Over the past month or two, the tenor of Narendra Modi’s public pitch for power has changed. His Independence Day speech in Bhuj in Kutch is in line with the new pitch—for a party rather than a person. It was heard in Hyderabad earlier this month too, and in Pune in July. As Modi’s speeches get more political, there is less talk of personal achievement, and more attack.
Not too long ago, Modi wasn’t really selling the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); he was selling himself, on the strength of his record in Gujarat. Then, there was no praising of any other BJP chief minister. Now he does, not just BJP chief ministers but also potential allies. Both Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh and Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK came in for approving mention in Hyderabad.
The endless hyperventilating on Modi on English news channels does not even begin to reflect his current stand as 2014 draws closer. The more prolonged the panel discussion, the less you learn about the minutiae of his sales pitch.
Between his speeches and tweets, there are four streams to the Modi pitch.
One, there has been no other politician in recent memory who has been so clear that he does not need the media to reach the people with an election approaching. Not a single speech is made without a jibe at the English language media. “Normally I stay away from English papers and channels. (It is) Not my responsibility to run their channels,” he said.
Then there are the barbs, such as the one delivered while making a typical Modi point about what the Planning Commission gives for tigers versus the budget for saving the lion (only found in Gujarat): “Rs.200 crore for saving the tiger—whether NDTV runs on that I do not know.” (The taunt is directed at the Save the Tiger campaign on NDTV.)
And finally, there are the terse encounters he has had with anchors like Karan Thapar and Arnab Goswami that have been much publicised—his acolytes never fail to put up the clips on YouTube. When anchors persist with pushing him in a way he doesn’t like, he gets nasty. As he told Rajdeep Sardesai of CNN IBN: “If you abuse Modi you will get a Rajya Sabha seat or a Padma Shree or a Padma Bhushan.” At the same time he goes to conclaves organized by media houses and regales stellar audiences there.
Two, on campuses and in different forums in other states, he strives to connect, shedding arrogance for persuasiveness. His comfort zones are Gujarat and Hindu culture, but he uses connections that he thinks will work. While in Odisha he tweets that the state and Gujarat are the only two that passionately share rath yatra celebrations.
In Tamil Nadu during Pongal celebrations, he greets his audience in Tamil. And whereas he usually insists on talking in Hindi to the swishest of Indian audiences or even an international one, he took the trouble to make an entire speech in reasonably fluent English in Chennai.
In Bengal he tells Bengalis how important they are. And in Hyderabad he asks: “If 4 lakh Telugus in my state can live in harmony with us, why can’t Telengana walas and Andhra walas do the same?”
If his pitch is to turn relentlessly political, however, some of the Modi USP will be lost. What works with his campus audiences is the energy of his promise: endless stories about videoconferencing villagers, farmers with soil health cards, state electricity boards pulled out of debt, the repeated emphasis on the youth dividend India can reap as a country, and the new universities he has thought of which nobody else in the world has!
Listening to Modi reminds one of Chandrababu Naidu’s chief ministerial pitch in the late 1990s. It was a similar “I am a doer” theme, but it did not succeed at the polls when he had nowhere near the liability that Modi has. Modi thinks he knows why: the difference between Naidu’s defeat and his own victory, he tells the audience in Chennai, “is that if you don’t have inclusive growth, you cannot change the face of the state”.
Modi harps on technology too, but on village development much more.
The third pitch is economic reform. Narendra Modi is not a big ideas man. Government schemes and formulas like P2 G2 (pro people, good governance) are more his thing. The reform he articulates is village level productivity. He does not talk reform any more than Manmohan Singh uses the word yaar. But he is also the man who organises Vibrant Gujarat Summits where foreign guests gush about Gujarat’s growth rate being on par with China’s.
Which brings one to the fourth stream of his pitch: secularism. This man does not want to be Prime Minister so badly that he will tell his worst critics what they want to hear on secularism. “For me secularism means India first,” he said. “If I speak against terrorism, is it communal? If I have to pay the price for this, I will pay the price.”
And, “I do not know the meaning of secularism. Earlier it meant religious harmony. Slowly it changed colour. Secularism (now) means lip sympathy to minorities. Then appeasement to minorities. Then focus on Muslims. Then hate Hindu(s).”
These are not old articulations, but recent ones. Modi is giving no quarter to his secular critics. Maybe he believes that is the way to go.
Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website thehoot.org. She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.