Bharatiya Janata Party

Manufacturing an image

Print edition : May 16, 2014

Narendra Modi's road show before he filed his nomination papers in Varanasi. Photo: PTI

BJP leader Amit Shah. His campaign in Uttar Pradesh reinforced the Hindutva message. Photo: ANINDITO MUKHERJEE/REUTERS

A Modi supporter with his daughter dressed in a Bharat Mata costume at a BJP rally in Hyderabad on April 22. Photo: NOAH SEELAM/AFP

The tag line of this key BJP advertisement, meaning "Good days are ahead because Modi is coming", is crafted in such a manner as to sound like the Gita shloka "Whenever there is decay of Dharma ... God comes to the earth to save the earth". Photo: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

The theme of Hindutva runs parallel to the projection of the “Gujarat model” in the BJP’s campaign. Narendra Modi’s nomination from Varanasi, with its Hindu religious associations, bears this out.

The skills of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Sangh Parivar in general at multispeak is historically proven. The Parivar outfits have specified roles, representing varied shades of view and standpoints, which sometimes seem to be working at cross purposes but, in a larger scheme, are targeted towards fulfilling a common objective. This is reflected in the many political avatars of the Sangh Parivar right from the Jana Sangh to the BJP. The 2014 election game plan of the Sangh Parivar must rate as a master stroke in advancing this strategy of multispeak.

Consider this. The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s primary refrain throughout his campaign is that he wants to replicate the so-called Gujarat model of development at the national level. Modi seeks constantly to adopt the posture of a scientist who is ready to display and replicate his experiment. And what is this experiment in Gujarat? Modi, the BJP and the rest of the Sangh Parivar would have us believe that it is a State that has all the amenities that other States can dream of, such as 24-hour electricity, sustained double-digit agriculture growth, total literacy, economically well-off minority communities including Muslims, an impressive pace of industrialisation and an “all-powerful Chief Minister” who takes decisions swiftly. This is considered to be the USP of the 2014 BJP campaign.

But there is also a parallel and not-so-subtle campaign aimed at developing communal polarisation. Thus, there is Amit Shah talking about taking badla (revenge) for izzat (honour) and Giriraj Singh from Bihar warning that those who oppose Modi will be sent to Pakistan. Of course, Modi himself does not conduct this kind of campaign, but he supplements it in his own way. His proclamation that “God has chosen him to rescue the country” in his 3-D address broadcast or his affirmation that Ganga Mata has beckoned him to Benares bears this out.

The motifs of the BJP’s electoral propaganda carry similar suggestions. For instance, the picture of Siva on the stage at the Varanasi rally, or the chanting of Har-Har Modi. Sangh Parivar insiders say that the tag line of a key advertisement—“Good days are ahead because Modi is coming”—is crafted in such a manner as to sound like the Bhagavad Gita shloka “Whenever there is decay of Dharma…God comes to the earth to save the earth”. Modi is projected as India’s one and only potential saviour.

The other key aspect of this concerted, well-planned and meticulously executed propaganda is the excessive use of the media in all forms. This has substantively influenced the subliminal thinking of voters. The response to the question “who will be the Prime Minister in 2014” is a prompt “Narendra Modi” throughout the country. The impact of the propaganda can be gauged from the fact that even those who do not prefer Modi as Prime Minister give this answer, as if on reflex.

Economic factors have played an important role in the way this atmosphere has been built up. The lopsided growth of the economy has created resentment in different classes against the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. The young people who had tasted economic benefits of the 10 per cent GDP (gross domestic product) growth under the first UPA government and are now suffering the effects of the downswing want a change. There are over 100 million new voters in this election and a half of the country’s 1.2 billion population is below 26 years.

The Modi strategy is targeted at this group, and he effectively communicates to this group in his rallies by asking telling questions. A standard question is whether anybody in the gathering or in their family got a job during the tenure of UPA II. The urban youth that he addresses is not the representative of the large populations who are engaged in farming and labour, but it is a vocal section and influences opinion. These young people carry smartphones and have access to social media. The economic liberalisation policies pursued since 1991 have pulled lower income groups into the middle class with housing, vehicle and education loans. They were expecting higher income tax exemption slabs and low interest rates but were disappointed as financial constraints forced the status quo in the interim budget and even pushed up interest rates. The BJP’s proposition of streamlining the tax system finds instant support among the middle class. This class, not surprisingly, has shifted its loyalty from the Congress to the BJP.

The other important economic factor that props up the BJP propaganda is corporate support. Corporate interests see Modi as a saviour, not least because of the regime of rights-based initiatives and subsidies that the UPA pursued, although falteringly. The pace of clearance of big projects slowed down because of Supreme Court intervention and civil society movements, which was termed as “policy paralysis”.

The BJP and the Sangh Parivar also pursued formidable regional strategies. The Hindi heartland strategy was in place right from the time of the 2013 November-December Assembly elections. The victory in Rajasthan and its repetition in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh set the momentum and lent confidence to the BJP’s manoeuvrings in Uttar Pradesh. The most important element of the entire RSS-BJP game plan was to wrest Uttar Pradesh. The communal polarisation theme that played out after the Muzaffarnagar riots was channelised craftily by the BJP-Sangh Parivar strategists.

