The many faces of Narendra Modi16 min read . Updated: 22 Dec 2012, 01:12 AM IST
Narendra Modi's programming uses the kind of Hollywood-style elision usually reserved for film stars
Ahmedabad: On Sunday, 18 November, audiences in cities around Gujarat were treated to a political spectacle that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed was the first of its kind. As chief minister Narendra Modi made a speech from a studio in Gandhinagar, his likeness, in the form of four 3D holograms, was beamed simultaneously down onto stages in Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Rajkot and Surat. The holograms waved and walked forward fuzzily, like ambassadors from the starship Enterprise.
“Today marks a huge achievement for Gujarat," the 3D avatars said, praising the technology, licensed for India from UK-based company Musion by Enchant 3D, a wholly owned subsidiary of film maker Mani Shankar’s Kasu Mani Enterprises.
The four avatars of Modi went on to assure Gujaratis that they embraced the unflattering nicknames the Congress party had lately bestowed on him ahead of the 13, 17 December state assembly election: they said they were proud to be called “Hanuman’s monkey" and “Ganpati’s mouse." “I have got the chance to serve Gujarat, so the six crore Gujaratis are like Ram to me, I am their Hanuman," the Modis said, weaving each new identity into a mantle of apparent humility with practised ease before the appreciative crowd.
The show, according Shankar, was a runaway success: “More than the technology, a lot of credit for the success of the shows goes to Modi himself for his commanding presence and great oratory skills." Shankar was also anxious to redress rumours that Modi had been slimmed down in his hologramic form: “Although some people feel Modi appears slimmer than in real life, it is not so," he said. “The 3D is a true-to-life image of Modi."
Not everyone was charmed. Modi’s predecessor as chief minister, and now Gujarat Parivartan Party president, 84-year-old Keshubhai Patel, slammed his rival’s “illusionary campaign" as a desperate and wasteful publicity stunt that would cost about ₹ 200 crore. Congress leaders protested that the Election Commission ought to probe the source of the funds.
The BJP refused to reveal how much money the hologram technology had cost, but it did not seem deterred; a little over a week later, 26 3D Modis addressed audiences in specially constructed theatres around the state. It was the last in a run of publicity stunts over the past couple of months, beginning with the October launch of a TV channel named after Modi.
NaMo’s programming is interspersed with bulletins on Modi’s life and opinions, and its name uses the kind of Hollywood-style elision usually reserved for film stars (NaMo also means “bow down" in Gujarati). The acquisition of the moniker marked the finishing touch to brand Modi—at least for now.
Ahead of the elections in Gujarat, Modi was on a campaign overdrive—touring constituencies, meeting voters, staring down at passers-by from gigantic cutouts (some as large as 100ft tall) or grinning back at people from masks that first became popular during the last state elections in late 2007.
However, although the 62-year old politician may be seeking re-election for what will be his fourth term as chief minister, it was clear in the campaign that he had an eye on a bigger prize. On the campaign trail, he persistently addressed national issues, and rather than pitting himself against local Congress leaders, he squared up to Congress party president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Indeed, in recent days, several senior leaders of the BJP have said enough to indicate an endorsement of Modi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate in the next general elections.
Another sweeping win for Modi in 2012 would fuel these aspirations, but it would also be a victory for the public relations machine that has created new identity after identity for one of the few state-level politicians who is a household name all over India.
In Gujarat, Modi and the BJP are inseparable —a conflation that Modi encourages. A recent BJP radio and TV advertisements called Modi no manas (Modi’s man), asked voters to pick the BJP if they believe in Modi. “Do you want to leave the man who has spent sleepless nights working for your prosperity and risk your future?" one farmer asks another in the ad. “I am Modi’s man. Are you?" “So am I" replies the second farmer, earnestly.
At a rally on 29 November, Modi went one step further, telling his audience that they should vote for any BJP candidate, keeping in mind that, in doing so, they would be casting a ballot for him. The success of this conflation between man and party adds up to one of the most powerful political brands India has ever seen, and Modi is hyper-conscious and controlling of his image, say some of his colleagues, who are curiously reluctant to take credit for any campaign initiative, instead insisting that every idea came from Modi himself.
