When Narendra Modi takes the stage

Narendra Modi rallies have, in recent times, gone on to become full-fledged stage productions involving light. Narendra Modi rallies have, in recent times, gone on to become full-fledged stage productions involving light.

The grammar of political rallies has been re-written by the tech blitz involved in the BJP PM candidate’s meetings. Johnson T A looks at what goes into the making of the Narendra Modi persona, from sound, shirts and cameras, to crowds, speeches and inputs from Gujarat Photographs by Kashif Masood.

The night before Narendra Modi is to arrive in the northern Karnataka town of Hubli on February 28, senior BJP leader and party spokesman C T Ravi has a go at the public address system that is being tested ahead of the party prime ministerial candidate’s big rally.

Ravi, like Modi, prides himself on being a firebrand orator. He loves his own voice as well. He launches into a full-fledged speech about the misdeeds of the UPA government. It does not matter to him that he is speaking only to empty chairs and the people unloading them.

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He can’t resist the sound amplification provided by the 140 speakers spread all around the empty arena either. In the light of the setting sun, with dusk creeping in, standing on a stage in front of a giant LED screen, with 12 LED screens interspersed among the 1.5 lakh chairs, he cannot be faulted for feeling like a rock star while doing the sound check.

Narendra Modi rallies have, in recent times, gone on to become full-fledged stage productions involving light, sound, carefully chosen music, stage design and sky cameras — all intended to enhance viewer experience and build the Modi brand.

The grammar of political rallies has been largely re-written by the tech blitz involved in the Gujarat Chief Minister’s meetings. The rallies are no longer places where you chomp on peanuts, sip tea, brave the sun and wait among masses for the headlining speaker to deliver a monologue. But if parties across the board are attempting to make campaign rallies an experience now, the biggest productions continue to be Modi’s.

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Like any big production though, the backstage is a picture of chaos before order is restored at show time.

For the BJP in Hubli-Dharwad, one of the biggest challenges ahead of the Modi rally was finding the right venue. With over two lakh people expected, the traditional grounds — Nehru Maidan and the Railway Sports Ground in Hubli — were rendered out of bounds by local authorities.

Finally, it was decided that 63 acres of jowar fields located around 2 km outside the city and recently acquired by a few real estate developers of Hubli would be appropriate. “The land belongs to a few local developers and one of our leaders, Ashok Katti, owns about 17 acres. This is being used due to security and traffic concerns,” says Veeresh Sanglad, the Dharwad spokesman for the BJP.

In the course of his speech at the rally, Modi would make a reference to the owners who allowed the land to be used, but add that the owners are farmers. “When farmers give their land for a rally like this, it also means they will give their votes,” is how he frames his political message.

The inputs for his speech at any particular rally as well as the security at that venue are issues on which Modi and his office are personally involved. The rest is standard procedure, with the local BJP leadership now well drilled in it.

“We provided the local inputs for incorporating in his speech a few days ago. This was our own decision,” says state BJP president Prahlad Joshi, the party’s Member of Parliament from Hubli. The Modi rally at Hubli is Joshi’s baby.

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Among the local issues that Modi touches upon in his speech are the strong RSS roots in the region on account of a few leaders. Hubli was the first region in Karnataka where the erstwhile Jan Sangh, the precursor of the BJP, achieved power of some form. The city is among the communally sensitive cities of the state on account of a strong polarisation of communities on religious lines.

The RSS network forms the core of the BJP’s support base in the region. “It is a huge challenge to organise a rally of this scale, but we have a very good network of workers who can pull it off,” says Joshi.

One of the key elements of the Modi rally is publicity paraphernalia, especially T-shirts, banners, scarves and caps, handed out for distribution. Workers attached to the minority cell and Yuva Morcha pay multiple visits to the BJP district office before they receive the publicity paraphernalia on the morning of the rally. A minority cell leader is heard issuing a warning that his boys will be upset if they don’t receive their material early enough. On the morning of the rally, he is beaming as he digs into the trunk of a car to distribute Modi T-shirts to his 50-odd boys.

