2018, Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

The master of spin

Ripples of the Modi marketing tide have already begun to roll

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Those who noticed will already know that Graeme Smith, the former South Africa cricket captain, has flagged off the Narendra Modi campaign for 2019. For those that did not, here is how it happened. May 27, the first day of the last year of Modi’s term. A pulsating corner of the Wankhede arena, where the final game of the Indian Premier League was about to get under way. Smith stood kitted out in traditional regalia – rust kurta (Sunil Gavaskar would follow sporting saffron and oblige with his own pitch, but not yet), linen mantilla streaming down his neck to the knees, churidars and kolhapuris to boot. The pre-match show had warmed up just right when the big question was popped to Smith. It wasn’t who’d take the IPL trophy but what he thought of the “prime minister’s great fitness initiative” which had by then already been promoted to viral-grade. Off went Smith and his interlocutor from the screens, and all of the Wankhede green along with them, and in floated Modi in padmasana, hands folded – ” Mere pyare bhaiyon, behnon, deshwasiyon” and so on. By the time the clip ended and Smith came back on camera, he was shedding petals of adulation like a tree shaken in fall – great, stupendous, fantastic, so inspiring, I mean what can one say… The prime minister and his fitness footage would recur many times over that evening, many great cricketing trees would line up to be shaken, then fawn and foam with all manner of blandishment as contribution to a cunning work of propaganda. The closing fixture of IPL 2018 had become Modi’s opening gambit for the Indian premier league of 2019.

Say what you will of him, but Narendra Modi has a killer’s sense of the moment and an opportunist’s unabashedness to grab it. He is a genius of the photo-opportunity, such that he has reduced the camera to a duteous devotee of his postures. Postures that often require key members of his Close Protection Team to be off-frame so he is left in solitary grandeur while the shutters work. Postures that often make his VVIP guests or hosts wonder why India’s prime minister has suddenly broken into a solo pantomime of gesturing. Postures that he often astutely plots ahead with megalomaniacal attention to detail, as at Santiniketan recently when an ardent supporter was said to have breached security to arrive prostrated at his feet. There was no breach, as the untroubled demeanour of the SPG guard in the near background amply suggested. What was there was the crafting of a photograph that would burn the wires.

The high-octane insertion of Narendra Modi into the IPL final eyeballs was no accident. It was a choreographed manoeuvre, as meticulous as it was astute. A week or so before the final game, a minister in government puts out footage of himself doing push-ups at work, tags the likes of Virat Kohli and throws a fitness challenge on Twitter. Kohli picks up the gauntlet, as if on cue, records a bit of his own regime (this happens, ironically, on the day a neck strain rules him out of a preparatory County stint in England) and tags the prime minister with a dare. The prime minister picks the gauntlet with alacrity. As do many other ministerial colleagues, burning what heaving calories of loyalty can be burnt on a Twitter clip. In no time, all of this has been sent to the editing rooms and out rolls a fitness montage mounted by Modi. Just in time for the ultimate IPL night.

Narendra Modi is the biggest, keenest, most extravagant propagandist India has ever seen, and the show’s not over yet. It is fair to surmise, in fact, that it is just about to be refreshed. This is, after all, the final lap of his first stint in power, a stint he desperately wants renewed next summer. Brace yourselves, people, there’s going to be more Narendra Modi about you in the coming months than there has ever been before.

Ripples of the Modi marketing tide have already begun to roll. These past years, Modi has embossed himself on every government calendar page, every government handout or pamphlet, on occasion even obliterating Mahatma Gandhi whose airbrushing is survived only by his round rims on cleansing commercials. He stares down from every other billboard, his puffery pours out of every other promotional on the FM waves – ghar, sadak, bijli, school, khana, karkhana, hospital, bus, loan, insurance, gas, tractor, paani, ‘Modi ji ne diya hai‘. The gratified tone of it suggests a fuller sentence: ‘Modiji ne diya haiapni jeb se.’

Never has a prime minister been armed with such a formidable marketing machine, one that is equipped to promote its master and pulverize his adversaries alike. It is not merely down to known tools of government that establishments even before Modi’s have put to sumptuous and profligate use. It is not merely the information and broadcasting behemoth Modi relies on. It is each minister in government, each of their departments, each party functionary, each social media bay that is overtly or covertly his surrogate, each PR firm he engages, each crony camera in each of the now many captive channels. Add to those the energies of his own indefatigable self. Modi, like many others who ply the trade, doubtless has seldom been averse to beating his own drum. When he chances upon a drum, as during his just-concluded Southeast Asia visit, he seems to delight in giving it a robust thwack. At home, the maestro has amassed the aforementioned orchestra as accompaniment. You’ll seldom get to see a television feed of Modi’s from agencies that he or his spin-doctors have not licensed. That’s been his signature style since before he ascended to power, since that first big foray he made as challenger in the auditorium of Delhi’s Shri Ram College of Commerce; the cameras and their angles were all his, the feed was yours to play. So even in a losing campaign Modi comes across as a most hankered-after heart-throb, the front-rows always tutored on that raucous chant that has been repeated so oft, it bears no repetition. You heard it.

You’ll hear it more and more this coming year. You might even begin to think of it as overkill. But it will be required overkill because Modi has underperformed. He may, in fact, have already charted between 2014 and now the widest arc between promise and delivery. Pledges on growth and employment are in nosedive. Prices are in spiral. Trust in public banking lies severely jolted, as a combined consequence of demonetization and its corollary apprehensions, mounting NPAs, and unabated scandal in the banking bureaucracy. Imports are leaping, especially in the electronics sector; exports, as a percentage of GDP, are down from 17 odd per cent in 2014 to 12 odd per cent. Make in India is a slogan the prime minister has stopped to cry. The farm sector is in vociferous outcry. Recent news from the hustings has offered little comfort. A lot requires to be addressed. That will be done, in fair measure, by the biggest-ever run on the public purse for political profit: Rs 43432600000 is what the Modi government had already spent on advertising itself until a few months ago; it’s moot where that number might head by the time his first term is done. A question might gently and justly be asked: Who’s paying?

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