Modi And Limits Of The Marketing

Rajdeep Sardesai

In the age of 24 x 7 news, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the master of  political theatre, his every move designed to maximize eyeballs. Which is why a simple tweet from him on Wednesday morning that he was to address the nation across media platforms at noon was enough to set news channels into a frenzy.  Since it was an announcement to be made in the backdrop of  a Cabinet Committee on Security meeting and within weeks of  the Balakote air strikes, the general impression was that it must relate to Pakistan. The endless capacity of  news channels to speculate led some to suggest that another surgical strike had been executed, else Dawood Ibrahim had been finally caught while others claimed that Masood Azhar may have been ‘eliminated’.  My Mumbai stockbroker friends even worried if  the Rs 2,000 note was being de-monetised!

Which is why the eventual announcement of  India having successfully tested the Anti Satellite (ASAT) Missile was greeted mostly with a mix of  relief  and surprise. Yes, it was yet another spectacular success of  our space research establishment but then ISRO/DRDO have such a long history of  special achievements that we tend to take their feats for granted. But was it really the kind of  ‘dramatic’ moment that required the Prime Minister to make such a big deal of  it by placing himself  in front of  the nation? Could the announcement have not been made by the team of  scientists as is the convention with the Prime Minister tweeting a congratulatory message or, as Modi’s critics suggest, has a certain pre-election desperation set in for the Prime Minister to seek political mileage on any and every occasion?

After all,  Modi’s address to the nation comes within 48 hours of  Rahul Gandhi doing his own little bit of  political role-playing while announcing a minimum income guarantee scheme or  as a Congress commitment to kickstart a ‘second war against poverty’.  No one was clear of  the design of  Gandhi’s scheme or the financial outlays but at least it appeared to be a fairly direct attempt to woo the voter and, importantly, seek to change the election narrative away from the post-Balakote muscular nationalism to more core issues of  income generation. Moreover, when you are attempting to galvanise a struggling opposition, you can actually get away by making tall promises while leaving crucial implementation details for a post-poll situation.

Modi, on the other hand, has no reason to be as anxious. Every opinion poll  shows the Modi-led NDA poised to return to power. Post-Balakote, the BJP and the PM  appeared to have got their mojo back, the PM’s strident rhetoric typical of  his robust campaigning style. Why then, even as the model code of  conduct has set in, did the prime minister feel the necessity to seek glory in the name of  scientists? Was this the PM’s way of  reclaiming the headlines which, atleast for the previous two days, had been dominated by Gandhi’s catchy ‘Nyay’ or justice slogan?

After all, much like our soldiers, our scientists embody national pride. By almost co-opting a scientific achievement as his own on election eve, the PM could be accused of once again seeking to place his ‘nationalist’ vote seeking credentials before the country ahead of  the professional autonomy of  DRDO as an institution, the fist-pumping Bharat Mata Ki Jai chant at the end of  his speech mirroring an election speech sign off.

And yet, this is not just about the optics of  one speech: for the last five years, Modi’s image-makers have relentlessly worked to cast their leader as a larger than life hero. From merchandise to movies, from social media to PM television,  Modi is being marketed and projected in 360 degree glossy imagery as a ‘Superman’ who will conquer all before him. Then be it the ‘Main Bhi Chowkidar’ campaign or the ‘Modi hai to Mumkin hai’ tagline, the BJP’s propaganda machine is designed to invest the PM with an aura of  invincibility.

The cult of  personality has often been a part of  nearly every PM’s tool-kit: the ‘India is Indira and Indira is India’ slogan will haunt the Congress forever as will the fact that Jawaharlal Nehru received the Bharat Ratna while in office. The number of  schemes named after members of  the Nehru-Gandhi family are further evidence of  political hagiography. When Vajpayee was prime minister, his pictures would adorn vantage points along his pet Golden Quadrilateral project.

But Modi in his own way is setting new benchmarks. Then, be it petrol pump billboards, Air India and railway tickets, or almost any government project,  Modi’s glossy image is always upfront. Certainly, no government in independent India has spent as much on advertising and marketing itself  as the Modi government. An RTI application last year revealed that the amount spent on propagating government schemes between mid-2014 and September 2018 was nearly Rs 5,000 crore. In the last six months, that amount has been scaled up even higher, suggesting a near-total  capture of  the government machinery for political propaganda.

With his omnipotent presence on ground and in cyberspace,  Modi has been able to not only become the country’s foremost neta but also set the national agenda. Which is perhaps why he was almost pushed by  Gandhi’s pro-poor outreach to respond on TV with his own headline-grabbing moment. Only the manner in which it was done led even social media conversation – normally monopolized by Modi cheerleaders – to question for once the prime minister’s seeming over-eagerness to make the news once again.

Which also suggests that the BJP’s relentless Modi-centric campaign is a double edged-sword: while it converts a parliamentary battle into a presidential-like contest it also can put off  the voter who  instinctively dislikes excessive hubris. Which is why the BJP’s political managers need to tread carefully when continuing to bombard the voter with their endless ‘Modi Shining’ messaging. While an energetic Modi remains the BJP’s prime asset in its 2019 re-election bid, he also runs the risk of  allowing real issues like jobs and agrarian incomes to be lost in a jarring myth making machine centred solely around the individual.

Post-script: While Modi has been celebrated in the last five years, no leader has been perhaps as demonized as Jawaharlal Nehru in this period. And yet, ironically it was Nehru’s far-sightedness that led to the setting up of  the country’s space and defence research programme. Rather than politicize our science establishment by competitive credit-seeking at election time, we should celebrate a fine legacy  that stretches back to India’s first prime minister and the many outstanding scientists this country has produced.