The humanitarian and governance aspects of India’s Covid-19 pandemic response has been the subject of great discussion. But one key element has been missing is the debate: the communications crisis.

To begin with, when a lockdown was announced last March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, poor messaging and ambiguous communication of remedial measures caused widespread panic among migrant workers. Next, through false messaging that the “war” on Covid-19 had been won. Finally, through mixed messaging that Indians needed to adhere to Covid-19 protocols despite this “victory”, even as the top brass let down their guard.

These are not the worst debacles on the messaging front. That ignominy goes to the government’s present communication strategy, driven by a perception-management approach rather than a moral responsibility to the electorate. By all accounts, the Indian example is a lesson in precisely how not to communicate in a crisis. It is also a testament to the need for ethics in political communication.

Problem of plenty

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is no stranger to a good media strategy. He has banked on fail-safe modes of communication (such as Twitter and his monthly Man Ki Baat radio programme) – and the efficiency of the ruling party’s IT cell machinery – to remain in favour. Modi is an extremely popular leader, enjoying approval ratings far higher than his global peers.

But his image is not impervious to damage. Modi’s approval ratings have steadily declined from an all-time high of 84% in May 2020, in the midst of the first wave and India’s nationwide lockdown, to 63% on May 17 on the Morning Consult’s index. This is his lowest point since the organisation began tracking his ratings in August 2019. If the humanitarian crisis persists, Modi’s approval rating could continue to slip.

For a leadership that prides itself on its image and views image building as a core policy priority, this is terrible news. The Bharatiya Janata Party has reacted predictably to what it perceives as a significant challenge, deploying a variety of tools and tactics to protect Modi and the party’s reputation, in a template that resonates with what US communications professor William Benoit calls the “five strategies of image repair” through crisis communications.

At the core of image repair is the assumption that the individual or organisation’s reputation is at risk because they are responsible for an action that is considered offensive. Modi and his government have faced increasing criticism from all quarters for their failure to prevent the surge in Covid-19 cases, high number of deaths and the shortage of healthcare equipment, especially oxygen supplies.

In recent weeks, blame has also been laid for an additional offence – Modi’s silence and seeming disappearance from the public eye as the death toll mounts. This as occurred as horrific stories and images of suffering emerge from across the country, even as the vaccination drive slows. At this time, some acknowledgement of error or a few empathetic words could be consolatory to many.

According to Benoit, once responsibility has been cast on the accused, image repair can occur through five strategies: denial, evasion of responsibility, reduction of offensiveness, corrective action and mortification. Depending on the nature of the crisis, a combination of these strategies can be used to protect and restore an image. Modi and the BJP have opted to use three, in keeping with their larger political goals.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the nation. Photo credit: Manjunath Kiran / AFP

Plan in action

The first, strategy is the denial of the act. Since the beginning of the pandemic, various sections of the ruling party have repeatedly denied the severity of Covid-19, offering unscientific and ill-founded treatments as alternatives. This has intensified amid the second wave, scuttling efforts to reduce the burden on the healthcare system.

Importantly, “denial” is being used to insist Modi and the leadership bear no blame in the current crisis and that in fact lies elsewhere (shifting the blame, another component of this strategy). The guilty, according to Modi’s supporters? Previous governments, the Opposition, the states, foreign governments for withholding vaccines and pharmaceutical ingredients and the citizens themselves.

Next, the leadership has sought to evade responsibility for the unfolding crisis. When faced with opprobrium for holding mass gatherings (political rallies and the Kumbh Mela), the ruling party was quick to redirect responsibility to opposition parties that also conducted rallies in five poll-bound states.

In recent weeks, the ruling party has clamped down on critics in many parts of the country and asked social media sites to remove “offensive” posts. Uttar Pradesh has even filed criminal cases against anyone publicly seeking medical assistance. The BJP leadership appears keen to polish its image by eliminating anything that could pin the responsibility for the situation on the party.

In yet another move to evade responsibility, the centre is now leaving it up to the states and the private sector to procure the vaccines required to inoculate the population.

The third strategy is reducing offensiveness. Over the past few weeks, the BJP has been on a “positivity” overdrive, seeking to replace what it views as “negative” and “harsh” coverage of the situation and the prime minister’s role in the local and international media, is a tactic Benoit describes as “bolstering”.

The bolstering strategy is also apparent through comments telling people that Modi was “working hard”. In attempting to reduce the offensiveness of the current crisis, some members of the ruling party have also sought to minimise the seriousness of the offence (for instance, by asking if recent reports of bodies floating in the Ganga is the first time such an incident has occurred?).

The incumbent party has also attempted to attack some of its detractors. The “Congress toolkit” fiasco is a case in point. The BJP sought to reduce the offences it is being blamed for and deflect attention from the party and Modi by accusing the Congress party of running a campaign to discredit ongoing Covid-19 mitigation efforts.

But there is another approach the leadership could have taken: assuming its moral responsibility as a democratically elected government. This brings us to Benoit’s final two strategies of image repair – “mortification” and “corrective action”, or the grounds for a turn to ethics in political communication.

Back to basics

Truly restoring the public’s perception of one’s image can only occur through some resolution of the offence. A first step would be to acknowledge errors, then seek forgiveness (by expressing mortification) and making amends to prevent a reoccurrence of similar situations (proposing corrective action). Any expression of genuine regret coupled with remedial measures will likely win over many detractors.

Communication is important during disasters and disseminating key information is a sign of a healthy democracy. Organisations like the National Democratic Institute issued guidelines on how governments could communicate with their citizens during the pandemic.

So, what could the Modi government have done differently in its communication strategy?

For starters, it should remember that, at the most basic level, the purpose of political communication is to let people know what is happening. During disaster situations like Covid-19, this is doubly necessary.

Only through judicious information sharing can crises be mitigated (for instance, by providing clear facts and data), perceptions managed and public confidence maintained. By placing ethics at the forefront of its communication strategy – crucially, being truthful and responsible – the government could have maintained (or restored) its image while tackling the health crisis.

Modi and his government must acknowledge mistakes have been made. “Corrective action” can follow in the form of strengthening the healthcare sector through increased budgetary allocations, and preparing in earnest for a third wave, whenever it may hit.

If the government’s communications track record amid previous crises is anything to go by, it sees acceptance of mistakes as a sign of weakness. Yet, we must remember that goal of the BJP’s image repair exercise is to restore Modi’s and its own image, so an expression of “mortification” is unlikely to come.

How then can ethical communication be encouraged? By recognising that political communication also serves another purpose – people communicating their needs and aspirations to their leaders. And it is from here that the demand for a return to ethics in political communication must emerge.

Preeti Lourdes John is Deputy Editor at the Observer Research Foundation. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect those of ORF.