Poor, middle class, media: who is MMS talking to?

When Manmohan Singh said at Jaipur that the “government’s communication strategies have probably not been very effective” and that there was a need to reach the government’s achievements to the masses, no one would have disagreed with him.

Singh went on to exhort his partymen to communicate the success of the government to the masses.

“The economic growth has gone down but it is not as bad as in other countries across the world,” he said.

That single statement, more than the rest of his speech, demonstrates how poor a communicator he is – and how fraught his communication strategy is (if he has one at all).

What should the Congress talk about? PTI

The fundamental issue is that Singh is unclear who he is talking to. Is he talking to the international community? Is he talking to Indian urban voters? Is he talking to Indian rural voters? Is he talking to the rich, the middle class, the poor?

“The economic growth has gone down but it is not as bad as in other countries across the world,” is a statement that might earn him some plaudits in international political fora or from the World Bank, but doesn’t help a whit if that is what he is saying to rural India.

How does it matter to a voter in a village in Tamil Nadu if India is outperforming the US, all of Europe or, indeed, most countries around the world? All the voter cares about is the quality of his or her own life and how it has changed during the past few years. That voter doesn’t care about the state of affairs at the nearest village or the adjacent state.

Whatever the audience, Singh should ask his partymen to do the following:

First, acknowledge the problems that exist

Second, express solidarity and concern with the citizen as far as these problems are concerned. Explain why this problems exist, highlighting what is within and what is outside his control.

Finally, present a solution and explain how his party is going to lessen or eliminate the problems that are identified

If Singh and his partymen go through this exercise, it would be apparent that you cannot have a one-size-fits-all communication peg.

You might have a motherhood umbrella campaign that projects the party view – but the subtext will have to change for different audiences. At the very minimum, Singh’s party (as also any other party) needs to have two different stories to be told – one for rural India and the other for urban India.

In both cases, what will interest the voter is not a list of ‘successes’ of the past (which could be open to debate) but a list of solutions for problems citizens face. What Singh is suggesting now, tom-tomming their perception of good performance, is fraught with risk. Doesn’t he remember the BJP’s disastrous India Shining campaign?

“Some editorials also suggested that the India Shining campaign was one of the causes for the subsequent defeat of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in the 2004 parliamentary elections, particularly in urban areas, the target audience of the campaign. The negative assessment of the India Shining campaign was echoed after the election by former Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, who described it as "valid," but "inappropriate for our election campaign... By making them verbal icons of our election campaign, we gave our political opponents an opportunity to highlight other aspects of India's contemporary reality... which questioned our claim.” More about India Shining can be read here.

Talking about the past is the easy route. Having said that, talking about the past, as demonstrated in the India Shining example, is a risky bet. Currently, Singh’s advice that the party should communicate past successes, based on the fact that all sections of society are victims of inflation, low growth rates and an increased insecurity, is the worst possible prescription for the Congress. The tougher route is to think through the problems faced by citizens and present solutions to the problems that citizens would find credible.