The ruling Samajwadi Party’s perceived appeasement of Muslims provided the right fodder. The riots in western Uttar Pradesh were projected as the result of Muslim appeasement. While Muslim polarisation has been happening for some time in western Uttar Pradesh, these riots for the first time saw Hindu polarisation with Jats, Dalits and upper-caste Hindus getting together. The BJP’s Amit Shah and other Sangh Parivar leaders exploited this aggressively, helped by the move by the S.P. and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) to nominate mostly Muslim candidates in western Uttar Pradesh. The BJP feted men accused of a role in the riots at a Modi rally: party MLAs Sangeet Singh Som, Suresh Rana and Kunwar Bhartendu. It also gave the party ticket to some men accused of being behind the riots.

Though Modi projects a development-oriented image, the fact that he is accused of presiding over the Gujarat riots in 2002 gives him a strong Hindutva image, which remains entrenched among party workers and supporters. It is this image that many people vote for. The despatch of a key Modi aide, Amit Shah, an accused in the Sohrabuddin encounter case, to Uttar Pradesh was intended to play upon this Hindutva image. Shah’s speeches there, threatening “revenge through votes”, were intended to stoke this feeling among BJP supporters and voters.

In eastern Uttar Pradesh, the BJP bet on Modi’s personal presence. Varanasi is the Hindu cultural and religious capital in the Hindi heartland. Modi sought to capitalise on this religious association by contesting from Varanasi. The BJP feels his presence will impact not just eastern Uttar Pradesh but the bordering areas of Bihar.

The Sangh and the BJP have also used social media to reach out to nearly one third of the voters who are undecided and susceptible to convert to the BJP agenda. The party’s efficient information technology cell is a key player. It coordinates between the central war room of the BJP set up in New Delhi, the war rooms in the State capitals, and regional war rooms that are present in 60 per cent of the constituencies. The coordination is not only with the formal party machinery but also between social media groups, online Modi warriors (numbering some 3,000) and the media. There is an administrative cell that monitors the campaigns of other parties as well as Election Commission restrictions and adherence to rules and laws.

The BJP has pressed in thousands of special Modi vans with large LED screens that play a 16-minute video about Modi, his vision, and his promises. These vans travel deep into the rural areas, where other forms of media do not reach, to create an atmosphere in favour of the BJP. They are equipped with a global positioning system to ensure that they reach places allotted to them and a team in the State capital monitors the time spent in each village.

In Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP’s organisation was a shambles, Amit Shah stressed the need to set up booth committees. The Sangh assigned the important task of ensuring that BJP voters were taken to polling booths. Booth agents are appointed by the RSS. Before the first day of polling, 1.5 lakh booth managers were appointed and Modi directly coordinated with them. The area within constituencies were divided according to community and caste, the hierarchical structure of swayamsewaks and vibhag parcharaks and sar-karyawahs were put in place.

The BJP’s propaganda machinery coined different slogans aimed at different sections with clear-cut messages. There were slogans for farmers, women, students, and the youth. Much attention was paid to floating voters, especially among the youth, and they were urged to back the “winners”. A slew of advertisements in traditional media on election dates “projected” Modi’s “winner” image.

Along with all this, a Modi image that suited all was also propagated. This was an almost mythical story of Modi the poor tea-seller aspiring for higher studies and wishing to serve the country as a soldier, leaving home to become an ascetic, renouncing a worldly life for the “nation” and becoming a proud swayamsewak. That he belonged to an OBC community sharpened this image of a humble but decent beginning. And then the man with the reins of power, a macho image of someone who is ruthless against adversaries and does not hesitate to go to any length to make his point. The “acceptance” of Modi is enhanced through alliances with different parties and leaders, mainly in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. Modi’s whirlwind tours even to the States where the BJP’s existence is hardly noticed and the successful organisation of massive rallies boosted the campaign.

The failures, perceived and real, of other parties, including those of the Congress and of regional leaders of the so-called third front, have also helped the BJP campaign. The “third front’s” biggest drawback was the failure to evolve a consensus on programme and leadership. It left a large number of voters without any feasible option. The humiliating defeat of the Congress in four States in Assembly elections held a few months ago demoralised the party and its leaders. Prominent Congress leaders such as Kapil Sibal, Abhishek Singhvi and Jairam Ramesh are busy with technical dissections of the statements of various BJP leaders. Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi talked about the achievement of rights-based programmes, which hardly influenced middle-class and young voters.

Corruption cases and the way Modi kept referring to them in public meetings further eroded the Congress’ credibility. The content of the books of Sanjaya Baru and P.C. Parakh seriously questioned the functioning of the UPA machinery and its links with the Congress. The shifting of Manmohan Singh’s residence from 7 Race Course Road to Krishna Menon Marg was also projected in the BJP campaign as a decisive indicator that the Congress had accepted defeat even before the conclusion of the elections.

Yet there are chinks in the armour. Especially in the north Indian States, the BJP propaganda has hardly had any impact on loyal voters of regional parties and those based on caste identities. The propaganda on economic reform, harping on transaction tax, ban on high-denomination currency, industrialisation, remunerative minimum support price for farm produce, and so on, just passes them by.

In sum, then, it can be said that what the BJP-Sangh Parivar machinery has managed to create is not a “Modi wave” that points to substantive change but a political circumstance for a shift in power. This climate has influenced the middle class, the youth, and those who subscribe to the RSS ideology of a Hindu nation. Whatever the manner in which it plays out ultimately, it will be interesting to see how the experiment of projecting a larger-than-life image and ‘the force of capital’ influences the world’s largest democracy.

Professor Sudhir Kumar Panwar teaches at Lucknow University and is president of the Kisan Jagriti Manch, a forum to address policy issues in the agricultural sector.

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