How is India telling its story? The institutionalisation of Narrative Management is the Need of the Hour

 By Namita Barthwal
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Lately came out in media – in June 2020, Sanjeev Sanyal, the then Principal Economic Advisor, Ministry of Finance, now a member of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, prepared the 36-page presentation title “Subjective Factors that Impact India’s Sovereign Ratings: What can we do about it?” [1] According to that presentation, the factors pulling down India’s sovereign credit ratings that give investors insights into the level of risk, including any political risk, associated with investing in the debt of a particular country[2] include assessments of- governance, political stability, the rule of law, corruption, press freedom, etc. The ratings are determined by the country’s World Governance Indicators (WGI) performance, which he claimed to be controlled by “western press or small surveys of NGOs and a handful of academics”. He predicted a drop in WGI scores due to the negative commentaries on India – specifically related to Kashmir, Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, National Register of Citizens and Ram Temple in Ayodhya- by think tanks, survey agencies and international media. [3] He stated that these surveys and adverse reporting could downgrade India’s Sovereign Ratings to junk- a low credit rating category.[4]

The adverse sovereign ratings showed their impact; on 1 June 2020, Moody’s downgraded India’s investment grade from Baa2 to Baa3 (the lowest rating). At the same time, Fitch Ratings revised India’s outlook from stable to negative, but the rating remained the same, i.e., BBB. India’s Economic Survey report called these ratings biased, requiring transparency and objectivity. In the presentation, Sanjeev Sanyal recommended that “it is of utmost importance to reach out to these think-tanks and survey agencies and set a positive narrative about India in general”.[5] Accordingly, it has been noted that the government pushed the narrative management strategy. In this adverse scenario, where the anti-India narrative influences agencies like WGI, it is strongly recommended that India needs a narrative management institution that should precisely and robustly work towards setting the correct narrative for the country.

Information could traverse at net speed in the age of the internet, i.e., megabits per second, which has proliferated the rate of transmitting the narrative. Therefore, strategic narrative management, instead of narrative management, has become one of the essential tools for states to manage global relations, including international relations and relations with Non-Governmental Organisations.

Understanding the Importance of Strategic Narrative

“If you don’t frame the narrative, someone else will” is rightly said by two scholars – Mary Carnnell and Ben Sheppard. They argued that “the narrative cannot be controlled”.[6] However, the state can dominate the narrative by consistently filling the frame with its narrative, making it difficult for others to erode what it attempts to convey.

A narrative is a time-related and causally linked sequence of events selected and analysed for a particular audience. [7] In comparison, a strategic narrative is a narrative deliberately constructed to achieve favourable outcomes. In India’s context, the latter is preferable and recommended because it communicates clarity of purpose, and consistency presents the prospect of success and faces few counternarratives. [8]

The structural constituents of strategic narrative are actors, setting, and plot. Greater coherence in these makes narratives more persuasive. How actors or story characters are evaluated, how the stage on which they act is described and how the events they participate in are selected. All three are causally linked and make the narrative persuasive. Strategic narratives win approval if they ‘resonate’ with the existing understandings of target audiences. [9]

A good example is a strategic narrative presented by Ukraine in the ongoing Russo-Ukraine crisis. According to Dr Peter Warren Singer, by strategically employing ten essential messaging themes, Ukraine beat Russia in shaping the early narrative of the conflict. Ukraine, (1) instead of debunking, pre-bunked the narrative; (2) highlighted heroism; (3) selectively emphasising specific facts; (4) invoked mythologies vis-à-vis martyrs; (5) glorified the leader, President Zelenskyy; (6) amplified civilian harm; (7) magnified civilian resistance; (8) encouraging the international community to join the bandwagon; (9) humanised its side; and, (10) mocking Russia. [10]

Another example is China’s use of strategic narrative to engage with several countries in the Belt and Road Initiative, “a plan mainly aimed at addressing deep crises within its economy”.[11] In China’s strategic narrative, the themes are – (1) revival of the ancient Silk Road; (2) decline of the western powers; and (3) rise of China. Over the years, China has persuasively carried these three strategic narratives, and less cared about the counternarratives by opponents. Despite all the counternarratives, China’s sovereign credit ratings are far better than India’s.

Other countries also pursue the strategic narrative; the United States is the most formidable. Joseph Nye called it – Soft Power – the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion. The ‘American dream’ is a strategic narrative the US pursues holistically, and Hollywood plays a significant role.

How is India telling its story? What is India’s strategic narrative? And, How India is seeking it? These are questions Indians must ask, and policymakers must ponder. When India faces counternarratives, one thing the Indian establishment must resist is being reactionary to counternarratives because reacting to someone else’s narrative rather than framing and communicating their own narratives poses the risk of undermining the support for their objectives to create the future they aspire for their nation.

Key Recommendations

  • Institutionalise narrative management. As the government has pushed the narrative management strategy, it is critical to institutionalise narrative management and pursue narrative management in a centralised manner. The nation’s narrative should be echoed, amplified and propagated at all levels.
  • Resist running behind counternarratives. The narrative should not be reactionary but instead independent of all counternarratives. India should resist running behind counternarratives and shove them on an ad-hoc basis. However, ad-hocism must be avoided in India’s narrative. Air is everywhere. Like air, India’s narrative should remain ubiquitous, leaving no vacuum for counternarratives to propagate.
  • Pursue strategic narrative management. Instead of narrative management, India must pursue strategic narrative management as the latter is more focused on aims and objectives.
  • Researchers and academic community must be encouraged. Researchers, the academic community and intermediaries of international journalists must be taken into confidence by policymakers to make strategic narratives more appealing to the international community. The researchers and academic community must be encouraged to interact with global think tanks and surveying agencies. Also, Statesmen should also frequently contribute op-eds to widely-read international newspapers to effectively set the narrative. [12]

References

[1] “Exclusive: Worried India Rating May Turn Junk, govt pushed ‘narrative management’ strategy” The Indian Express, 9 May 2022.

[2] James Chen, “Sovereign Credit Rating,” Investopedia

[3] N1.

[4] James Chen, “Junk Bond”, Investopedia

[5] N1.

[6] Crannell and Sheppard, “Preparing to Lead with a Compelling Narrative: If You Don’t Frame the Narrative,Someone Else Will”

[7] Noort and Colley, “How do strategic narratives shape policy adoption? Responses to China’s Belt and Road Initiative”

[8] N7.

[9] N7.

[10] Peter Singer, “How Ukraine Won the #LikeWar”, POLITICO

[11] “Debunking the Myth of ‘Debt-trap’ diplomacy”, Chatham House

[12] Pathania and Barthwal, “Pakistan Releases Dossier 2021: Propagandist Overtures”, CLAWS