The art of positive messaging

The non-BJP parties have typically ignored the lessons of positive messaging. (Representational image)   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

“For all the killing and beheading they do on the LoC (Line of Control), we thrashed them so badly on the cricket field yesterday,” my Uber driver told me, with a palpable tinge of pride in his voice, the morning after the Indian cricket team won the ICC Champions Trophy match against Pakistan on June 4. “But Pakistan has beaten India several times in the past,” I reminded the young man who kept checking for WhatsApp messages on his smartphone at every traffic signal. “Yeah, sometimes they (the Indian team) let us down,” he complained, irritated. I imagine that would have been the response had I spoken to him now about India’s defeat by Pakistan in the Trophy final on Sunday.

Notice the subject of the two references to the Indian cricket team: victory is associated with ‘we’ and defeat is associated with ‘they’ or ‘our team’. The underlying point is simple: we would like to associate with feelings and messages of positivity, prosperity and good news. And by extension, just as we would prefer bearing good news rather than bad news, we instinctively like those who give us positive messages and promise acts of pride and achievement. Several psychologists have reached these conclusions using scientific studies.

It’s basic psychology that we like to hear good things — about our country, religion, cricket team, Olympic medals, etc. — as, they are, to some extent, an extension of our own selves. When our team wins a match, we are winning the match. But when they lose, we instinctively try to shift the burden of failure to the team. This desire and imagery of positivity is not limited to present achievements alone; rather, it extends to imaginary glories of the past, revenge on the enemy, sacrifices for collective good, among others. Politicians and political parties habitually use symbols and images associated with positivity to gather domestic political support. “Make America great again” and “Bharat Mata ki jai” are two of the best examples of positive messaging in our times.

Questions of pride

Having been in power for over three years now, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has little to show for itself in terms of economic growth, employment generation or national security. And yet, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity has only spiked. What explains this? Part of the answer lies in their ability to master the fine art of positive messaging by effectively fusing national pride with our ordinary selves and daily lives. Mr. Modi’s well-televised visits to great power capitals, accompanied by an abundance of glamour and grandeur, are choreographed to look like our own teleported visits there, and we feel that the ‘land of snake charmers’ has finally arrived on the world stage. From invoking ‘Gujarati asmita’ when he was the Gujarat Chief Minister to invoking national pride today, Mr. Modi’s ability to give a positive twist to just about any situation is unparalleled. Consider, for instance, how Mr. Modi reframed the curse of poverty with clever word play: “I find great potential among the poor. The poor are the strength of this country.”

There are three core styles of positive messaging that the BJP typically engages in, and thereby successfully connecting with the masses on the ground, who could do with some positive news amidst all the anxieties of their daily lives. The language of greatness and growth are the most prominent in the BJP’s tool kit of political messaging. The promise of “achhe din (good days)” galvanised the national imagination and brought Mr. Modi to power in 2014. From A.B. Vajpayee’s “India Shining” to “Mera Desh Badal Raha Hai, Aage Badh Raha Hai (my country is changing, its’ moving ahead)” to calming, without any basis of course, that plastic surgery has ancient Indian roots, BJP leaders consistently emphasis India’s lost glory, and the need to restore that. It strikes a chord with the average Indian voter.

The BJP also uses the language of revenge for positive messaging. What makes the post-Uri ‘surgical strikes’, giving an occasional ‘muh tod jawab (solid response)’ to Pakistan, or engaging in a war of nerves with China attractive to the public is not any novelty about them, given that previous governments have also done similar things, but the way these developments are packaged to project a strong India and a stronger Prime Minister.

Third, the BJP and Mr. Modi have managed to give a positive twist to even painful, and proving to be counter-productive, decisions by the government by using the language of sacrifice. For a country that was distressed by scams after scams during the second United Progressive Alliance government, Mr. Modi’s assertive and impassioned calls for making personal sacrifices to curb corruption and terror financing came across as being driven by a national sense of purpose and invoked our deep sense of patriotic duty.

Operationalising ‘achhe din’

The BJP’s well-choreographed and finely calibrated “achhe din” message constructs a seductive meta-discourse about glory, achievements and revenge leading to the creation of an ecosystem of positivity. It functions like a well-designed advertising campaign — it sells you the narrative and enlists you. Once you get enlisted, you become the campaigner, and even if you know the product is faulty, you are likely to stick with it, often vigorously defending it. That’s just normal human behaviour. Many initial supporters of the BJP who were genuinely upbeat about Mr. Modi’s “achhe din” plank in 2014 today realise that this was after all a smart election strategy, but they find it too difficult to come out of the robustly constructed world of positivity and greatness, more hype than real, which they helped build and propagate. That’s not all.

Besides creating a self-perpetuating and hyped-up ecosystem of positivity, the BJP has managed to further fortify its “achhe din” narrative with the discourse on anti-nationalism. If you are not taken in by the dominant narrative and criticise the state of affairs in the country, you could be termed as anti-national. It’s a political double whammy for those opposing the “achhe din” message — even if you are not persuaded by the ‘positive messaging’, being castigated as anti-national stops you from criticising it.

While much of the “achhe din” narrative is essentially make-believe, ignoring the power of positive messaging can be perilous for those involved in mass mobilisation in an age when post-truths and alternative facts tend to chip away at the fundamentals of fact-based debates. The non-BJP parties have typically ignored the lessons of positive messaging. Most of their narratives labour on about inabilities, inadequacies and a ‘what can we do, we are a Third World country’ refrain. While the Left parties critique the Congress and the BJP, they have been unable to sell their own alternative on a grand scale. Criticism, while important for the survival of a democracy, lacks positivity. Thanks to its historical baggage of family-centred politics and corrupt leaders, the Congress party has stopped inspiring people.

Left liberals are also accused of being too cynical. A few days ago, I received a WhatsApp message rhetorically asking why left liberals are so negative/pessimistic about the country. The left liberal tendency to focus exclusively on shortcomings and inadequacies does not seem to sit well with a country that needs positive affirmation and a sense of self-worth. Bearers of bad news aren’t popular any more.

There is, of course, a limit to how long positive messaging alone can get people rooting for a political party or ruling dispensation. The reflected glory of imagined victories is bound to fade away eventually. How the BJP’s earlier ‘India Shining’ campaign collapsed under its own weight in 2004 is a case in point. At a certain point, (real) GDP figures, shrinking employment opportunities and rising living costs will start to matter. But until then, the opposition parties might do well to take a leaf out of the BJP’s playbook.

Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor of Disarmament Studies, Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 9:14:56 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-art-of-positive-messaging/article19110174.ece

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