Confronted with an unprecedented international media focus and global criticism from several governments as well as global health experts, state governments, analysts, reputed medical journals, and the international and national media, the Central government and the ruling party’s parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have jointly begun a “positivity drive”, in effect weaving a positive bias narrative both for itself and for the people at large. While one has the potential of a soothing impact on the audience, the other seeks to be politically self-serving. So have we indeed been communicating negativity in a crisis? Or have the Central government and the BJP been seeing it all wrong?
Earlier, in his monthly “Mann ki Baat” radio address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said a powerful positivity message needs to go out. Soon afterwards, the Covid Response Team chipped in with a five-day lecture series called “Positivity Unlimited”, starting May 11. The stated intent was to instil confidence in a society struck by hopelessness and despair. Speakers included spiritual leaders, artistes, writers,philanthropists and RSS leaders.
Meanwhile, the BJP machinery was hard at work with characteristic gusto, producing and reproducing messages of how hard Mr Modi and the government machinery were working. On May 12, health minister Harsh Vardhan’s address repeatedly included “santoshjanakbaathai, yeh khushikibaathai” (it is a matter of delight) and other positive connectors to the vaccination drives.The government’s obsession with image management could fall on deaf ears as even its own ambassadors are finding it increasingly hard to put a positive spin.
Positivity sounds a good thing. But has the government given itself enough positive developments to be articulate about? Given the overwhelming amount of heart-rending news day after day, and news of the government’s repeated attempts to thwart social media criticism, a positive perception is hard to justify.
Rahul Gandhi has reacted to the positivity drive, calling it a “false assurance”. The Congress has said positivity won’t help people to breathe. Earlier, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wrote to Prime Minister Modi, listing five specific points on which the government could work. Rahul Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal, Uddhav Thackeray and other leaders regularly tweet or talk critically of the government’s handling. Expert after expert in television debates has been critiquing the government’s handling of the situation. The media, which has finally reached the villages, routinely interviews ordinary citizens from a cross-section, most of whom place the blame on the government for the dire situation. All this has systematically been ridiculed by various ministers at the Centre, but in fact responsible criticism in general is also accompanied by recommendations, roadmaps and suggestions. In response, BJP chief J.P. Nadda shot off a strong repartee, telling Mrs Sonia Gandhi that she has been misleading people with negative messages. In his response to the former PM, the health minister’s letter ridiculed the Congress.
To their credit, Mr Modi and others in the government have often tackled criticism with facts and numbers. To continued complaints from state governments about the acute shortage of oxygen, the government has been claiming the nation does not have a shortage -- the bottleneck lies in logistics. More recently, Mr Modi pointed out that the supply of oxygen was now more than three times of what it was during the peak of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the peak of the first wave in September 2020, the number of infections stood at less than one lakh a day. This time, that number is in excess of four lakhs. According to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), while 41.5 per cent patients required oxygen last year, that figure for secondwave patients is 54.5 per cent. So Mr Modi’s statement is a fair identification of where the problem lies, but does not provide any solution. The government is, after all, responsible for logistics management too.
Positivity studies indicate that based on their belief system, people with a positivity bias will tend to hold positive views, report positively using those views, and filter in positive information. One way that organisations and governments seek to achieve popularity is through positivity effect, nudging people to see a situation positively when the desired results aren’t achieved, and obtaining a positive feedback. Positivity bias can shroud reality and create false euphoria, which dangerous in a pandemic situation.
Rather than viewing criticism negatively, this criticism-averse government can also help transform public perceptions by responding more positively. For example, a recent newspaper editorial pointed out that in contrast to last year’s total lockdown, which had devastating impacts on the economy, this year’s lockdown in several states had struck a balance between the management of health and economic activity. This should be relatively good news. But if the Centre reacts to it as a criticism of its decisions, it will be seen as protecting its narrow political image-mongering interests, not the larger national interest.
Similarly, it is unfair to expect the media to run only positive stories. This government already enjoys the backing of a largely pliant media: it is well-documented that a significant section of the Indian media over the past seven years has held a pro-government bias. Television channels are often eager to politicise issues. For example, on May 12, leaders of 12 Opposition parties wrote to the Prime Minister demanding immediate action, funds for oxygen and free vaccination. Some TV news channels were quick to focus on which Opposition parties had not signed that petition. When BJP MP Tejasvi Surya purportedly made a surprise visit to an agency running a hospital bed allotment scam in Bengaluru, it was initially well-received by the the media -- until a video surfaced which revealed he and his colleagues had turned it into a communally objectionable exercise. With all its failings, we can expect legitimate media platforms and fair-minded people to compulsively turn to a fairness-for-all approach at some point.
Positivity studies on communications patterns show that people use more positive than negative language, both written and spoken. Given that, the government’s expectation of what constitutes acceptable criticism is either unclear or unrealistic. Indeed, it is the government’s interpretation of criticism that is negative. Well-meaning critiques should lend themselves to the positive inference that there is scope for improvement in implementing decisions, not as an indicator of an existential crisis. Above all, tackle the reality -- and the perception and its articulation will take care of itself.