The 99:1 media strategy: Modi is speaking to the right audience

It is clear that the punches aimed at Modi are not landing in the right place for the Prime Minister has said only the right things, or maintained a silence. Now silence is what is being criticised. Is there a strategy to Modi's silences?

R Jagannathan July 31, 2014 14:12:31 IST
The 99:1 media strategy: Modi is speaking to the right audience

Narendra Modi's has been a tough act to follow, both for his supporters and his critics. Both his ‘bhakts’ and ‘kambakhts’ are disappointed he isn't launching into his political rivals and giving them hell, now that he is India's most powerful politician. Right-wing economic and political ideologues are wringing their hands in despair wondering why Modi is adopting Congress-ish policies - P Chidambaram's budget priorities, the Aadhaar unique ID project, the semi-Nehruvian foreign policy template, the dilly-dallying about GM crops, among other things – when he could have broken free of past shibboleths. Where are the radical new policies one had come to expect from Modi?

The 991 media strategy Modi is speaking to the right audience

Narendra Modi. AFP

His critics, who were once sharpening their knives believing he was going to adopt harsh right-wing policies, are now reduced to carping about non-issues: Shiv Sena MPs stuffing rotis into fasting mouths, the fantasy books of Dina Nath Batra, the appointment of a retired bureaucrat as his principal secretary, a leaked IB report on NGOs, the denial (for good reason) of leader of opposition post to the Congress, et al. Having found Modi himself a difficult target due to his relative inaccessibility and his safe statements of concern for the poor post 16 May, they are busy criticising his silence.

Their punches are hitting thin air.

I too was - and am - a bit perplexed over why India's best political communicator has adopted silence as strategy, barring those few occasions when he volunteers to speak at an agri-awards conference (“Per drop, more crop”, where Modi extolled India’s farmers), or in reply to the  president’s address in parliament.

The penny dropped for me when I looked at what he was when he was Gujarat Chief Minister. He behaved exactly as he is doing now: carefully orchestrating his public speeches on special occasions, and avoiding idle statements about every passing event.

There is also the other point: Modi’s goal is not to offer sound-bytes to a hungry media, but to press ahead with his stated and unstated long-term goals. These are a Congress-mukt Bharat, and making BJP the natural party of governance. The other stated goals are to make India an easier place to do business in, and provide all Indians with the basics of livelihood (over 10 years). Embedded in all this is Modi's unstated goal: he plans to be PM (voters willing) for at least a decade, if not more. He wants to be the man who changed India for the better - and hence his performance has to be better than all his predecessors put together.

His Maun-Mohan strategy is the opposite of Manmohan’s – it’s about speaking only when it matters, and maintaining radio silence when it does not serve his purpose. This is part of what I call his 80:20 and 99:1 strategy – a focus on what matters (of which more later).

The national media and TV viewers have been accustomed to seeing Modi on their screens day in and day out over the last 18 months, thanks to Modi's decision to move on to the national stage. But if one observes how Modi played out his 12 years as Gujarat CM, one would have noted he is still the same. Modi is most visible in non-political occasions, and highly visible only a year before elections. Once elections are out of the way, his carefully cultivated aggression in speech and polemics gives way to focus on governance. He makes speeches that are carefully chosen to underline his development and political priorities. In Gujarat, Modi was most visible in 2002, 2007 and the period from 2011-14, when he wanted to shift to the national stage. It is the 2011-14 Modi we think is the real Modi, when the rest of him was also him.

There is no Modi 2.0 now that he is in Delhi. At best, we can call it Modi 1.1 - his old strategy adapted for Delhi. Moreover, if one takes a helicopter view of all the issues the media has been exercised over and Modi's silence in the context of what are his stated (and unstated) goals, there is clearly some thinking behind all this.

As briefly stated earlier, I call this the 80:20 strategy. Linked to it is the 99:1 strategy. The 80:20 strategy is essentially the Pareto principle at work, which posits that 20 percent of actions account for 80 percent of outcomes. Modi is focused on the 20 percent that matters to his politics and results in governance. The allied 99:1 percent strategy relates to ignoring the 1 percent of the media (or other loud-mouths) that has a huge sense of entitlement in Lutyens Delhi, and concentrating on the 99 percent that is less demanding and willing to play ball with him.

