Reprinted from Mint, March 1, 2012
Image rebuilding may be a legitimate exercise for governments and their heads to undertake, but there is always the possibility of a trip up when there is a lot of media around. Some damn fool journalist decides to go dig up something and before you know it you have an image problem all over again.
Two dissimilar people and their governments are attempting image makeovers but proactive journalism has been getting in the way. The Manmohan Singh PMO began its communications overhaul and its tweets because the perception was that media handling rather than governance was the problem. It felt that the government was not communicating effectively enough. (Did we know, Pankaj Pachauri, the new man on the job asked hacks, that last year Germany and Norway had blocked more websites than India?)
Perhaps, as the next logical step, the United Progressive Alliance government decided that its information and broadcasting ministry officials needed to be sent abroad to learn some media-handling tricks and off to the UK they went earlier this month. Separately, it decided that journalists needed to be taken around the country to see the government at work, and publicity budgets are being duly deployed on this. All of this over the past 10 days. Even as people in the Press Information Bureau are being encouraged to use social media for their information outreach.
But around the same time The Indian Express broke the story about government efforts to give statutory shape to the executive instructions of the Election Commission (EC) of India and all hell broke loose again. What does an image remedying apparatus do when ministerial denials are promptly countered by the newspaper with more evidence?
Well, for one it can be proactive in a dirty tricks sort of way, leaking counter information on its bugbears to the same press which will gleefully use it. This bit was tried with some success in the weeks following the Anna Hazare sit-in at the Ramlila Grounds. And at that point the same newspaper, The Indian Express, led the charge against Anna Hazare’s team.
Narendra Modi has had a slightly different problem. His riot smudge won’t wash away despite what is supposed to be a sterling record of governance, and despite two post-riots electoral successes. And despite a variety of image makeover initiatives including the Sadbhavana fasts and Amitabh Bachchan’s invoking of vibrant Gujarat on television every single day. It won’t wash away because the English language media won’t let it.
Columnists and Bharatiya Janata Party politicians who support him had a counter spin ready for the 2002 riots anniversary: actually the post-2002 period has been the most riot free in Gujarat’s history, actually Modi inherited a Gujarat “gripped by a pre-existing communal polarization” (Swapan Dasgupta in The Pioneer), and so on.
But that theory still had to reckon with Rajdeep Sardesai’s prime time rediscovery of Ahmedabad on CNN IBN, Shikha Trivedi’s revisiting of the events of 2002 on NDTV 24x7, and Arnab Goswami’s adjective-defying daily tribunal on Times Now. On the last, human rights activist Shabnam Hashmi came up with instances of post-2002 communal disturbances in Gujarat—2005, 2007 and so on, to which there was no effective counter on that show. And as for the other two shows, even if you had an open mind on Modi it was difficult not to register the fact that riot victims had been resettled at a location called Citizen Nagar where Ahmedabad city’s garbage is dumped. Or that if you live in Signal Falia in Godhra you should not expect to get employment anywhere in the city because you won’t.
The interesting thing is, while all of the above was echoed in most English newspapers, including the business papers, you had to search for a similar level of 10th anniversary Godhra coverage in the big Hindi newspapers. It was not there. Should we conclude then that they are all pro-BJP or pro-Modi or that they have moved on, as Mr Modi is hoping we all will? Or that they are assuming that their readers have moved on?
So what should governments and political leaders do to change perception? One suggestion that came through on television was that Narendra Modi needed to have said a straight sorry to the victims. But would that help neutralize the reality of resettling a victimized community on a reclaimed garbage dump?
Will the Prime Minister’s tweets or the information and broadcasting ministry’s best efforts neutralize the perception that the government is trying to rein in the EC’s powers, in the middle of a round of elections? As of now, editorials on the subject are still being written.
Both the gentlemen above (and their governments and parties) could learn from Rupert Murdoch in this past week when he put the News of the World disaster behind him and launched the Sun on Sunday. Bounce back, turn proactive, and make news again on your terms. Don’t waste your energy on media handling.