Joseph Stalin, the tale goes, wanted to commemorate Vladimir Lenin — to show his respect for the architect of the Russian Revolution — by building a statue to honour the latter on his birth anniversary. When the statue, designed by Stalin himself, was finally unveiled, Lenin was nowhere to be seen. Finally, a scared member of the Central Committee asked: “Comrade, a fine piece of public art. You look particularly strong and brilliant reading that book. But… ummm… wasn’t it supposed to honour Lenin?” “Well,” replied the General Secretary, “can’t you see I’m reading his book?”
The content of propaganda, much like pornography, is meant to serve a single purpose. When the government, and in some cases the state itself, is an ideologically driven one, the task of honing that message becomes both simpler and more difficult.
The current NDA government has spent considerable resources communicating the successes of its programmes and initiatives. In terms of its final goal, the campaigns of the BJP and Union government have a simple, easily discernible end: To showcase the prime minister as the final arbiter and first cause of achche din. In terms of actually achieving this goal, complex and subtle shifts are underway in how mass communication takes place.
Government ads, of course, are nothing new. And statues (while more modest than the Statue of Unity), are hardly a rarity across the country. The difference, in marketing and advertising terms, lies in the brand that the ongoing information carpet bombing is meant to build.
The first discernible change is how policies are now publicised. Take the ads proclaiming the success of the PM’s Ujjwala Yojana. In essence, they bear the same child-like enunciation, the resort to cliche and a sort of throwback to a time before the high-definition sheen of the digital era. The key difference from earlier government ads lies in the message: Prime Minister Modi saved my life, freed me from drudgery through a gas connection, the “rural woman” declares. The PM is presented as a personal saviour, not merely a political leader in distant Delhi.
Even when the PM is not directly the subject of a particular image, he is what the visual alludes to. Two photographs, both relatively recent, are symptomatic of this endeavour. The first is a photo of the prime minister in a regal pose, looking with satisfaction at the Statue of Unity in the distance. The second is more on the nose: Modi is touching up his own wax statue at Madame Tussaud’s.
The attempt that is being made in New India is not novel. In commercial advertising, a truly successful brand is an open signifier. In other words, an image or word does not contain one stable meaning, but rather, is shorn of its context and history — facts of any sort really. This is what makes it possible for the idea to try and gain seemingly universal appeal. Take the Nike logo, a simple tick mark. The symbol stands for more than just running shoes (its original USP) or apparel or any single or group of items that build up the inventory of the company. Now, if that tick mark appears backed by the company on, say, bottled water, it is still a Nike product, despite not bearing even a family resemblance to what the company was all about in the first place. Of course, in Nike’s case, the expansion of the logo is still far from universal — the new product will still have to be sold as a “sporty” or “active” drink.
A similar attempt is now being made with a person, the prime minister — to create a brand, an image to which all future achievements and works are attributed to. But it is precisely because of his complexity, and the contours of the ideological formation he belongs to, that the prime minister cannot be so easily emptied out of his context and meaning.
In terms of political propaganda, one of the most successful open, near universal signifiers was the Nazi Swastika. As Malcolm Quinn convincingly illustrates in Swastika: Constructing the Symbol, the actual image of a hooked cross appears across times, geographies and civilisations. It took a significant advertising (propaganda) efforts to destroy its history, cultural diversity and differences in meaning to make it a symbol of anti-semitism, totalitarianism and bigotry for much of the Western world. And a symbol of nationalism, racial pride and strength in the Third Reich.
Logos and symbols, of course, are far easier to manipulate and create anew than people. Why, then, haven’t the lotus and the galaxy of leaders in the Sangh Parivar — rather than a single person — been at the centre of political communication for the last four-odd years? Why try to make one man, however popular, take the credit and even perhaps the responsibility for all government action?
One of the appeals of the Sangh and the BJP was and continues to be the purported absence of dynasty in their top leadership. Rather than the Nehru-Gandhi parivar of the Congress, which has certainly imprinted its name across schemes and roads and airports, an ideological parivar was on offer — one whose politics was, in their own understanding, unsullied by cults of personality. The compulsions of electoral politics seem to have changed all that.
The task now, as the brand-building exercise continues to progress, will be two-fold. First, any failings past or present of the signifier will be erased. This will be a tough exercise because, unlike in Stalin’s Russia, an opposition does exist and while it may now, in part, be responding to an agenda rather than setting it, that could change with a few electoral reversals. Second, and even more difficult, is the fact that with a signifier that is also a person with a history and politics of his own, not all figures are appropriated easily to serve his image.
Despite its attempts, the current government’s co-opting a figure like Sardar Patel will only be partially successful. A Statue Of Unity can, of course, be so huge as to over-awe a sense of history. And perhaps all Lenin is reduced to is someone Stalin read. On the other hand, its size could also bear testimony to the differences between Iron Men, the contrast between two projects of nation-building.
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