Difficult Times

Modi’s Methods, Mark’s Mistakes

Mala Jay

When Narendra Modi hugged Mark Zuckerberg on stage in September 2015, it had looked like the beginning of an intimate and potentially profitable partnership. Modi was the leader of the world's biggest democracy with 120 crore citizens. Zuckerberg was the CEO of the world's biggest social media network with 230 crore active users.

Both men were on top of the world and nothing could possibly go wrong. Even when Modi broke down in public while speaking of the sacrifices his widowed and poverty-stricken mother had made, it was said that his tears would cement the bonds of friendship.

Today, that emotional encounter at the Facebook headquarters in California seems a thing of the past. Things have changed dramatically. Both men are facing growing challenges—one, to his political leadership; and the other to his corporate career.

For the first time since he was elected Prime Minister, Modi's domestic political opponents are joining forces in an attempt to defeat him in a series of crucial regional and national elections in the months ahead.

Zuckerberg is being called into question for his business practices and made to testify in grueling Congressional hearings for two days this week. The stakes are high for Zuckerberg and the gigantic company he created, with lawmakers in America demanding answers about Facebook's alleged improper privacy policies.

Zuckerberg has reasons to be apprehensive because the 33-year-old has never before testified on oath before the US Congress, and .all indications are that members from both parties are determined to ask tough questions.

Media reports say the Facebock chief, who has hired leading lawyers and psychology consultants to prepare him for the hearings, have advised him on ways to minimise the damage to Facebook's reputation and his own—by showing remorse and making it sound convincing.

One crisis communications expert has been quoted as saying : "I think personal demeanour and body language are very important. He has to try his best to appear humble, contrite and authentic. He should absolutely avoid conveying even the slightest degree of arrogance and glibness".

Interestingly, similar advice would equally be applicable to Narendra Modi. His style of functioning has often been described as arrogant and authoritarian. Even his key party functionaries, especially next in command Amit Shah, have been known to speak in an abrasive manner—which may have impressed or intimidated voters in the past but is unlikely to be well received in the new atmosphere in which large sections of peasants and workers in rural and urban areas have been expressing their disillusionment.

Zuckerberg is being advised by his behavioural coaches to learn from the mistakes made by Microsoft chief Bill Gates when he was questioned by the US Congress in 1998—Gates was seen as boastful, haughty and overly sensitive to criticism and that eventually led to his business empire being carved up.

The main charge against Zuckerberg is that Facebook has illegally sold private data on more than 87 million Facebook users in the United States to the data firm Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 presidential election campaign.

In an attempt to restore public confidence in Facebook's unsavoury business practices, Zuckerberg has already launched a public relations drive and accepted personal accountability and responsibility for any perceived wrongs committed.

The Facebook CEO has also released an advance copy of what he will say in his opening testimony before US Committee on Energy and Commerce. The operative part of the six-page document goes like this:
"It was my mistake, and I'm sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I'm responsible for what happens here. We didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake.

"It's not enough to just connect people, we have to make sure those connections are positive. It's not enough to just give people a voice, we have to make sure people aren't using it to hurt people or spread misinformation. It's not enough to give people control of their information, we have to make sure the developers they've given it to are protecting it too. Across the board, we have a responsibility to not just build tools, but to make sure those tools are used for good".

Even this strategy of humility has not prevented Facebook shares from suffering a heavy fall in the stock markets. The fears are that if his performance during the congressional hearings turn out to be poor, there could be a further slide in Facebook stocks—which could trigger demands from within the company's stake-holders themselves that he should step down as chairman and CEO.

In Modi's case, too, the possibility cannot be ruled out that if his party, BJP, performs poorly in the upcoming elections in the southern state of Karnataka and subsequently in northern states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, murmurs of discontent and displeasure will be heard among stake-holders of the Sangh Parivar. The all-powerful parent organisation, the RSS, is already believed to be none-too-happy with Modi's manner of dealing with the recent spate of social and economic strife, which seems to be spreading across various parts of India.

How Zuckerberg will fare in the witness chair remains to be seen. Most commentators say that if Zuckerberg stumbles, the harm to his company could be severe. The same would apply to Narendra Modi—if he stumbles in his electioneering and handling of crises in the coming weeks and months, the harm to his party and to his own image could be severe.

Vol. 50, No.43, Apr 29 - May 05, 2018