Ranjona Banerji Column: A few PR tips for the Modi government

Bad public relations moves have hurt the normally PR-savvy BJP in the Pathankot attack

Supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have been saying that it is not fair to blame the PM or his government for any mishandling of the attack on the Pathankot Air Force Base in Punjab this week. There were several agencies at work. Bureaucrats are all wicked. Terrorists are “enemies of humanity” and so on.

This fine argument would stand if supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Narendra Modi had used it for all such attacks or incidents, especially when the BJP was not in power. If the Indian security system is overrun by competing agencies and wicked bureaucrats, then it holds true whoever is in power, including former governments.

There are indications that Indian intelligence agencies got a hint of the impending Pathankot on December 25, even as PM Modi paid a surprise and historic visit to Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif in Lahore. Pic/PTI
There are indications that Indian intelligence agencies got a hint of the impending Pathankot on December 25, even as PM Modi paid a surprise and historic visit to Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif in Lahore. Pic/PTI

But what has really hurt the BJP’s image in the Pathankot attack is the bad public relations policy adopted by what is supposedly the best PR party in the world. BJP president Amit Shah’s claim that no terrorist would dare to cross into India’s borders once Modi became prime minister sounded ludicrous then but sounds absolutely deplorable now. The Pathankot attack is not the first since May 2014. And it has happened in spite, or because, of a vacillating policy with Pakistan, where we are friends when we accept saris and eat birthday cakes, but become mortal enemies full of macho posturing five minutes later.

But the real loser in the PR circus that is politics today has been Modi himself. For some inexplicable reason, the prime minister’s office decided to spend most of the three days of the attack tweeting about the activities of the prime minister, few of which had anything to do with taking stock of or even handling India’s response to the attack barring some early anodyne tweets. India and the world saw India’s most muscular ruler to date discussing why people criticise saints and seers, the importance of yoga, the need for a scientific temperament and building better cities. By themselves, none of these are unimportant subjects. But on the days when an Air Force base was under attack, you wonder at the wisdom that decided that these tweets were on the right track. If wisdom is the right word to use in these circumstances. And, as the Prime Minister’s Office had pointed out in answer to an RTI query, the PM handles his own Twitter account.

It did not help that some journalists favourable to the establishment also put out false news that the attack was over. It was even worse that the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh did the same thing, although he later deleted that tweet. This leaves a government’s actions and intentions open to question and to some unfortunate inferences. Was the home minister lying to the country, for instance, when he said the attack was over, or was he misinformed? The first is a major transgression; the second a miserable reflection of channels of communication within the government.

When India voted out the UPA in 2014 and voted in the NDA and more correctly, Modi and the BJP, the expectation was that this would be a government of action unlike a government stymied by fear and allegations of corruption. However, very little in the months since has been convincing — to people who live in India at least. Having won on a massive surge of popularity and with a very well-constructed public relations campaign, the Modi government now finds it has harboured a poisonous snake. The shallow PR facade has worn away and what has been exposed is the everyday reality of any other government.

It is possible that this attack could not have been prevented, although there are indications that Indian intelligence agencies got a hint of it on December 25 — even while birthday cake was the ‘gesture of the day’ news headline. There are also stories of police officers being kidnapped, witnesses tortured and spies being caught. Would so many security personnel have had to die if the attack was handled better? No amount of spin-doctoring can stop these questions from being asked.

But if PR is going to remain this government’s mainstay, there are some lessons to be learnt here. Do not allow the defence minister to be caught laughing at a briefing about an attack on India’s sovereign soil. And stop tweeting about yoga when people are dying. It sounds so simple when it’s put like that, no?

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona

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