Narendra Modi and the allure of marketing

How much marketing can a country absorb before it becomes inimical to its health? India may have reached that point.


Narendra Modi is almost single handedly holding up the large cracks in the so-called demonetisation process without concomitant overhauling of the taxation system and systemic corruption which creates and sustains the black economy. Photo: Reuters
Narendra Modi is almost single handedly holding up the large cracks in the so-called demonetisation process without concomitant overhauling of the taxation system and systemic corruption which creates and sustains the black economy. Photo: Reuters

Those associated with marketing know how seductive the process can be. Sometimes, it can even infect a prime minister.

The Prime Minister of India’s official website proclaims in eleven languages: “Dynamic, dedicated and determined, Narendra Modi arrives as a ray of hope in the lives of a billion Indians.” And what after Modi—if that future can even be imagined with today’s propaganda clutter and cult of personality: after the ‘ray of hope’, the ‘Shah of India’?

We need to ask: how much marketing can a country absorb before it becomes inimical to its health, because we may have reached that point. India is all talked up, even though the Prime Minister of India is not talked out. The currency swap announced on 8 November, now acknowledged even by supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government as well-intentioned but disastrously executed, is the latest example.

Modi’s messaging and optics are impeccable. It became evident during the run-up to elections that brought the BJP and Modi to power in May 2014. Few would disagree with India’s intended emergence as a global power, as a manufacturing powerhouse, an infrastructure hub. Who wouldn’t like the Ganga clean, all our rivers, the entire country? Anyone who has recently transited through Mumbai’s international airport may have seen a larger than life three dimensional model of the Make in India lion, the logo of one of Modi’s pet themes, and a hub for “selfies”. Who would not like India transformed by the NITI Aayog, replacing the very socialist-sounding Planning Commission (even though NITI expands to an equally socialist-sounding National Institution for Transforming India)? What ordinary citizen wouldn’t decry black money?

It’s too much marketing.

Modi is almost single handedly holding up the large cracks in the so-called demonetisation process without concomitant overhauling of the taxation system and systemic corruption which creates and sustains the black economy. “Demonetisation” is even being disingenuously used to claim that militancy and rebellion in every form, from Jammu & Kashmir to the Maoist areas to northeast India, has been cowed—even close to disappearing. This, with evidence to the contrary of attacks since 8 November.

As to Jammu & Kashmir, it’s a shambles even with all the statements about combating terror and Pakistan. Violent incidents are up over previous years. By end-2016 the number of security personnel killed could be the highest since 2007, besides terrorist infiltrations—by the government’s own reckoning. Few care to recall that the BJP is a partner in J&K’s government. The Naga peace deal, trumpeted in August 2015 by Modi, is now inextricably tied to a power-play in Nagaland and impending elections in Manipur, and stands exposed as a hollow, cynical process. The Maoist rebellion is on a downturn on account of sustained security initiatives, but human rights violations and land alienation issues, prime modern-day drivers of rebellion, have spiked since 2014 in all Maoist theatres, especially Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.

According to government data released in October, in the first five months of the financial year beginning April 2016, industrial and manufacturing growth has contracted, compared year-on-year. Merchandise exports have slowed—though the overall trade balance has improved. The rupee is in a tailspin. The “pain” of the currency swap that Modi and his cohorts speak of is expected to contract the economy this year. The agreement with Switzerland to share information about Indian holdings in Swiss banks will come into effect in 2018, with information for the previous year, enough time to move money.

It’s a mixed bag, not magic.

The greatest illusion is that, before May 2014 it is as if India, its Constitution, foreign policy, industry, businesses, stock markets, or its currency did not exist, that all development has occurred since. It may be galling for the prime minister and his loyalists to admit that the current National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s optics is alive because of the political, social and economic infrastructure (even the once-discredited unique identification number) developed by previous governments, including that of the first NDA government that ended its term with ignominy in 2004. Those elections discredited the old leadership structure of BJP, paving the way for Modi.

It is halfway to May 2019, unless optics dictates snap general elections to the Lok Sabha before more cracks appear in an unflattering mirror. Modi may even win that, with the apparent empowerment of the country, emasculation of the BJP’s second-rung leadership, and disarray among the opposition. Will India?

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights in India and South Asia, runs on Thursdays.

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