NEET fiasco is a test of the govt’s outreach skills - Hindustan Times
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NEET fiasco is a test of the govt’s outreach skills

Jun 21, 2024 08:38 PM IST

Government mishandles student protests over NEET exam, exposing broken examination system and political nexus. PM Modi's communication strategy needs a revamp.

The government’s first big misstep, in its third term, has been its response to the student agitation over the NEET medical entrance exam. Less than a week ago, Dharmendra Pradhan, the Union education minister, called the protests “motivated” and rubbished the charge of a leak. When arrested students in Bihar confirmed otherwise, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tried to turn the tables by claiming a link between the accused and an aide of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Tejashwi Yadav. The RJD retaliated by targeting the BJP over its purported links to an examination centre in Haryana from where, suspiciously, six of the perfect scorers sat for the paper.

New Delhi, India - June 20, 2024: Students from various student organizations protest outside the Ministry of Education over the issues of NEET exam at Central Secretariat in New Delhi, India, on Thursday, June 20, 2024. (Photo by Sanchit Khanna/ Hindustan Times) (Hindustan Times)
New Delhi, India - June 20, 2024: Students from various student organizations protest outside the Ministry of Education over the issues of NEET exam at Central Secretariat in New Delhi, India, on Thursday, June 20, 2024. (Photo by Sanchit Khanna/ Hindustan Times) (Hindustan Times)

That India’s examination system is broken — reports suggest at least 40 paper leaks in five years — is obvious. That this cannot happen without a nexus between politics, the bureaucracy, and an underground mafia is obvious. What’s less obvious is why the government believed it could be so contemptuous of an issue that impacts 2.4 million students, some of them who are sitting for the exam for the fourth or fifth time. If you add the 900,000 young Indians impacted by the cancellation of the UGC-NET examination, we are talking about nearly 3.3 million Indians.

Can any government afford to be this cavalier about young voters? Especially in a country where more than 65% of Indians are below the age of 35. The answer to the BJP should be obvious from the fact that among the agitators out on the streets are its party affiliates and supporters. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad is among student union groups demanding a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry into “the entire mechanism” of the National Testing Agency, which is entrusted with the tests.

At his latest press conference, Pradhan took “moral responsibility” for the fiasco. So, why did he not strike a more conciliatory, less abrasive note to begin with? And why would the Prime Minister (PM) not address the issue? A statement from PM Modi, a sideways reference in a public speech, or even a comment on social media, would have gone a long way in containing the upsurge of anger and anguish. Instead, Modi kept his focus on the International Yoga Day, seeming oddly out of sync with the zeitgeist of the moment. Effective political communication — an effective personal narrative, powerful oratory, smart use of social media and a constant awareness of the power of the image — has been a key chapter in the Modi playbook in his first two terms as PM. I once described Modi as India’s “influencer-in-chief” to make a point about his acute understanding of an increasingly digitised voter base.

But right from the campaign of the 2024 elections, through the first weeks in government, this prowess appears to have not been deployed. Modi’s Hindu-Muslim speeches at the stumps did not go down well with his own voters. There is enough post-election data available to show the limitations of Hindutva rhetoric on the ground in the Hindi-speaking states. And oddly, the BJP, otherwise an agile and adaptable election machine, did not tweak or replace the Hindutva messaging with more imaginative narratives, even when it had time to do so.

Modi was the first to understand that politics is, above all, about powerful storytelling. And, as we in the media know only too well, storytellers constantly need to adapt to shrinking attention spans, new formats, new messages and also, the competition. Modi’s personal story as the self-made son of a tea vendor who rose to be chief minister and PM on his own merit was powerful. It worked as a put down of entitlement, old elites and pedigree in politics. But nothing in politics remains constant. The Congress, at first defensive about the dynasty charge, is today all set to have three members of the Gandhi family in Parliament. The party is confident that the two Bharat Jodo Yatras, to borrow a phrase from Yogendra Yadav, ensured that people now feel Rahul Gandhi has earned his inheritance.

Modi, meanwhile, has not added new personal stories to the original one. His challenge is not unique to him, it is the challenge of many incumbents. But there is some evidence to show that where the PM has opted not to communicate at all, or where others in his party have smeared people’s movements (good or bad, fair or unfair notwithstanding), there have been political costs to pay. The Congress won both seats in strife-torn Manipur. In Haryana, CSDS post-poll data shows that amongst farmers, 61% voted for the INDIA bloc. And in states with strong martial traditions, the contentious Agniveer recruitment scheme made its electoral impact felt.

While the economy, livelihood and jobs and managing allies will be the inevitable priority of Modi’s third term as PM, he will also need more weapons in his communication arsenal. If 2014 was a vote for change and 2019 about national security, the message of 2024 has some layers of ambivalence. Listening, with empathy, to the “mann ki baat” of ordinary Indians may be a good way to refresh the communication strategy of NDA 3.0.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author. The views expressed are personal

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