If Modi’s public image has been less than consistent over the 11 years he has held the top job in Gujarat, that is no accident, according to political scientists and advertising gurus who have watched him go through a series of metamorphoses depending on the needs of the moment. “Modi’s changing image is in part responding to changing India," said Mona Mehta, professor of political science at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Gandhinagar.
From Hindutva party man, to aggressor of Muslim minorities, to development guru, to entrepreneur, to tech-savvy changemaker, Modi’s face has come to mean different things to different people. Advertising executive Piyush Pandey says that Modi has managed to hold up a mirror to Indian society, and show it what it thinks it wants, at that time, in that place.
“Any brand, human or not human, is decided by its target audience," Pandey said. “I guess the brand Modi is a result of what the people think of him in terms of his achievement. Everything is dependent on delivery." Pandey is the executive chairman and national creative director at Ogilvy and Mather (O&M) India, which was involved in the promotional campaign of Gujarat by the state tourism department featuring Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan.
Modi’s first stint as chief minister of Gujarat began in 2001, when the BJP decided to replace Keshubai Patel in the post. At the time, Modi was a little known party politician, and his first months as chief minister were uneventful. Then, in 2002, violence broke out in the state after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was torched by a mob of Muslims in Godhra. The backlash was a series of riots that killed about 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, according to activist groups, although the state government put the death toll at 1,200, of which at least 900 people were Muslims.
Those riots came to define Modi, who activists claim turned a blind eye to the violence. Investigators have since cleared him of wrongdoing, though other members associated with the ruling party and outfits of Sangh Parivar, as the Rashtriya Syayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates are known, were indicted.
Initially, Modi harnessed the polarized public opinion and leveraged it to his own advantage. Ahead of the elections in 2002, he toured the state making speeches, some of which targeted the Congress and the Muslim community. In one of them, he allegedly made the much criticized “hum paanch, humare pachees (we are five, we have 25)" remark, in which he referred sneeringly to the large size of Muslim families, further alienating the communities in refugee camps.
Modi’s image as a protector of Hindus may have been built accidentally, but it did give him a thumping victory at the polls. His 2002 victory garnered 127 of the total 182 assembly seats, the biggest ever victory for the BJP in Gujarat. However, his Hindutva politics were not sustainable in the long run and Modi was forced to temper his leanings to the Hindu right with a new image.
“Modi realized that to be a successful politician he had to distance himself from his communal roots," said the social scientist Shiv Visvanathan. “He had to preserve the flavour but alter the contents. Modi’s politics demanded that he distance himself from BJP politics. From a Swadesi Pracharak arose Modi, the modernizer. A modernist cannot look anti-Muslim," said Visvanathan. “He cannot look like some right-wing ideologue that belongs to some bygone era."
Modi’s repositioning of his image as a man with an entrepreneurial spirit who would bring business to Gujarat was a natural step, according to Mehta. “In India now, Hindutva is not in vogue and Modi seems to know that. Besides his national aspirations, his image is also keeping in mind that 43% of the Gujarat voters are urban, who want development," said Mehta.
Modi is today seen as a clean, efficient and no-nonsense administrator, an image that has been cultivated by sending messages to the right kind of audience, according to a senior official, who did not want to be named, from an advertisement company that has been working on the Vibrant Gujarat project.
Gujarat has always been among the more industrialized states in the country, largely on account of the enterprise of the Gujaratis, but Modi built on this success until he managed to become the face of Gujarat’s development.
Things didn’t start well. At an industry event in New Delhi in 2003, a couple of industrialists openly criticized the Gujarat riots and asked Modi what he would do to win back investor confidence. Modi’s response was the Vibrant Gujarat Investors Summit, a biennial event wherein businesses indicate their desire to invest in the state and sign agreements with government. To date, five such summits have been held, agreements indicating investments of about ₹ 39.5 trillion have been signed and about ₹ 3.5-4 trillion of this money has actually been invested in the state.
