking platform for supporters; it required membership, allowed party cadre to “follow” and “like” their leaders, and did little to attract new members.

The two candidates could not be more different in their use of social media and technology, but they are similar in one respect. Their media strategies use technology to ensure communication with the voter is unidirectional – from the candidates to the constituency. This one-way messaging is used to craft and project an image of choice: Modi as the only pro-economic development option, and Gandhi as the compassionate politician who will bring better governance and employment opportunities to young voters. Improvements in telecommunication technology and bigger spending on social media advertising have allowed the candidates to bombard the electorate with custom-made messages, without necessarily getting close to them.

What’s there to hide?

Both Modi and Gandhi have reasons for keeping tight control of the media conversation. Modi is battling allegations of complicity in the violent riots that took place in Gujarat in 2002. He has refrained from alluding to the subject, even as it remains the primary weapon of rival parties and detractors. Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, is seeking a renewed mandate for a party that heads what the opposition calls the most corrupt government since India’s independence. At least six of around 30 senior federal ministers have been replaced after facing graft charges over the last few years; a number of state-level ministers and alliance party leaders have stepped down amid similar allegations.

This controversial past is the reason why Modi has not conducted a single interview with any national television station or newspaper since his campaign began. When he finally agreed to his first television interview in late March, he chose a regional channel with limited viewership and a more regional political and social agenda. The strategy served him well – national stations in the same network picked up smaller parts of the interview, giving him national airtime without the invasive questions usually asked by national networks. (News X, another national news station claimed to have Modi’s “biggest interview,” but it turned out to be an old one conducted by an academic known for her pro-Modi views at least a year ago; the series was unceremoniously dropped midway through the broadcast.) And in early March, Modi backed out from a live event on Facebook which would necessitate taking questions from an audience selected by a website partnering with the organizers, rather than his own team.

With so much at stake, Modi’s media team may have good reason to doubt his ability to field difficult questions. In 2007, Modi walked out midway through an interview when he asked repeatedly about the 2002 riots. But irrespective of his silence, the biggest debates in newspapers and television stations still center on Modi’s controversial past. Not a day passes without an editorial in a major newspaper raising fresh questions on whether Modi’s questionable record as an administrator during the Gujarat riots should prevent him from taking top office.

Rahul Gandhi has followed suit, agreeing to only one interview with Bhaskar, a Hindi news website, one with PTI, a wire service company, and a single television interview with national news channel Times Now so far. But as for Modi, Gandhi’s silence has not taken the focus away from the contentious issues. In his 80-minute TV interview, Rahul Gandhi fielded 14 questions on corruption. The word came up 23 times, its derivatives many more. Reports claim Gandhi’s team revamped its media plan soon after and decided to decline any further television interviews, for the time being. With elections already underway, the moratorium seems to stand.

So near and yet so far

This is not how elections are usually fought in India. Prime ministerial candidates have traditionally led aggressive charges against their opponents, not just in public rallies but through as many means of communication as they can. In India’s noisy elections, where over 800 million eligible voters choose 543 members of parliament from around 10,000 candidates, allegations are typically fought with accusations and counter-allegations, not with silence and stone-walling.

As recently as 2004 and 2009, when I was working as a journalist covering India’s previous general elections, I remember incumbents as well as opposition prime ministerial candidates jumping at interview opportunities. Though secondary leaders in both parties continue to do so this time, the two primary contenders have persistently refused. This might have given both candidates greater control of the narrative, but it begs the question: Are these men satisfied with such a carefully prescribed image? And more importantly, does the potential damage of exposure really outweigh the credibility of being branded as a candidate with nothing to hide?

There is no way to know for certain if Modi and Gandhi really believe they can win the hearts and minds of more than a billion people by speaking to them less. What is certain, though, is that the country has not heard what either man thinks about many crucial issues.

For example, for all of Modi’s promise of economic development, there has been no mention of specific policies, and no way of asking for them. When Penguin recently made the controversial decision to pulp a book accused of making derogatory remarks about Hindus, many were left wondering about Modi’s views on dissent and alternate opinions in the public sphere. Rahul Gandhi faced harsh criticism in 2012 for failing to understand the gravity of Delhi’s anti-rape protests in 2012. And Gandhi made his views about the corruption allegations against the Congress-led government public only after being grilled during the recent television interview.

The problem with dodging questions

For now, both Modi and Gandhi have decided to shield themselves against these issues. This attempt at control, however, is ultimately evidence of their weakness as candidates, rather than their strength.

It certainly has not made either more confident of a win, which is evident from the parliamentary seats they have chosen to contest. Gandhi has decided to stick to Amethi, a seat that has always elected his family. Modi is fighting from Varanasi, a city that stands for traditional Hindu ways that Modi promises to uphold, but he has also decided to take advantage of election laws that allow a contestant to fight from a second seat. Despite assertions of a “Modi wave,” he has taken the safe route, seeking a mandate from his home state.

In what is being touted as India’s most important election in decades, critical questions remain unaddressed. Voters are still waiting to hear how candidates will revive the economy, and who will pay for it; how they will increase inclusivity, minority rights, and pluralism; and how they will build international alliances while at the same time retaining foreign policy independence. These promises sound great in an election manifesto, but implementing them is a much trickier prospect — especially for a government propped up by multiple political parties with diverse ideologies. These are questions that the next prime minister will be tested on, if not before the election, then soon after.

The article appeared on Foreign Policy on April 10, 2014.

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