Modi Government: Minimum Debate, Maximum Marketing
PM Modi’s trademark style ushers in a kind of populism India hadn’t yet seen. However, it is in tune with the latest turn democracies are taking...
Five years back, veteran BJP leader LK Advani called Narendra Modi a “brilliant event manager”.
The occasion: Advani was launching his campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Gandhinagar, from where he got elected. Modi was not yet Prime Minister, but was about to win a landslide victory.
Five years on, as Modi looks to come back to power, Advani’s words ring true.
The Prime Minister’s filing of his nomination papers at Varanasi was a typical Modi event, perhaps the last of his present term. There was a massive road show, all NDA leaders were in attendance, and there was some symbolic touching of feet. He touched the feet of former Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and also of Annapurna Shukla, an aged academic who knew Banaras Hindu University (BHU) founder and veteran Congress leader Madan Mohan Malaviya very well. She was one of the proposers for his nomination.
In 2014, when the BJP under Modi won a majority in the Lok Sabha, Modi had dramatically bent down and touched his forehead to the stairs leading to the Parliament building. The gesture was captured on camera, much like his gestures of touching the feet of Advani or Badal have been captured on camera and become “news”.
In a country where politicians often touch the feet of their seniors so as to be seen in sync with the “cultural ethos” of large parts of India, Modi touching anyone’s feet becomes “news”. As CPI candidate from Begusarai Kanhaiya Kumar once said at an event, the camera generally does not follow a person meeting his mother and touching her feet. The Prime Minister, Kumar added, was the lone exception to this rule.
In February, 2019, Modi put out a video of his washing the feet of sanitation workers of the Allahabad Municipal Corporation, describing the gesture as an “act of worship”.
Five years of the Modi government have seen many events showcasing the Prime Minister. Most of these are spectacular but symbolic. They tell citizens little about policy. All they evoke is faith, awe or -- for critics of the government -- ridicule.
These events are framed in a way that seeks to showcase his “intent”. They also aim at creating the image of a spectacular leader. And as one symbolic event follows another – with the television media covering each in the hope of TRPs – there is little scope for an informed discussion on the efficacy, implementation and outcome of Modi’s policies.
Policies are, in fact, launched as “events”. However, there is little scope for assessing how they fared, except in the pages of some newspapers and websites that put them in perspective later.
“It is a particular kind of populism that offers a sense of empowerment to people who lack access to knowledge and sometimes even literacy. It is an attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator,” eminent social scientist Ashis Nandy told Asiaville. “This isn’t just found in India but is now a common, global phenomenon. Be it Modi or Trump, we find signs of this.”
One publicised, spectacular, event after another is what captures the government’s style best – something Advani seemed to have understood about the leader he once mentored years back. Should Modi return to power again – as he indeed may – one may witness more such mega-events.
Clearly, Modi’s term has been different from the terms of his predecessors in India in terms of event management and marketing.
When the Modi government decided to celebrate International Yoga Day in 2015 with much fanfare, the Prime Minister himself led a large group of young practitioners of yoga to perform some televised asanas. Amid much admiration from many people, some pointed out on the social media that he was not sitting in the full padmasana posture, unlike those behind him. Union Ministers – many of whom did not seem to be yoga practitioners by appearance – performed elementary yoga poses across the country.
Another video showed Modi walk backwards and break into a very slow, brief, jog at his official residence. After a cut in the frame, he was seen lying on a large stone, his face towards the sky.
The introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) was no less a spectacle. In fact, in what many saw as a case of overkill, the government summoned a midnight sitting of Parliament to announce the implementation of the measure. It was almost like a second independence: Indian independence was announced in 1947 with a midnight speech by Jawaharlal Nehru.
Swachh Bharat was another typical Modi event. It was marked with ambitious promises of the fulfilment of Mahatma Gandhi’s dream. Soon, calendars featuring Modi symbolically wielding the broom began to adorn the walls of bureaucratic offices in the national capital.
It was as if symbolism and the loud proclamation of “intent” – something perhaps unprecedented in 70 years – were a good substitute to a hard analysis of how government policies were faring.
To those who would want to probe deeper, there were repeated instances of irony. If demonetisation came with a televised address on November 8, 2016, the fact that an NSSO report suggested massive job losses – in fact, unemployment has reached a 45-year high – came as an eye opener. The government, which has insisted that demonetisation was a useful measure despite top economists red-flagging it, did not release the report. Eventually, it was leaked to Business Standard, but the government refused to accept it as an accurate description of the job situation.
No less an irony was the Prime Minister’s highly publicised book ‘Exam Warriors’, which offered students tips on handling examination pressure. There was also an event to release the book, where Modi addressed students brought from different schools. Many wondered what Modi’s expertise on examinations was. However, the CBSE itself failed to handle exam pressure, with reports of leakage of question papers coming as an embarrassment. Former CBSE officials claimed one reason was that the practice of printing multiple sets of question papers was discontinued that very year.
However, despite setbacks flagged by experts, the government moved from one event to another, drowning the process of governance in the hype of events.
A term that began with a symbolic show – with Modi bowing before Parliament and choking with emotion while addressing Advani – is also ending with a symbolic show at Varanasi.
In other words, it is symbolism rather than substance that is continuing to determine the BJP’s 2019 election campaign. And it may well determine the way the next government functions, since it has become a new “normal”.