Not everyone is taken in by this idea. “Modi is a good brand manager and an excellent propagandist. But he is not a statesman; his political philosophy is of majoritarianism," said Achyut Yagnik, an Ahmedabad-based social scientist and the author of The Shaping of Modern Gujarat. “His development agenda is one-dimensional, profiting many large industries. A lot of small and medium scale industries in Gujarat have been losing ground by his development agenda."
“He has risen from the fire and it is quite natural that his pro-development image would have been an antidote to his communal image," said a senior bureaucrat working in the Modi government, who wished to remain unidentified. “A politician’s image-building exercise is very different than that of a Bollywood film star. It takes a long time and cannot be achieved overnight."
If not overnight, however, the transformation of Modi’s image from Hindu leader to big-business man happened extremely fast. By 2007, Vibrant Gujarat had become a platform for industrialists to come and shower praises on the chief minister and the work done by his government. Influential business leaders like Ratan Tata, Mukesh Ambani, Sunil Bharti Mittal and Anil Ambani became mouthpieces for Modi’s development plans. After his easy win in the 2007 elections, Ambani and Bharti both suggested that Modi should be the next prime ministerial candidate and in 2009 S.K. Birla echoed the sentiment.
His sway among the rich and powerful added to Modi’s credibility. In 2008, Modi boasted that it cost him only an SMS worth one rupee to bring in investment of about ₹ 2,000 crore to Gujarat, referring to Tata Motors Ltd’s Nano factory, which moved from West Bengal to Gujarat after Modi sent a text to Ratan Tata, then chairman of Tata Group.
Ghanshyam Shah, a political scientist and former professor with Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that the association between Modi and the state he runs works both ways. If Amitabh Bachchan is campaigning for tourism in Gujarat, it is seen that he is campaigning for Modi, he said. Conversely, if praise for Gujarat is synonomous with praise for Modi, then any criticism of him was seen as a criticism of Gujarat.
According to Shah, Modi is a man with a mission, and the vacuum in leadership in the BJP and United Progressive Alliance as well has given him a chance to project himself as a national leader.
“In 2008, there was a hoarding in Vadodara by the BJP on how Gujarat will show the way to India to become a pollution-free country by use of CNG," Shah said. “This ad gave the first direct indications of Modi’s national ambition. In 2009, L.K. Advani was the prime ministerial candidate of the NDA, contesting from the Gandhinagar seat, but there seemed to be a role reversal as the campaign was led by Modi."
Modi has a sense of a messiah about him, said Shah, and is able to make a direct connection with his audience to the detriment of his own party at times. An early riser, Modi, who as an RSS pracharak (propagator) handled media interaction before joining BJP, spends a considerable amount of time each morning gathering and reading what the media has written about him and Gujarat. He is very careful, said a person close to the chief minister.
His PR is tightly handled. While APCO Worldwide promotes the Vibrant Gujarat summit, the agency also works on getting interviews for the chief minister with international publications. He became one of the few politicians in the country to feature on the cover page of Time magazine in March 2012.
“Modi has an in-depth understanding of media and how it works," said a BJP party official who did not wish to be identified “In 2007, Modi was touring a rural village of Gujarat and was giving a speech in Gujarati addressing local issues. When he came to know that a national channel had come to cover him, he changed his speech to Hindi and spoke on some national issue that was played by the channel throughout the day."
In an interview with The Economist this year Modi defended himself against allegations that he behaved like a dictator. “I’m telling you, the essence of democracy is criticism," he said. “I always welcome criticism. But I am against the allegations. What we hear is not a criticism, it is an allegation... So we must differentiate what is criticism and what is allegation. You have every right to do the criticism. I am beneficiary because of the criticism," he said.
“Modi may be taking advice from many people formally or informally," said the government official quoted earlier in the story, “But, you’ve also got to realize the fact he is a man who is seen as a contender to the top post in the world’s largest democracy, so it’s not surprising if the world media shows interest in him."
