Why Modi’s positivity drive fails to cheer up people

Why Modi’s positivity drive fails to cheer up people

Not too long ago, when Delhi-NCR was caught in the throes of a ferocious second wave of coronavirus exacerbated by shortage of hospital beds and oxygen cylinders, the official Twitter handle of Mann Ki Baat—Prime Minister Narednra Modi’s monthly radio address—sought suggestions for its next edition. The Mann Ki Baat Updates handle tweeted, “This month’s #MannKiBaat is...

Not too long ago, when Delhi-NCR was caught in the throes of a ferocious second wave of coronavirus exacerbated by shortage of hospital beds and oxygen cylinders, the official Twitter handle of Mann Ki Baat—Prime Minister Narednra Modi’s monthly radio address—sought suggestions for its next edition.

The Mann Ki Baat Updates handle tweeted, “This month’s #MannKiBaat is back again—to celebrate the power of positivity and the strengths of 130 crore Indians! Have any inspiring story to share with PM Shri @narendramodi?”

The unusual call for celebration came as more than a shock to the ordinary citizens. Many found it outright offensive.

A visibly dejected Abhinav Singh, a resident of Delhi who lost both his parents in the second wave of Covid-19, tells The Federal that he and many like him—who did everything “as asked by the PM”—are extremely disappointed.

“I have been conscientiously paying my taxes for the last 17 years. Yet when the time came, I couldn’t avail any healthcare facilities. I also donated to the PM Cares fund. But the PM doesn’t care. We voted him to power again and did everything he said, but when we needed him, he was nowhere to be found.”

The post by the Mann Ki Baat handle was, however, deleted following severe backlash from netizens.


Positivity drive

To fight the mounting criticism over the mishandling of the pandemic, the Modi-Amit Shah-led BJP government—which is by now infamous for dismissing any criticism that comes its way and doesn’t easily let anything muddy the reputation of its top leaders—has decided to unleash a ‘positivity’ drive.

The messaging was and has been that the government is doing its best, that efforts are on to control the virus and end the pandemic.

The Centre even conducted workshops for top bureaucrats, according to some news reports like this one, on boosting government image and perception, focussing on positive news.

They were asked to spread the message loud and clear among the citizens that the government is working hard for them.

The BJP IT cell went into an overdrive posting pictures and videos of party leaders and workers helping citizens with medicine, food, and other aid besides the PM’s speeches, initiatives like the Oxygen Express, etc.

On the other hand, they dubbed similar activities by opposition leaders as publicity stunts. The BJP also released a purported “toolkit” by the Congress that allegedly conspired to tarnish the image of Modi and the Centre over the handling of the pandemic.

While the Congress called it a “con job” and asked Twitter to affix the “manipulated media” label to screenshots shared by BJP leaders in this regard, the micro-blogging site did mark such posts as manipulated. The government, on its part, registered strong objections to the use of ‘manipulated media’ tag as “the matter is pending investigation before a law enforcement agency”.

Recently, the Delhi Police also probed people from opposition parties such as Srinivas BS of the Indian Youth Congress besides registering 25 FIRs and arresting as many people for allegedly putting up posters critical of Modi.

A senior police officer reportedly said, “More FIRs are likely to be registered if further complaints are received in this regard. As of now, the investigation is underway to ascertain on whose behalf these posters were being put up at various places across the city and accordingly further action will be taken.”

Mohan Bhagwat of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fountainhead of the BJP, addressed an online lecture as part of its ‘Positivity Unlimited’ campaign. According to the RSS chief, despite knowledge and warning signs, “the government, the administration, and the public, all lowered their guard” after the first Covid wave and this led to the current crisis.

While Bhargwat clearly sought to deflect attention from the government’s incompetence, he asked citizens to “stay positive”. Critics say the campaign name—Positivity Unlimited—itself says how hard the government is trying to counter public ire.

But it’s not just the government’s usual critics, it is facing heavy backlash from ordinary citizens like Abhinav Singh who wholeheartedly supported the Modi government not too long ago. Such homilies about staying positive have instead angered the common man.

