Modi has positioned himself not just as a leader, but also as an object of mass consumption — a strategy that speaks of our times.
Even the BJP prime ministerial candidate’s most ardent supporter would agree that there is something baffling about the Narendra Modi phenomenon. It is not often that someone turns public opinion around in the dramatic fashion that he has managed. Commuting nationwide repugnance into widespread adoration would seem an impossible task for the most dexterous alchemist; yet, he has done it, and in just a little over a decade. This startling turnaround is not the only unusual factor in his case. He is probably the first sitting chief minister to be confirmed as a prime ministerial candidate by a national party. And this is even though he has neither seniority nor political lineage, essential qualifications for seekers of high office. Indeed, he has gone farther in a shorter time than any Indian politician outside
of a political dynasty.
Modi’s handlers would probably think these musings superfluous. The 2002 violence is history after the courts gave him a “clean chit”, they are likely to say, and the career bump is not a matter of wonder, just apiece with the awe-inspiring job he has done in Gujarat. And this brings us to the other perplexing matter nobody is quite clear about: what it is that he is purported to have done in Gujarat. Comparative data from across the country disproves Gujarat’s claims of exceptionally high growth or snowballing foreign investment. On human indicators, Gujarat has disappointed and environmentalists and civil libertarians are concerned about many of Modi’s policies.
Even assuming that considerable development has taken place and Gujaratis are happy with Modi’s governance (and their repeated faith reposed in him at the hustings seems to suggest as much), is their satisfaction proof enough for the rest of India of the viability of Modi’s vision?
Since he has arrived on the national scene, Modi has acquired a reputation for tall claims (remember the story about rescuing 15,000 Gujaratis from flood-hit Uttarakhand?). His speeches, full of hyperbole, familiar taunts and rhetorical flourish, may be stirring but do not suggest that he has workable solutions for the country’s problems. He avoids putting himself into situations he cannot control. He rarely gives interviews and has been known to terminate conversations with journalists when the questions make him uncomfortable.
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And yet, opinion polls show him to be the frontrunner in the prime ministerial stakes, which means he has convinced a lot of people that he is a leader to be trusted. I am not saying they are wrong, but how has a leader who offers so little credible information managed to be so wildly persuasive?
If I were to say that Modi has done it by successfully using the seductive power of the media since 2002, I can anticipate two reactions: one possibly sceptical, given the negative nature of the coverage for the better part of his political career; and two, an assumption that I am referring to recent whispers of a propaganda effort by corporate entities with a foothold in the media. These may be facts but my argument here is different. I am not talking about negative or positive hype but the power of sheer visibility.
Let me digress for a moment to draw attention to certain conventions in the media. I am thinking not of news, but the entertainment media. In particular, I am thinking about how characters are conceived and presented in soap operas. There is a certain pattern that unites fictional figures across languages and cultures. They are likely to be played by actors who are presentable in appearance. They are likely to speak in clichés (“What are you doing here?”; “Main badla leke rahungi”). They are likely to repeat gestures and act in predictable ways, usually exhibiting a single trait that defines and drives them. In real life, such people would be tedious. Yet, when we watch them up close, night after night and in teasers and reruns, we become hooked. We look forward to seeing them. We laugh or “tch tch” in a knowing way at their expected ways of behaving. They become real to us, drawing responses as predictable as their actions.
Advertisers know the power of this peculiar mix of charisma, frequency and repetition. They know that it has the ability to dull the inquiring mind and to feed the addictive urge, like a drug or a sugar rush. When the conventions of these entertainment-cum-marketing formats (soap operas were made to sell detergent to housewives) are deployed in the real world, they can mesmerise us, even suspend our powers of discrimination. The bombardment of the media with images of the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 9/11 was imperative for creating a miasma of public consensus for the invasion of Afghanistan. Media savvy Ronald Reagan was called the “Teflon” president for his apparent invulnerability to the adverse consequences of his actions as president of the US. The social scientist David Harvey maintains that “an image dominated aestheticising regime is displacing a mode of ethical apprehension”.
How the media covered Modi is not relevant at the moment, but the fact that he has been the staple diet of our media since 2002 is. Equally significant is his understanding of how to harness the potential of his extreme visibility by becoming the embodiment of our hopes and dreams. If my hypothesis seems far-fetched, then consider the fact that Arvind Kejriwal, who thrives on the media gaze as much as Modi, is already a contender in the opinion polls for prime ministerial candidates even though his party is less than 18 months old.
Modi has positioned himself not just as a leader, but also as an object of mass consumption. The ongoing election is seeing the first generation of voters born after liberalisation and the arrival of satellite television. It is a strategy that speaks of our times.
The writer is at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.