Modi’s oratory skills also have a lot in the making of his image. His rustic humour and puns frequently get laughs from his audience. In October, he targeted Manmohan Singh during a rally, calling the Prime Minister Maun (silent) Mohan Singh, and mocking his lack of response to allegations of corruption at the highest levels.
Modi has a team of professionals working on his website that gives regular updates about him and his governance. He has a million followers on Twitter, although there have been allegations that many of these are robotic users, not real people. According to Faker App, a tool developed in the UK that allows users to check their follower quality, Modi’s account has 51% fake and 36% inactive users.
He’s as good at ignoring issues as taking them on. On 31 August, a trial court ordered a life sentence for former Gujarat minister and BJP member of the legislative assembly Maya Kodnani in a riot case, Modi answered questions on topics such as governance, administration and food on Google+ Hangout, a live video chat, anchored by actor Ajay Devgn.
Conscious about his dressing style, Modi gets his clothes crafted at Jade Blue, an Ahmedabad-based retail store chain. The shop has a popular in-house brand called ‘Modi Kurta’. According to the unnamed BJP official quoted earlier, Modi has also had a hair transplant.
Modi has attempted to patch up relations with the Muslim community in his state. In 2011, soon after the Supreme Court refused to pass an order on Modi’s alleged inaction during the riots, he embarked on a Sadbhavna Mission—seen as an attempt to appease Muslims, who would be a crucial vote bank in any national level race.
“Modi is getting more and more powerful," said Rahul daCunha, MD and creative head of daCunha Comminucations. “He has his PR machinery planned, with the holograms and all. But finally if he has to succeed at a national level, no brand Modi will succeed if he cannot convince Muslims that he has their interests at heart."
Few are convinced that Modi’s intentions are honorouable, howerver. “The Sadbhavna performance was for the outside world and not for Gujarat," says Shiv Visvanathan. “Everything else might work, except his body language, which is not pro-Muslim." According to Visvanathan, the success of Modi’s image redesign lies in the fact that the more fabricated he is, the more authentic he looks.
The chief minister’s olive branch to the Muslims is purely on his own terms, said Mehta. “So it means that Muslims even today can’t get houses in (a) Hindu locality in Ahmedabad. While the outside world may believe that Modi has changed, Gujarat is still deeply sympathetic to the Hindutva core of Modi. In his list of candidates declared for the upcoming elections, Modi has not fielded one Muslim candidate. The Hindutva ideology is very much there. Modi is trying to blend it with developmetalist politics, including anti-corruption."
At a time when the Central government is struggling with its policies and facing corruption charges, Modi’s authoritarian ways may seem an antidote for the lack of oversight percieved as the root of the corruption scandals. Visvanathan said that Modi’s frequent travels to China cast him as the man who can take India’s reply to its rival and lead development and international cooperation.
However, his potential as an international ambassador for India remains tarnished by the 2002 riots. Earlier this month several US Congressmen urged secretary of state Hillary Clinton to continue to deny Modi a visa—his application was turned down by the Bush administration in 2005 in view of the allegations of crimes against humanity made against him.
Juggling these various positions requires a steady nerve, said one media expert, who did not want to be identified; Modi is caught in an image trap. “If he does something to appease the Muslims, he is criticized by the right-wing parties where he has his political roots. And if he attempts to become Hindutva poster boy, his national image of being an all inclusive leader may get damaged."
Whatever the temporary efficacy of Modi’s various image revamps, many remain sceptical that he can muster enough universal appeal to make a credible candidate for national office. “Being a national leader is beyond public policy and governance," said Visvanathsn. “Modi does not seem to be democratic enough to lead the nation... his vocabulary does not seem to go beyond two words—security and development. A prime minister’s image is far more complex."
His colleagues in the BJP may be beginning to sense this weakness, according to Mehta. “There has already been a lot of dissent within the party against Modi," she said. “His dictatorial image is against the plural fabric of the nature of Indian society. A lot of authoritative figures like Indira Gandhi have been efficient. But efficiency is not the sole criteria for democratic India today."
Cordelia Jenkins contributed to this story.