Earlier, as work on putting up the nearly 12-ft-high stage is on, a four-man bomb disposal squad and a four-man special operations group of the Gujarat Police fly in to oversee. On rally day, Modi addresses the crowd from within a giant pink lotus replica. An alternative bullet-proof counter as well as pictures of resplendent waterfalls are all in place on the stage.

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A member of the Gujarat Police bomb disposal squad says they came to Hubli on a flight. “We used to travel earlier by road, but a few months ago, two members of our bomb squad were killed in an accident in Bihar. The Chief Minister has insisted that we now travel by train or air. Our job is to sanitise the stage and any areas the Chief Minister will venture. The special operations group works with the police in deciding the entrances and exits for the venue, to reduce risks,” the squad member says.

The crowd mobilisation is largely entrusted to local BJP and RSS leaders. At a meeting on February 17, 11 days before the rally, Prahlad Joshi sets workers a target of bringing in 4,000-5,000 people from each of the 67 city wards in Hubli. One lakh is his target for Hubli alone.

The rally day sees lukewarm response from the twin cities of Hubli and Dharwad. Many buses from the new town of Navanagar bring hardly two to three people. “How will daily wage earners lose a day’s pay and come here?” shrugs D Kulkarni, a retired government employee who has come for the rally on a bus from Navanagar.

Some BJP workers too complain of top local leaders not contributing enough. “We called up a leader and said we will have to bring in people, but he only said go ahead. How can we go ahead without finances?” says a local BJP leader of Dharwad.

The grounds, however, fill up later, the numbers made up by people arriving from the districts of Haveri and Gadag. “We have also been associated with the BJP for a long time,” says Sharanappa Uppar, 64, a farmer from the Ron region in Gadag who made the over 150 km trip along with some 150 busloads of other farmers from Ron.

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The highlight of the Modi show is definitely the sound, light and LED screen effects, used to add depth and breadth to the Modi persona.

“We have a collection of four videos and four songs that will play during the rally. The videos are still images of Modiji as well as moving pictures of his activities. They will appear on the giant LED screen on the stage as well as the 12 small LED screens fitted around the venue. We have also designed a logo of the Modi campaign slogan ‘Help India Win’ for the LED screen, that will be played during his speech.  The songs and videos have all been approved by the BJP leadership in the state,” says Ashwin Nagane, 24, the founder of Hubli-based Softlinkz Infotech, which is responsible for the IT on stage during the Modi rally, along with two RSS volunteers.

The videos attempt to show Modi as a powerful leader who interacts with different sections of society. There are pictures of the Gujarat Chief Minister performing puja in a yoga posture as well as those of him wagging his finger at rallies — all accompanied by songs that proclaim him a saviour of the nation. One song in Hindi goes, ‘Modi aane wala hai’, another proclaims him a ‘shahenshah (emperor)’.

While one Kannada song that has flashing images with a NaMo, NaMo chant as its catchline hails the Gujarat Chief Minister as a man who will lead India to progress, a second Kannada song, which is a popular hit sung by movie legend Dr Rajkumar, basically says, “I am there for you, this land is for you, dry your tears.”

The videos and songs chosen by the BJP leadership are shown on screens provided by Bangalore-based visual productions company Dynamic Colors, which also grabs aerial images of the crowd with two sky cameras placed on a crane. These are intermittently shown on the LED screens. The sound is provided by Bangalore-based sound technicians Kiran Systems.

“Some 200 people have been working on this rally for the past one week on different aspects — the stage design, the LED walls, the sound system, the barricades,” says Babu Rao, the owner of Hubli Shamiana, who was responsible for the stage, the chairs, the giant cutouts of local and national BJP leaders and the overall arena preparations.

When Modi finally arrives at the venue some two hours behind schedule on February 28, BJP spokesperson C T Ravi is back at the mic, getting the crowd to chant “Ghar, Ghar Modi” in response to his chant of “Har Har Modi”.

The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate is visibly pleased. “Each party leader is trying to outdo the other by organising bigger rallies in Karnataka,” Modi smiles. “Each rally has been bigger than the other. This is good.