We saw this towards the latter stages of Modi's election campaign where he studiously ignored the overly self-important Delhi media and a few high-profile editors and TV anchors who saw (and still see) themselves as god's gift to Indian democracy – never mind their relative irrelevance. Instead, his first interviews were all to the Hindi media (India TV, etv, etc) which gained TRPs. When the English media started whining about this exclusion, he gave then a few interviews - and they behaved like pussycats.

By making himself scarce, Modi made himself a hot commodity, forcing the media to ultimately dance to his tune.

His silence is thus actually a studious effort to cut the mainstream media (MSM) down to size by letting it scream and shout itself hoarse - and destroy its own credibility. He will focus on the 99 percent that is outside MSM in two ways: by being more accessible to them and showering benefits on the smaller and more grounded regional media, and by opening up direct channels of communication with the people independent of the mass media.

The latter is what MyGov, the new PMO-linked Internet communication channel launched last week to invite direct citizen feedback, participation and involvement - over the heads of all media, and especially media bigwigs who he considers "news traders".

Also linked to this move is Modi's enthusiastic embrace of UPA's massive Aadhaar unique ID project. Under Home Minister Rajnath Singh, it seemed like Aadhaar would be sidelined, but Modi has seen its uses. Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram saw it only as a scheme to cut down on subsidy benefits to the ineligible, which is why Sonia Gandhi ultimately junked it, but Modi probably sees Aadhaar and financial inclusion as a way to directly impact his voters – a direct subsidy scheme which will send cash directly to voters. This is terrific political thinking, even if populist.

But the 80:20 and 99:1 rules are being applied not just to the media but also to bureaucrats, ministers, and policy actions.

Modi, we all know, likes to work through the bureaucracy, and this is why his first major move after taking over was to address top bureaucrats. Barring bureaucrats who were too loyal to the old dispensation, Modi has largely retained the old steel frame - which had rusted during UPA's tenure. By allowing them to run some of their own policies and giving them freedom to think for themselves, Modi is buying their loyalties for the longer term.

By keeping away (at least temporarily) his known economic backers from government (Jagdish Bhagwati or Arvind Panagariya or Bibek Debroy, for example), he has actually ensured stronger loyalties from the old ministerial economic advisors and bureaucrats. This may change later, but for starters Modi is on a different trajectory.

The same goes for his ministerial colleagues. He has largely shunned the high-profile potential ministers and chosen nondescript politicians who will all owe their careers to him. Modi now controls most levers of power in most ministries.

So where does that leave Modinomics and right-wing economics? Once again, we have to apply the 80:20 thinking.

Remember three things: Modi is playing for the long term and would like to be in power at least 10 years. This is the significance of setting a goal for providing all households with pucca homes by 2022 - and not 2019, when this Lok Sabha's term ends.

If you are looking at a 10-year horizon, the first thing not to do is raise everyone's hackles by making bold moves. What he is doing now is covering his weak flanks - which is his extreme Right-wing image, which can be a disadvantage if displayed too vigorously too early. This is why he is playing up his social agenda and lets Arun Jaitley talk the economic agenda. He is playing Left-winger to Jaitley’s Right.

With five state assembly elections due this year, Modi knows any political slippage will constrain him in future despite having a parliamentary majority. His actions this year are thus intended to prevent any loss of political capital right at the start of his tenure.

The second thing to note is the huge distractions being provided by MSM. Most English TV channels are covering non-issues like Sania Mirza’s tear-jerkers or the appointment of a Sanghi as chief of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). Anyone with an ounce of sense should know that who writes history makes no difference to the lives of 99 percent of Indians. The one percent who care – the Sangh parivar and the English media – are busy rushing like piranha at this piece of meat thrown at them, while Modi is focusing on what matters to the other 99 percent of Indians. The agenda of making India an easier place to do business depends more on executive action - reducing the powers of regulators, easing rules, making everything online, etc -  and little legislative action. For example, environmental clearances are now possible online - a huge change from the earlier intrusive roles given to bureaucrats and ministers.

Thirdly, I suspect that the big economic moves will come during periods of low political activity - for example, after this December (when five assembly elections will be out of the way) but before next June-July - after which we will have the Bihar elections.

I may be wrong, but this is what the view looks like from a helicopter. Add the things you see and discount the high-decibel TV fulminations of self-indulgent TV anchors, and the 99:1 strategy seems all too clear to me.

Any takers?

Updated Date:

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