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A new bully pulpit

Modi intuits link between communication and change. There’s no other game in town.

Social change has been, in recent times, largely exogenous and accidental. A large amount of change, not fully understood, has been the shift in media and forms of cultural representation.
Social change has been, in recent times, largely exogenous and accidental. A large amount of change, not fully understood, has been the shift in media and forms of cultural representation.

A society beset with deep social failures faces a conundrum. What will be the medium of social change? We think of this question in relation to state and market failures, but much less so in the case of social failure. This question becomes particularly important in a context where traditional forms of social movement are increasingly weak, and many social institutions, like caste, family and religion, compound these failures rather than correct for them. In this context, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempt to instigate change by creating a national bully pulpit with him at the centre is a political innovation fraught with possibility and risk. The term “bully pulpit” was coined by Theodore Roosevelt to signify the creation of a platform to advocate change. The word “bully” meant something wonderful or good for you, though now it has the connotation of being coercive as well.

Ours is not an age of conventional social movements. The functionally based social movements are very weak. Peasant and farmer’s movements, the mainstay of organised power in India, have dwindled. This may be due to the changing occupational structure in villages. But it is also perhaps, as Ajay Jakhar once characteristically perceptively noted, an unintended consequence of deepening local politics, which is now competitive and adversarial: not a propitious site to build a movement or consensus around ethical reform. The Indian labour movement has remained marginal, thanks to the continued dominance of the informal sector. The student movement barely exists, and other than in a few places, student politics is at its weakest. Incidentally, traditionally, these three were also sources of entry into politics and their decline may have something to do with the stagnation of politics we saw in our recent past. Political parties barely existed other than as loose conglomerates held together by a leader; hardly agents of social change.

Caste-based movements produce some social change, but they have largely devolved into sectional interests, if even that. The language of displacing the existing power-holders is not the same thing as creating a new social consciousness. The Indian family has remained a site for contradictory pressures, perhaps more defensive than transformative. The school system remains in institutional disarray. It can barely deliver on its core mission of literacy and has not performed the role that public schooling has globally: transforming social consciousness. Traditional religious movements have been, at best, uneven. Even at their best, there are serious limitations to their ethical horizons. But even these movements are no longer embedded movements. They are a mix of entrepreneurship and the cult of the media. Their reach depends on contriving personal wellbeing, not raising deep, uncomfortable social questions.

So this vacuum then started being filled by professional NGOs and technical interventions. Many of these were interesting. But their success was largely local. Many found it difficult to scale up. There was also an alliance of a new social science language and state power to engineer social reform. This was largely based on the idea of designing incentives. Again, there is some power to this idea. But it is of doubtful value as a basis for long-term ethical transformation. A society that has to pay people to stop murdering female children and to defecate in the right places has probably already lost the plot somewhere. Incentives may be a short-term palliative, but they can also be corrosive in the long run. They instrumentalise everything and create a norm that the only reason to do even the right thing is money. Hardly a social transformation.


So social change in India has been, in recent times, largely exogenous and accidental. Sometimes, a change in the economy and mobility can itself create new forms of behaviour; Chandra Bhan Prasad has argued that marketisation does work against certain forms of structural disempowerment. But a large amount of change, not fully understood, has been the shift in media and forms of cultural representation. Their effects on a whole range of things, defining aspirations, unleashing new forms of desire, creating new norms and sometimes perverting them, have been profound. In a way, Modi was the first politician to truly grasp how profoundly we are created through this communicative medium. He defied conventional political wisdom with his belief that a national-level communicative strategy could make India more presidential.

But the increasing power of mediatised communication, at the expense of traditional mobilisation, has three features. First, it is ephemeral. As the last movement to deploy this, the anti-corruption movement, found out, if media makes you, it can also destroy you. Second, social movements relied on exemplars; media relies on celebrities. Third, this media is not made for dialogue. It is made for advertising. It does not involve reciprocity between citizens. It involves making them available for a message.

So if you want to dominate this medium, you will have to do three things: first, find a way of constantly being in the news; second, deploy celebrity power; and third, have a script that can be picked up. Nitin Pai used a nice phrase, saying “narrative dominance” was going to be the name of the game from now on. Modi has a profound sense that his authority comes unmediated from the people, so he has a political incentive to reach out directly to people. But he seems to have intuited something few social scientists and politicians have come to terms with: the central element of a theory of social change is to communicate all the time.

So this regime will be in a communication overdrive in almost every dimension, perhaps tiresomely so. But there is no other game in town. The fact that the media can be pliant helps. But Modi has also shrewdly grasped that if he goes to the media on the terrain of cleaning up India, making in India, open defecation-free India, it will be an offer they will find hard to refuse. Let us not forget it took the classic combination of celebrity, media and script for Aamir Khan to make uncomfortable topics central to the national conversation. Social change will now have to come through page three writ large.

Needless to say, a bully pulpit is not a substitute for governance. The government has been quite indecisive on reforms, slow in appointments and in creating processes that can sustainably execute. We also hope that the bully pulpit will be used only for savoury causes. Modi may have a vested interest in the personification of power. But there is also a deeper story behind the idea that political and social change requires a communication overdrive. What society could not do, we now look to advertising to do.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express