The manner in which an announcement from Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 27, urging the nation to stand by for an important announcement between 11.45 and 12 noon, reached a wide swathe of the population was remarkable. The almost instant awareness of it across the country, regardless of class or location, gestures to three significant realities.
First, it demonstrated that the sharpness of the memory of that 10.15 pm unscheduled TV broadcast of November 9, 2016, when the PM announced demonetisation, has not been blunted. Second, it showed that ever since the Balakot strikes, anxiety over the escalation of hostilities between India and Pakistan in an election season, has permeated popular consciousness — not perhaps in the triumphalist, muscular register of the BJP, but more in terms of the real negative repercussions war would have on their lives. But there is a third reality — the high level of mediatisation of Indian society. Most important to note in this context is that the PM has been able to consolidate for himself immense media capital and the power it affords, so that he can now effortlessly put out messages in a one-to-many, efficient, intimate and uni-directional way.
Such a capacity for mass messaging allows him to embody and express the aspirations of those who support him, not just voters, but some of the biggest corporates. Institutional oversight over such messaging is almost impossible to achieve, given such a powerful presence and the dilemma facing the Election Commission, on deciding whether Modi had breached the model code, despite going public with the fact that permission was not sought, would indicate this.
Let us then consider some of the media ammunition that lies in the Modi war chest. For one, he has succeeded in suborning the independence of mainstream media through a combination of corporate influence, direct benefit transfers, and the mailed fist. For another, he is recognised today as the world’s most social media savvy politician. Even Donald Trump has been left behind, to gauge by his Instagram profile. Image-driven Instagram, let us remember, is the latest, shiniest thing on the social media block. A recent assessment indicates that while Trump has 10 million followers on this platform, Modi has 14.8 million. The numbers of Modi’s other social media workhorses are similarly mind-boggling with Facebook followers, at over 43 million, being 20 million more than Trump’s.
This is the base on which Modi has built another tier of social media interactivity: Through highly personalised apps. The NaMo app was introduced during the last general election as a platform for “volunteers” to receive messages directly from him. This was rejigged for wider application a year after he came to power and is now even offered as a pre-installed add-on with the Reliance Jio phone. The multiplier effect of this is marked. Content from this app makes its way into all manner of Facebook and WhatsApp accounts, gets tweeted and Instagrammed widely. Yet no fact-checking goes into it. As an assessment noted, the absence of content moderation makes it a fount of communal propaganda and fake news. Another app, this time appearing to be independent, goes by the name of MyGov. Its website claims it has “7,937.08 K” registered users, to date.
While it exists ostensibly to provide information on the Modi government’s initiatives, its propagandist intent is written all over. There are innumerable other interventions. NaMo TV focused only on Modi’s speeches, first used in Gujarat, is now a national channel in itself, available on YouTube. Plans are on to beam it directly into homes.
Given this machinery for self-communication at Modi’s command, just what did that surgical strike on voters’ attention in announcing Mission Shakti seek to achieve? It was clearly an attempt to retrieve the post-Balakot narrative of Modi as a strong, capable and decisive leader, one that tended to get lost in the welter of oppositional signaling. The whole thing was choreographed to perfection, even the delay of about an hour before the telecast helped build up anticipation and thicken the crowds. Mission Shakti was designed to reduce NYAY to a nay and tar all those who criticised the PM as anti-national. If, after Balakot, raising questions about the air strikes was anti-army, critiquing the timing of the announcement was “anti-scientists”.
Post the announcement, TV channels built on the narrative — with fantastic backdrops of missiles spinning through space. When the PM began his Meerut election speech a day later, it was headlined: “The PM’s first rally after Mission Shakti”. The campaign for Election 2019 has only just begun. Indian voters must prepare themselves for the incredible, the implausible — and perhaps even the impossible.
The writer’s new book is Media’s Shifting Terrain