By Pradeep S Mehta
The loss in Bihar was a communications and management failure. The PMO and party leadership must change their ways
The Bihar result is a wake-up call to the Centre to push economic and governance reforms through consensus rather than filibustering. The results do not mean that the people have lost confidence in the Union government. But it has reinforced the need to ensure that reforms become sustainable through a wider consensus.
After close to one-and-a-half years in office, there is a sense of unfulfilled expectations from the NDA 2 regime. While the economy is doing well with several reforms happening and the absence of corruption in high places, a matching business sentiment is wanting. On the other hand, consumer sentiment is high in spite of price spikes in pulses and call drops, among other things.
The performance of any government can be judged by comparing two indicators. First, comparison with the performance of previous governments over a similar time period; and comparison with expected targets of the incumbent. While this government seems to have performed fairly well over first indicator, it appears to be faltering on the latter. Perhaps, this has been the single biggest contributor to the electoral setbacks in Delhi and Bihar. This can be explained by applying the principles of setting and managing expectations.
Key to managing expectations
Setting the correct time frame: The first principle of expectation management is to under-promise and over- deliver. While setting the bar high has been the usual practice in elections, perhaps the Modi government has been unable to communicate that results will be visible in the long run.
The electorate was expecting speed and thus gave absolute majority to the government. It didn’t get what was expected and the aftermath in the form of the Bihar election results is there for all to see. The Prime Minister appears to be making amends, as he was quoted recently saying that the government running a marathon and not a sprint. One hopes that he understands that the marathon is for five years, of which only three-and-a-half years are left, and not ten.
Prioritise and strategise: The second principle of expectation management is to prioritise and strategise. The government chose the ordinance route to pass legislations, and appeared ready to call a joint sitting of both Houses, to overcome the number handicap in the upper house (which will not change in their favour). It chose sensitive subjects such as land acquisition over other non-legislative low hanging fruits and uncontroversial legislative subjects. The government denied the largest opposition party the position of leader of the Opposition and accused the Opposition of being obstructionist in growth and development.
The Prime Minster chose radio to communicate ‘Mann ki Baat’, with no option for two-way interaction, visited close to 30 nations, but didn’t send out any early message to calm tolerance-related apprehensions. An aggressive strategy and incorrect prioritisation of issues sent wrong signals to the masses. It appeared that the government had become overconfident after its election victory at the Centre and a few States. It began ignoring dissent and started taking the Opposition for granted.
Empowerment and team work: The third principle of expectation management is an empowered team and efficient team work. The Prime Minister’s Office appears to be functioning as a centralised all-powerful hard task master, with little discretion in the hands of bureaucrats. This has resulted in vacancies at most Joint Secretary level positions in Delhi, and delay in decision making on important matters. While a centralised power system is useful to set accountability, it becomes inefficient to govern a diverse country.
Prime Minister Modi was NDA’s sole face in Bihar and no credible local leader was projected. This ‘do it all’ approach might have worked in Gujarat when Modi was chief minister, but in a scenario where a prime minister PM is required to conduct close to 30 rallies in a State election, the electorate would wonder if he is inclined to run a country or a State. This also does not inspire confidence in the government’s agenda of cooperative federalism, wherein the Prime Minister preaches greater power to States, and in effect, local leaders.
Clear and precise communication: The fourth principle of expectation management is clear and precise communication. This is different from communication skills. While the Prime Minister is a master communicator himself, the messages he sent during the Bihar election campaign were unclear. The Lalu-Nitish combine seamlessly combined development and caste/religion agendas, and presented an attractive picture to the electorate. Modi attempted to counter this with aggressive personal attacks on the Opposition, combining the reservation and development message, and thus losing the plot. Had he stuck to his positive development plot, the performance of 18 months, while projecting a clean local leader, the results could have been different.
Mid course correction
Prime Minister Modi must have realised by now that running a nation is altogether a different ball game from running a State. While absolute majority in a State allows one to take any decision, the same strategy cannot be applied at the Centre. At the Centre, the party in office is expected to work in coordination with the Opposition.
While the government has started work on the first principle of expectation management, that is, using Test match language rather than a T-20 one, much more needs to be done. It needs to quickly put together a strategy of horizontal and vertical empowerment and communication. It must identify key leaders in the ruling coalition, who can effectively communicate with the Opposition.
Trust needs to be built that the BJP is listening to its coalition partners and the Opposition, and is taking their concerns into account. Through vertical empowerment, the PMO should lose its all-powerful tag and empower bureaucrats and leaders at the central and State levels. Imaginative ideas must be welcomed and difference of opinion must be respected.
The writer is the secretary general of CUTS International