In the age of 24 x 7 news, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the master of political theatre, his every move designed to maximize eyeballs. Which is why a simple tweet from him on Wednesday morning that he was to address the nation across media platforms at noon was enough to set news channels into a frenzy. Since it was an announcement to be made in the backdrop of a Cabinet Committee on Security meeting and within weeks of the Balakote air strikes, the general impression was that it must relate to Pakistan. The endless capacity of news channels to speculate led some to suggest that another surgical strike had been executed, else Dawood Ibrahim had been finally caught while others claimed that Masood Azhar may have been ‘eliminated’. My Mumbai stockbroker friends even worried if the Rs 2000 note was being de-monetised!
Which is why the eventual announcement of India having successfully tested the Anti Satellite (ASAT) Missile was greeted mostly with a mix of relief and surprise. Yes, it was yet another spectacular success of our space research establishment but then ISRO/DRDO have such a long history of special achievements that we tend to take their feats for granted. But was it really the kind of ‘dramatic’ moment that required the prime minister to make such a big deal of it by placing himself in front of the nation? Could the announcement have not been made by the team of scientists as is the convention with the prime minister tweeting a congratulatory message or, as Mr Modi’s critics suggest, has a certain pre-election desperation set in for the prime minister to seek political mileage on any and every occasion?
After all, Mr Modi’s address to the nation comes within 48 hours of Rahul Gandhi doing his own little bit of political role-playing while announcing a minimum income guarantee scheme or as a Congress commitment to kickstart a ‘second war against poverty’. No one was clear of the design of Mr Gandhi’s scheme or the financial outlays but at least it appeared to be a fairly direct attempt to woo the voter and, importantly, seek to change the election narrative away from the post-Balakote muscular nationalism to more core issues of income generation. Moreover, when you are attempting to galvanise a struggling opposition, you can actually get away by making tall promises while leaving crucial implementation details for a post-poll situation.
Mr Modi, on the other hand, has no reason to be as anxious. Every opinion poll shows the Modi-led NDA poised to return to power. Post-Balakote, the BJP and the prime minister appeared to have got their mojo back, the prime minister’s strident rhetoric typical of his robust campaigning style. Why then, even as the model code of conduct has set in, did the prime minister feel the necessity to seek glory in the name of scientists? Was this the prime minister’s way of reclaiming the headlines which, atleast for the previous two days, had been dominated by Mr Gandhi’s catchy ‘Nyay’ or justice slogan? After all, much like our soldiers, our scientists embody national pride. By almost co-opting a scientific achievement as his own on election eve, the prime minister could be accused of once again seeking to place his ‘nationalist’ vote seeking credentials before the country ahead of the professional autonomy of DRDO as an institution, the fist-pumping Bharat Mata ki Jai chant at the end of his speech mirroring an election speech sign off.
And yet, this isn’t just about the optics of one speech: for the last five years, Mr Modi’s image-makers have relentlessly worked to cast their leader as a larger than life hero. From merchandise to movies, from social media to prime time television, Mr Modi is being marketed and projected in 360 degree glossy imagery as a ‘Superman’ who will conquer all before him. Then be it the ‘Main Bhi Chowkidar’ campaign or the ‘Modi hai to Mumkin hai’ tagline, the BJP’s propaganda machine is designed to invest the prime minister with an aura of invincibility.
The cult of personality has often been a part of nearly every prime minister’s tool-kit: the ‘India is Indira and Indira is India’ slogan will haunt the Congress forever as will the fact that Jawaharlal Nehru received the Bharat Ratna while in office. The number of schemes named after members of the Nehru-Gandhi family are further evidence of political hagiography. When Mr Vajpayee was prime minister, his pictures would adorn vantage points along his pet Golden Quadrilateral project.
But Mr Modi in his own way is setting new benchmarks. Then, be it petrol pump billboards, Air India and railway tickets, or almost any government project, Mr Modi’s glossy image is always upfront. Certainly, no government in independent India has spent as much on advertising and marketing itself as the Modi government. An RTI application last year revealed that the amount spent on propagating government schemes between mid-2014 and September 2018 was nearly Rs 5,000 crores. In the last six months, that amount has been scaled up even higher, suggesting a near-total capture of the government machinery for political propaganda.
With his omnipotent presence on ground and in cyberspace, Mr Modi has been able to not only become the country’s foremost neta but also set the national agenda. Which is perhaps why he was almost pushed by Mr Gandhi’s pro-poor outreach to respond on tv with his own headline-grabbing moment. Only the manner in which it was done led even social media conversation – normally monopolized by Modi cheerleaders – to question for once the prime minister’s seeming over-eagerness to make the news once again.
Which also suggests that the BJP’s relentless Modi-centric campaign is a double edged-sword: while it converts a parliamentary battle into a presidential-like contest it also can put off the voter who instinctively dislikes excessive hubris. Which is why the BJP’s political managers need to tread carefully when continuing to bombard the voter with their endless ‘Modi Shining’ messaging. While an energetic Mr Modi remains the BJP’s prime asset in its 2019 re-election bid, he also runs the risk of allowing real issues like jobs and agrarian incomes to be lost in a jarring myth making machine centred solely around the individual.
Post-script: While Mr Modi has been celebrated in the last five years, no leader has been perhaps as demonized as Jawaharlal Nehru in this period. And yet, ironically it was Nehru’s far-sightedness that led to the setting up of the country’s space and defence research programme. Rather than politicize our science establishment by competitive credit-seeking at election time, we should celebrate a fine legacy that stretches back to India’s first prime minister and the many outstanding scientists this country has produced.