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Friday, April 03, 2020

Manufacturing Victory

An intrepid reporter’s account of how the NaMo effect mesmerised voters across the country.

Written by Coomi Kapoor | Updated: January 5, 2020 7:59:12 am
Book cover of 2019: How Modi Won India.

Title: 2019: How Modi Won India
Author: RAJDEEP SARDESAI
Publication: Harper India
Pages: 392
Price: Rs 699

It was a David versus Goliath match, in which David could not wrest the miracle of a hung Parliament: Prime Minister Narendra Modi completely outmanoeuvred his rivals in the 2019 campaign. In fact, the victory far eclipsed his 2014 triumph. While in 2014, he had the advantage of being the outsider — offering the moon and taking on a discredited establishment, in 2019, Modi had to face the challenge of incumbency and unfulfilled promises. But the formidable Modi-Amit Shah duo pulled off an electoral  victory which surpassed that of 2014. They raised the bar of the campaign to a totally different level of outreach. In the new electoral reality, there was no longer room for laid back part-time politicians. The BJP in election mode functions not as a political party but as a ruthless corporate machine. Politics is a do-or-die business in which the minutest detail is meticulously scrutinised by hard-nosed backroom boys.

In the book, veteran journalist Rajdeep Sardesai analysing the carefully planned campaign for marketing Modi, conceived more than two years back with the help of highly skilled technocrats, brings out the extent of planning and build-up of a multi-pronged communication network. After Shah took over as party president, the BJP membership shot up dramatically. It was two crore when Shah became president and is now around 11 crore. Call centres kept tabs of the personal details of every member: from voter IDs to mobile numbers and addresses. The data was fed into computers accessible to the party leadership. Shah boasted that with one SMS he could connect instantaneously to one lakh workers. Poll booth committees of between 15 and 30 workers were formed for some 8.63 lakh election booths across the country.

Six months before the polls the BJP organised 161 round-the-clock call centres for tele-marketing. The centres were provided a detailed list of the 22 crore beneficiaries of various government schemes such as Swachh Bharat, Ujjwala, the Jan Dhan Yojana,  Awas Yojana, Ayushman Bharat. They were then asked to contact the beneficiaries through SMS, WhatsApp, e-mail or personal visits, to remind them of how they had benefited from the Prime Minister’s programmes. Many of the 15,000-strong call-centre staff were paid employees who, in turn, provided feedback from the ground to the BJP booth committees. The outreach was  awe-inspiring, though the author questions whether it was above board. The lines between the government and the party were completely blurred: official agencies were passing on private information concerning beneficiaries.

Another advantage was that Rahul Gandhi ran a confused, diffused and disoriented campaign. He was convinced of the  effectiveness of the “Chowkidar Chor Hai” slogan, even though party elders tried to tell him it held little appeal for voters. Rahul Gandhi resisted giving interviews even to sympathetic journalists and was sometimes disdainful of his own party leaders. Unlike his sister Priyanka, he still remains uncomfortable in the political space. His close advisers are from his social circle of left-leaning intellectuals, out of touch with Indian reality.

Still, Rahul Gandhi had a legitimate grievance that he was  not fighting on a level playing field. The BJP stooped to every trick in the trade. It whipped up Islamophobia and polarised the atmosphere. The BJP’s army of trolls filled the internet with toxic messages. A pliable media played along with the ruling party, conscious that the information ministry had a monitoring cell which kept tabs on who filed what. The Election Commission’s role was suspect. It raised no objection even to a NaMo TV channel opening up just two weeks before the election, without official permission. It meekly accepted the argument that it was a DTH advertising platform. India’s first multimedia campaign marketed the PM’s larger-than-life image everywhere: TV screens, mobiles, online, books, movies and billboards. Even before Pulwama and Balakot, Modi was in the driver’s seat, but after the Pakistan attack the narrative turned decisively in his favour. The ruling party did not shy away from taking the credit for the performance of our defence forces.

Sardesai, a popular TV personality and columnist, was on the election beat for months, travelling all over the country. With an alert and inquisitive reporter’s instinct and refreshing boldness, at a time when journalistic candour is fast diminishing, Sardesai provides fascinating insight into Shah’s systematic build-up of Modi over the last few years (among the interesting anecdotes, Sardesai quotes a Gujarat-based journalist recalling that Shah as home minister in Gandhinagar once organised a demonstration of an Israeli phone-tapping machine for police officers and home ministry officials). However, even the resourceful Sardesai has not quite succeeded in penetrating the inner circles of the regimented and secretive party. He is unable to give us an insider’s account of how decisions were arrived at and what happened behind closed doors during the campaign.

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