Communicating the achievements of a government in our country is often confused with announcing reforms or justifying harsh economic policies. Unfortunately, even our economist Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made the same gaffe in his appearance on television to explain the reasons behind measures such as the diesel price increase and allowing foreign investment in multi-brand retail.
While speculation continues on the timing and intention of Singh’s address to the nation, it was quietly followed by another edition of the Bharat Nirman advertising campaign. This is the fifth time this theme-based campaign has been launched, highlighting the government’s achievements. The first Bharat Nirman campaign was launched by the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) administration in 2007 to highlight its achievements in rural India.
Such communication is primarily used as a political megaphone, allowing leaders to speak louder so people will hear their message and, therefore, accept their reform programmes. Politicians often assume that the purpose of communication is merely to raise awareness of their reform programmes. They believe people will be prepared to support their policies once they become aware of the programme. This awareness trap has been plaguing our governments for many decades now. Crores of rupees have been spent over the years in trying to make people aware of the various government schemes and programmes. In fact, one of the missions of the ministry of information and broadcasting is to communicate and publicize information about the government’s flagship programmes directly to the beneficiaries through multimedia campaigns. A separate information wing with a multitude of media units such as the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity, Press Information Bureau and Song and Drama Division are responsible for this exercise.
It is through this machinery that governments release large advertisements on the birthdays of their departed leaders. In 2004, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government launched a Rs.150 crore plus campaign called India Shining. The media loved it and the tagline became a catch phrase for the emerging Indian economy. While such advertising campaigns highlighting government achievements are not new in our country, the magnitude of the India Shining campaign set it apart.
However, the disconnect between the campaign’s message and the reality resulted in an electoral backlash that contributed to the NDA losing the general election that year.
Similarly, evaluations of campaigns promoting government programmes show that such schemes, accompanied by interpersonal communication, community involvement and effective implementation, resonate much more with the audience than a mere mass media blitz.
In a 2009 assessment by the Centre for Media Studies for Prasar Bharati of the eight flagship programmes of the Indian government, it was found that only three schemes were known across the country by a majority of the 12,796 respondents in 30 states. Interpersonal communication channels such as panchayat (village council) members, government officers, frontline health workers, friends and relatives were overwhelmingly the main sources through which information about these schemes was received. Television was the second major source of information.
The general assumption underlying most campaigns is that the public is not using services or engaging in government schemes because of its lack of awareness. Other reasons such as quality, access barriers, leakages and, most importantly, trustworthiness of such services are ignored. This is the reason most campaigns fail or result in a backlash.
Today, with a multitude of information sources available, ranging from the modern (mobiles, audiovisual, Internet) to the traditional (street plays, wall paintings, puppet shows), the challenge is not a mere lack of awareness but of confidence. Confidence in believing the message, confidence in accepting government programmes, confidence in reform policies, and confidence in the governance provided by our political leaders.
Given the current sensitive economic and political scenario in the country because of a number of corruption scandals, hypersensitive coalition partners and a ruthless opposition, it had become imperative for the leader of our country to take charge and revive the dwindling confidence of citizens.
Many who saw or read the Prime Minister’s address to the nation were simply surprised and perhaps, placated. It will certainly require more consistent, frequent and convincing engagements to spread the message and build support for his reforms. Also, this message has to be conveyed in action (and not just in words) by political leaders.
As the media ecosystem in our country evolves, its use and relevance in communicating policies or reforms also alters. Instead of yet another campaign, the nation needs to see action taken to reassure its confidence in governments. It will need a different approach from using communication merely to disseminate information or sell achievements.
P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies. She studies and advises on policy issues in media and communication sector.