Five years ago, when general elections were held in India, Twitter and Facebook were part of social interactions between friends, acquaintances and influencers. They had hardly taken the political hue that one witnesses at this juncture when the country is electing lawmakers from 543 constituencies. However, the BJP was the first off the blocks as it perceived a chance to reach out to the urban, educated voters.
Though its opponents were on social media platforms, none was savvy enough to fully harness the potential that they offered to influence voters. Narendra Modi, who came to the fore as the BJP’s candidate for Premiership, took to social media like a duck to water and had the educated middle class swooning over his developmental agenda and slogans.
Five years hence, Internet penetration across India has burgeoned, thanks to the low-cost mobile data packs. And, on cue the political parties have upped the ante on social media. The Congress enhanced its approach with Rahul Gandhi getting on Twitter and the Congress IT cell toeing the BJP’s line by needling key leaders of the ruling party, particularly Modi.
Yet, when it comes to public relations, it would seem that Narendra Modi (and by extension the BJP) are a step ahead of the pack.
The case in point is the trending interview of the Prime Minister by Akshay Kumar.
“It was quite simply a nifty move. Especially the choice of interviewer,” says M Prabhakar, who runs an image consultancy and who advises a few leaders in South India. “If they had gone for a mainstream media person, the whole attempt would have come unstuck,” he adds.
The interview, branded as ‘apolitical’ and aired through the media news agency ANI, had Modi answering a variety of questions that seem to have been cherry-picked to establish his warm personal side. Given that the party gave up its developmental agenda of 2014 in favour of the Chowkidar rhetoric, a glance into the life of the Chowkidar-in-chief seems a natural corollary.
“The brief, as is apparent, is to give a peep into the private persona of an individual who otherwise comes across as serious and stentorian. For such an interview, if that is the word, to work you have to a non-news person. Akshay fit the bill exactly,” points out Prem Shukla, who works with a few celebrities in Chennai.
He adds, “you wouldn’t expect hard-hitting, politically charged questions from a non-newsperson. That would serve the interests of the BJP without it being seen as being averse to taking on such queries. Nobody is going to ask Akshay why he didn’t pose queries on, say, Rafale. You can accuse such interviews of being cloying. But in the heat of the elections, sugar-coated messaging works effectively.”
Prabhakar says the questions that had Modi talking about Mamata Banerjee sending him kurtas every year again reveals the thought that has gone into the interview. “It projects the picture of Modi being above political partisanship where he is able to fondly recall ties with his political rivals.”
Akshay also has a pan-nation appeal, as he has also acted in a popular Tamil movie and is known in South India. Hailing from a non-filmi family, his rise from a humble cook to a leading star in Bollywood, Akshay’s story is similar to Modi’s in politics. “Such subtle messaging in the sub-text would not go unnoticed,” says Prem.
The opposition and the critics are claiming it all to be a stage-managed show. But nobody can deny the fact that the interview is bound to bring plenty of PR brownie points to Modi and the BJP. It also underscores the reality that when it comes to messaging and optics, it is the BJP that is still topping the charts.
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