Narendra Modi’s election campaign of 2014 was a sign of our times. We had an unprecedented marketing effort happen in our politics, where top advertising firms brought their expertise – skills that had previously helped sell packaged juices and beauty creams – to a political candidate. Modi received the full marketing facelift, with jingles, punchlines and photo shoots. There was even a Bal Narendra comic, where young Narendra saved a drowning child, swam through crocodile infested waters, and ground herbal medicine for sick relatives.
The result was a candidate who campaigned in a mask, a thing fashioned out of scripted speeches, well-designed visuals, and TV and radio commercials that turned ‘growth’ into a tagline and whitewashed his past. He hired the PR organization APCO, known for its campaigns for dictators, investment banks and MNCs, to work on the massive campaign for Vibrant Gujarat. The managers of the most expensive election campaign in Indian history played the music loud enough to drown out the events of 2002 and all that had followed. The candidate was reinvented for Indian voters as a macho hero with a 56-inch chest. The G-word shifted from Godhra to growth.
It was an attractive mask created for Modi that was also a literal one – Modi mask merchandise did brisk sales among supporters throughout his campaign. Rallies had thousands of people wearing them. To me, the message of the mask was this: with enough money, anyone could become the public Modi.
But what did Modi finally stand for? In the election, he positioned himself as an alternative to the then Central government, but beyond the catchphrases – ‘achhe din’, ‘ab ki baar’, and ‘growth’, when asked supporters couldn’t state what exactly his position was on various issues.
As somebody who probed the growth and development figures from Gujarat, I could see through the cotton-candy image of Gujarat Modi’s marketing campaigns created. But it is impossible for people outside politics not to believe ‘facts’ that were being shown to them with such confidence. Modi was promoting Gujarat in the same breath he was dismissing neighboring, Congress-ruled Maharashtra – which was leading Gujarat in development indicators including in new jobs created, industrial production, wages paid to workers, and growth in state domestic product. But its not surprising to me that Modi and the BJP continued to offer voters hot air instead of clear commitments: when they did it, it worked.
Every party must outline its manifesto, but the BJP released its list of promises at the last minute, on election week in 2014. Their policy positions were an afterthought to the marketing material. This pattern has continued in state elections, where the BJP and its leaders base their appeal on attacking the opposition than on any substantial policy promises.
When it comes to our PM, we only know what he stands against, we still don’t know what he stands for. It’s partly understandable since formulating a policy position involves hard work, perseverance and concession – attributes that aren’t wholly marketable.
And as the government with Modi at its helm progresses through its second year, it seems like the campaign tactics of the election continue in their governance. As Arun Shourie said, they seem to think that ‘managing the economy means managing the headlines’. Instead of learning the ropes of government, they focus on press appearances and speeches. They announce new schemes like the Swachh Bharat Mission, which fail to come close to annual targets. The efforts started by the previous government that they campaigned against – like Aadhaar – they now champion.
The government came into power promising increased spending in education and health but has slashed spending in both of these sectors by nearly 20%. Exports have now fallen for the eleventh month in a row, shrinking by 18% in October. While food prices are falling around the world, in India food prices have gone up for the fourth month in a row. The government talks up ‘Make in India’ while manufacturing sectors like the auto and metals industries are losing jobs. The GDP growth estimates were revised down last week, from 8.1-8.5% to 7-7.5%. The government proclaims a commitment to accountability and anti-corruption efforts while they weakened the Right To Information Act by leaving the Central Information Commissioner role vacant for a prolonged period. Over 30,000 RTI applications are now pending before the RTI Commission.
In the meantime, our Prime Minister is now busy marketing himself to international leaders and the Indian diaspora, raising questions – where does all the money from his event tickets go? And what do the sponsors of these Modi events get in return?
More recently, the Press Information Bureau releases a photoshopped picture of Modi doing an aerial survey of flooded Chennai. The act of conducting an aerial survey was given precedence over details of relief efforts. This is a government that believes it can create its own reality. After all, they’ve done it before.
This Prime Minister is a product of our new age, where customers have grown used to the branding economy. We are accustomed to a blitzkrieg of people selling, selling, selling to us. But should we accept this in our politics? Should we not demand a reasoned debate on the issues? Should we not question a carefully crafted image and purchased popularity? Where one person’s voice and the voice of his supporters are becoming louder than any independent media agency, and work hard to drown out any dissent?
Our online social platforms are powerful new media efforts, but we should be aware of how they can be used in our politics. When I was talking about farmer issues on Twitter, a commenter asked me ‘what I had ever done for farmers?’. The truth is that I have engaged with farmers’ issues both as a citizen and as a former parliamentarian. But this seems to count for little unless I aggressively advertise these achievements online. In this age, if it’s not on Facebook or Twitter, it didn’t happen. This kind of showboating that is required now makes me deeply uncomfortable. My father used to say, ‘The left hand must not know what the right hand is doing’ to suggest that our work must have a certain focus and selflessness attached to it. This new brazenness in our politics however, suggests that the culture of display is displacing what we once prized: the culture of work.
Today, as Modi stays silent while his government suppresses dissent and Photoshops both its media releases and its achievements, we must remind ourselves that leaders must deliver results before we can support them. Politics is a place for ideas, not packaging; it’s about bringing forward an ethical, well-thought out platform rather than tweetable one-liners.
The hiring of publicists and marketers is a worrying trend in our politics. It is beyond doubt that governments and leaders need to communicate better. However, the question is: what do we prioritize? Leaders are subscribing to the idea that a glossy campaign is enough to secure and retain power. What governments ought to do before mounting a PR operation is invest in development experts, statisticians, technologists and others who can help the science of governance, rather than just the art of campaign. Else all that the government is offering us is mediocre achievements wrapped up in a shiny package. And if we as voters and the public don’t examine their claims closely enough, we will allow them to keep selling us a fantasy, where the music plays and the dancers circle on the stage while the real world grinds by outside.
Until that changes, we have a Prime Minister who sees himself the way his handlers see him: as a product. And it is anyone’s guess what we will see as the mask starts to slip.