Politicians should take image-building seriously

Kaumudi Kashikar-Gurjar
Tuesday, 7 May 2019

“The upcoming elections will be fought on the mobile phone….In a way, you could say they would be WhatsApp elections.”

As campaigning for the third phase of the Lok Sabha elections was in full swing recently in rural parts of Pune, Parth Pawar, a candidate in his early twenties, belonging to an influential political family from Maharashtra, became the object of public ridicule for fumbling during his first ever public speech. Moreover, supporters of the opposing party left no stone unturned in ensuring that this speech remained trending on all popular social media platforms, particularly on WhatsApp for the next couple of days. 

This incident highlighted how no Indian politician can escape with his or her casual approach towards political image due to the omnipresent social media. One needs to ponder on the statement made by BJP’s IT Cell Head Amit Malviya in March this year: “The upcoming elections will be fought on the mobile phone….In a way, you could say they would be WhatsApp elections.” With 82 per cent of the Indian mobile phone users downloading WhatsApp, Malviya meant to say that political leaders have no escape. 

Senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor recently published an article, wherein he mentioned how in 2013, a year before the last general election, the IRIS Knowledge Foundation and the Internet and the Mobile Association of India conducted a study suggesting that in 160 constituencies (of the 543 in the Lok Sabha), the margin of victory was smaller than the number of social media users. Over 10 per cent of the population was on social media. 

It estimated that by the 2014 elections, 80 million Indians would be using social media. It asserted that this was a vote bank that no politician could afford to ignore. Tharoor pointed out that with some 625 million Internet users in India and upwards of 80 per cent of Internet use on mobile phones, there could be 625 million pairs of eyes looking at social media during the 2019 elections - nearly eight times more than in 2014.

No one can argue how political leaders need to be vigilant about their image in the age of social media. Commenting on the issue, Bharatiya Janata Party Yuva Morcha President Poonam Mahajan Rao told Sakal Times, “You can build your image only by working and making the impact on the ground, not by just uploading great pictures on social media. The posts on social media can only enhance your work, not replace it.”

Expert image-makers say that politics is all about perception. In order to get elected or to make a career in politics, what people think you really are, becomes more significant than what you think you are. 

Viveck Shettyy, an image consultant, said, “Politics is all about perception and perception management has to be done on a regular basis and at all times.” Speaking about the awareness level among Indian politicians in the age of social media, he said, “However, politicians are not aware of the fact that no serious image-building happens overnight and a majority of them show immaturity towards their public image.”

Emphasising that there is a huge trust deficit about the political fraternity among the public, Shettyy said one may get the best of the writers to write speeches but when one rattles off the speech on the stage, one’s body language, conviction in the voice will decide whether people will believe the person or not. In the presence of social media, a slip of the tongue or a casual factual mistake gets amplified and reaches all through mobile phones in no time.  He added that while a majority of the politicians are not image-conscious, leaders such as Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and Baramati MP and NCP leader Supriya Sule are a few exceptions to this. 

“Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis is among a few such leaders, who are serious about image-building beyond their need of contesting or winning elections,” said Shettyy.

He added that besides making active political comment, Fadnavis projects himself as a progressive and forward-thinking leader, highlighting the fact that it does not matter, where he came from. What matters is that he wants to go to a whole new place. 

Shetty said that the CM shares his softer side by providing details on how he sheds his weight, his exercise regime and his diet plan. This has made a positive impact on his public image. 

Giving another example, Shetty said that Supriya Sule has developed a unique style so much so that people tend to trust her more than they would normally trust a politician. 

He added that throughout her tenure, people have seen her proactively interacting and talking to people, which is beyond the immediate zone of elections. 

Shetty said that Sule has made a difference by becoming vocal in the Parliament. The leader maintains the decorum of speech even while making hard-hitting points. Such a consistent approach towards image-building is rarely seen among politicians, he added. 

Underlining the seriousness of the topic, Minocher Patel, an image consultant, said that image-building is not a quick fix if one is serious about making a career in politics. One should get proper training from someone who understands the nuances of public speaking, and that too, much before deciding to contest elections. 

Stressing on the importance of public speaking, Patel said MNS leader Raj Thackeray is a good role model for young politicians. Considering the way Thackeray speaks and the way he uses presentation skills, he would be able to swing a good number of votes for Congress and NCP. 

Patel said that many political leaders get into trouble for making wrong statements. Hence, the government should invest money in getting elected representatives trained to ensure that they make responsible statements.

With 625 million Internet users in India, political leaders across the parties are again and again realising that there is no escape if they make irresponsible statements. With more and more young leaders taking the centrestage, hopefully in the years to come, like most of the developed countries, we too are likely to witness more and more politicians carrying out their business responsibly.

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