Arun Shourie once said the Modi Government manages the headlines, not the economy. He was right, as a quick look at economic growth over the past few years can tell you. Still, what's the economy? Just jobs and livelihoods, right? It isn't lives. Perhaps not even Shourie would have expected that when it comes to a deadly pandemic, the government would again be more focused on the headlines than on saving Indians' lives.
Certainly, that seems to be the impression we're left with, especially over the past week. The Hindustan Times, for example, reported that 300 top officials of the union government participated in a session meant to "manage perception" and "create a positive image of the government" so that it could "be seen to be sensitive, quick, responsive, hard-working, etc.". The workshop focused on ensuring that bureaucrats with access to their ministers provided "timely inputs" - not on the fight against Covid, but to make sure "the narrative is positive". This discussion was presided over by a member of the Union Cabinet, the Information and Broadcasting Minister. Nor is this a one-off. The Foreign Minister also briefed Indian ambassadors last week about countering the "one-sided" narrative in international media about the government's "incompetent" handling of the second wave.
Any government is entitled to deploy some of its time and resources towards ensuring its side of the story gets out. Indeed, if you don't do that, you can be paralysed by the public reaction - witness what happened to UPA-II. But who could defend the current administration's focus on narrative management at a time when cases, hospitalisations and deaths are widespread?
Any Indian today would ask the government one question: why are you surprised that there are so many negative stories about the pandemic? Do you really think that you have handled it well enough to avoid these negative stories? As a report in Mint pointed out, even hardcore BJP voters, activists and full-time party workers are, in UP WhatsApp groups, sharply criticising the government's denialism and maladministration. If even your own partymen are upset and angry, why do you think the media is going to cover your pandemic response positively?
You know how you get positive coverage? By doing positive things. Address the real problems - oxygen, beds, misinformation. Apparently it hasn't even occurred to the Modi Sarkar that the safest way to more positive stories is by doing a good job.
But the union government has spent the past months first denying that a second wave could happen; then, by ignoring the wave when it was visible but not overwhelming; then, by shifting the problem on to state governments; and now, unsurprisingly, by tackling "messaging". This has been, by and large, their playbook for any major problem over the past seven years. Why should a murderous virus be any different?
It is remarkably easy to see this dynamic in action. In response to any statement about union government failings or inaction over the past weeks, several responses will come in swiftly. First, that this is exaggerated. Second, actually the Congress is responsible for this wave because they asked questions about Covaxin's hasty regulatory approval without Phase 3 data. Third (if the statement is published in or by a foreign media outlet), that it is racist and insensitive, or (if domestic, it is unpatriotic. Fourth, it is all Uddhav Thackeray's fault because the new variant emerged from Maharashtra. (This one makes as much sense as blaming the RSS because it was first detected in Nagpur.) Or, of course, it is Kejriwal's fault, didn't Mamata also campaign, Vijayan's state has the most cases, Amarinder let the farmers come to Delhi, have you seen video from Baghel's state, etc., etc. (The same people anxious to blame Uddhav/Kejriwal/Amarinder/Mamata/Vijayan/Baghel never seem to also blame Adityanath, for some reason.)
And, finally, when everything else runs out: "It is a pandemic. What can Modi do? Be positive. Your negativity itself is killing people. Everyone should be together at this time." This reaction is fine for social media. But the government can't run like that. You're a union government, not a WhatsApp group.
Over and over during the pandemic, it's taken negative stories going viral for the government to actually respond. Except it responds primarily to check the narrative, and only then to do what it is supposed to. Consider the story recently that donated oxygen concentrators and other medical goods from abroad were lying in airports waiting for Customs clearance. The government swiftly tried to counter the narrative by saying that everything had been assigned to states, etc., etc. But the fact is that the standard operating procedure for these allocations was issued only on May 2, a week after the aid started arriving, and after people began to ask questions. A similar story seems to have been the case about the situation with Covid-19 in foreign embassies in Delhi. Only after negative stories about diplomats asking opposition leaders for oxygen cylinders came to light did the Foreign Minister finally reactivate its Covid Cell by reassigning a Joint Secretary as its head, according to a report on the website Article14.
The government should look at all these negative stories in a different light. It tells them what needs to be fixed. That's the role the media plays in a free society: it holds governments accountable, and informs them about what needs to be done. (Admittedly, the Indian media hdsn't done a stellar job of this prior to the second wave.) The Supreme Court today underlined the importance of reporting criticism when it told the Election Commission to stop trying to quash reporting of a Madras High Court statement that the Election Commission "should be booked for murder, probably" for failing to ensure that election campaigns were Covid-compliant. The idea that image issues are being taken to court by an agency of the Union is astonishing. That an official body would want to silence coverage of a High Court in this country, is equally shocking.
None of this desperate flailing around to create "positivity" is necessary. People are willing to forgive leaders who recognise that they've gone wrong, that the situation is dire, and are transparent about their efforts to address it. Maharashtra led the country in cases, but its Chief Minister has never stopped communicating about where and how things were bad, and what his administration was doing to respond. Even after the Supreme Court yesterday generously complimented Mumbai, Uddhav Thackeray's response at a night-time press conference was cautious, outlining that Maharashtra's cases had fallen but "cases are rising marginally in some districts". That isn't a rider that a functionary of the Union government would have added. But they should. Currently it looks like they have their heads buried in the sand - like an ostrich, as the Supreme Court remarked.
Maybe that's unfair. They take their heads out of the sand long enough to deny any negative story, and then put their heads right back in.
In the end, this government was elected because of its marketing. But at least in a deadly pandemic, marketing is not enough. As my colleague Andy Mukherjee said on Twitter, though Prime Minister Modi has received the Philip Kotler Presidential Award from the world's most famous marketing guru, he should remember that "even in Kotler's celebrated 4Ps... the first P is Product. Promotion comes fourth." First, get the pandemic under control, government. The coverage will follow.
(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)
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