No takers

Akash Malik, an IT engineer from Gurugram who lost his father in April due to Covid-19 and lost his job last November, says, “What is positive about this situation? Many advised me that I should remain positive. But no one tells me how. While I try to cheer myself up, it’s not so easy to forget those horrifying scenes. Moreover, I don’t know what the future holds. It looks so dark. I have no job, no father. These things keep haunting me.”

Criticism against the ‘positivity push’ also came from within the government. According to a  district magistrate, who didn’t want to be named, “The central government never listened to us. We asked for oxygen, medicines and jabs but got no reply. But now we have to listen to them [government] and we need to spread positivity. How do we go out and tell the public which is already mourning their loved ones about Modi’s greatness?”

Aditya Mukherjee, former JNU professor, tells The Federal that the BJP is using the bureaucrats during a pandemic to promote itself.

“Instead of conducting meetings on stopping the surge of Covid-19, they are conducting sessions on how to spread positivity and arrest people who are criticising government on social media.”

Instead of doing things right, he adds, the focus is on a ‘positivity drive’ on social media to get away with it while people continue to die. “If you had done things the right way, the need for such drives wouldn’t have risen.”

Mukherjee’s views found support in the medical journal The Lancet, according to which “Modi’s government has seemed more intent on removing criticism on Twitter than trying to control the Covid-19 pandemic”.

This was in reference to the government asking Twitter to take down tweets that were critical of India’s handling of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

Toxic positivity

While it’s good to be optimistic about situations, experts say such relentless push for positivity comes as a denial of the crisis at hand and its enormity.

Many argue that the BJP government is instead infusing “toxic positivity”.

According to a mental health website, toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset.

It’s a “good vibes only” approach to life. And while there are benefits to being an optimist and engaging in positive thinking, toxic positivity instead rejects difficult emotions in favour of a cheerful, often falsely positive, facade.

According to a research paper by Binus University, “Positivity is a skill and a mindset granted to someone while toxic positivity happens when someone is fixated on happiness and optimist views. It promotes an unrealistic standard and a fixed mindset that makes it difficult to accept other possibilities offered.”

“Rather than attaining happiness, it is susceptible to succumbing to setbacks before we are able to fulfil that standard. Happiness is rather a temporary state. Some people promote happiness as part of a natural state of mind, while nothing is more natural than sadness when someone is racked,” the research added.

Rahmadina Syarafina Wibowo, the author of the research, says, “Many of us still think feeling bad over something is necessarily disdainful and ominous… Learning how to strive forwards by validating one’s feelings and thoughts is necessary… Forcing positive vibes and inhibiting authentic feelings bring toxic positivity.”

Toxic positivity amid Covid-19

Seema Dalal, a psychologist based out of Delhi, tells The Federal, “Toxic positivity leads to sorrow, shame, suppressed emotions and isolation. It is like your mind wants to feel bad but the people around you don’t want you to go to that zone.”

“In most of the cases we receive, even before the pandemic, it was seen that many patients who came to us were victims of such toxic positivity. They had no one to talk to about their feelings. Even if they tried to talk to someone about their problems, they were advised to remain positive and strong,” Dalal added.

With time, she adds, such people stopped sharing their feelings because of ‘sermons about positivity’ that guilted them into thinking that their problem is nothing. “This leads to pent up emotions and helplessness. Now in the pandemic, the problem has escalated.”

According to Dalal, staying positive during a pandemic when people have lost their jobs, family and friends is not possible. “There are deaths and devastation all around. There is a sense of fear among people. Asking them to stay positive at this point in time can lead to a mental health catastrophe.”

“Acknowledging it will make them feel better. They will get a sense of togetherness. We should always keep in our mind that it is absolutely okay not to be okay. It is natural.”

If leading communications consultant Dilip Cherian is to be believed, positivity itself is a dangerous word in these times. “Being positive [to the virus] is a thing you dread most,” Cherian told the BBC.

The problem with Modi’s government, he says, is that communication and image management has been its weapon of the first choice to tide over the crisis.

“In this case, the weapon of the first choice should have been science and nothing else. Communicating with science would have saved lives,” he says.

Next Story