Home / Politics / Policy /  What’s in a NaMo?

New Delhi: First, there were the Modi masks. That was back in 2007, when Modi’s national ambitions, if any, were still well hidden.

Six years on, the ambitions are out in the open, and the nascent emphasis on merchandising has grown into a full-fledged industry, supported by a well-oiled publicity machine.

And so, you have the Modi kurtas; downloadable Modi ringtones (including one of a crowd going Mo-di, Mo-di, Mo-di…); a Modi Android game; Modi-branded mobile phones; and NaMo (short for Narendra Modi) tea stalls in Bihar, a state where his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is expected to make serious gains in the 2014 election.

Also on the cards is a NaMo biopic starring Paresh Rawal, who incidentally played the title role in Sardar, Ketan Mehta’s movie on the political life of the late Vallabhbhai Patel. Modi this month announced plans to build a State of Unity in memory of Patel, India’s first home minister, who, like Modi, hailed from Gujarat.

“I was very keen to make a biopic on a person who is alive. I am glad to be able to do so," said Rawal, whose production company Playtime Creationn will be producing the film.

Modi and the BJP may be yet to launch a mass-media campaign, but the man’s road show is definitely on—a campaign meeting in Tiruchi, a speech to advertisers and another to diamond merchants in Mumbai, and a speech to a large gathering of young people in New Delhi (and that’s just in the past week)—as is a well-orchestrated digital campaign.

Still, never in India’s history has a prime ministerial candidate been branded, packaged and promoted as Modi is being done.

“We believe that we have a candidate who has a brand that can be capitalized upon to reach out to voters and we intend to do just that," said a person who is part of Modi’s campaign, asking not to be identified. Merchandising, this person added, is very much a part of the strategy. In addition to everything else, there will be T-shirts, wristbands, sunglasses and, of course, masks, he said.

To be sure, much of the merchandise isn’t being produced by the BJP or Modi’s campaign. But it is likely that much of the merchandise has Modi’s or the BJP’s approval.

The tale of the Modi kurta—mandarin collar shirts with an Indian twist—is well known. Made by Ahmedabad-based Jade Blue, the “Modi kurta" brand was registered by the company last year, after it received the chief minister’s approval to do so.

“The demand is much higher than our production. We currently sell about 2,000 kurtas every month, and we plan to scale up production soon," said Bipin Chauhan, who co-owns the 150 crore retail chain with his brother. Chauhan aims to take the “Modi kurta" brand international in the next few months by selling it in his outlets in the United Arab Emirates and the UK, he said in a telephone interview.

In Bihar, the BJP is using NaMo tea stalls to campaign, highlighting the man’s rise from a worker in a tea stall to the chief minister of one of India’s richest and most developed states.

Smart NaMo phones are available on SnapDeal.com at prices between 18,000 and 24,000, with the site stating that NaMo stands both for Narendra Modi as well as Next-generation Android Mobile Odyssey. Mint couldn’t immediately identify the company selling these phones.

The Google Play store also has a game called Modi Run, a Super Mario kind of game that has seen several hundred thousand downloads so far and has been developed by a California-based company, Dexati Llc, which doesn’t reveal much information about itself on its website.

“He has already reached the status of an icon, that is why people use different means like Modi kurta, ringtones to express themselves," said senior BJP leader Balbir Punj. “If there is a voluntary display of affection for the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, then it will definitely translate into votes."

The Congress party was dismissive.

“Those who do not believe in themselves,those who are not committed about the cause of the people and leaders who are totally ignorant—for such people, simply branding or marketing themselves will not help," Congress spokesperson Bhakta Charan Das said. “Without doing anything, only a commodity can be sold with only branding..."

To be sure, other leaders and parties have used caps, scarves and wristbands in the past, but no one has used the range of merchandise the Modi campaign is doing.

“Narendra Modi is very savvy in responding to the electorate. The Indian electorate is changing drastically, and what Modi and his team have sensed is that there are different ways of reaching out to voters", said Siddharth Singh, an associate professor of marketing at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad.

“However, such moves do have a tendency to trivialize the candidate advertising it, added Singh, and Modi seems to be aware of this.

“Modi is careful not to get directly involved, so that he doesn’t end up trivializing himself," Singh said.

The merchandise might not bring in much revenue, said a media executive, but they could be great marketing tools.

The Barack Obama campaign in 2008 earned around $38 million from the sale of merchandise, said Sandeep Dahiya, director and business head, brand extension, Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd, publisher of The Times of India.

Modi’s campaign is unlikely to earn anything around that, but “given that Narendra Modi is specifically targeting the youth, the merchandise could actually play a significant role—but if done correctly."

Merchandise may create a buzz, but it might not mean political support or votes, said a brand consultant, attributing this to the way Indians relate to politics.

“Political merchandise in India does not mean much," said Sanjay Sarma, chief executive of Design Worldwide, a strategic brand consulting and communications firm. “India is not like some Western nations, where people participate in governance. For instance, in the US, you actually wear your party allegiance on your sleeve."

Maulik Pathak in Ahmedabad contributed to this story.

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