Brand Modi: The remaking of India

Three years is a long time in politics and three years of Narendra Modi feels even longer. The Modi era has been framed as a narrative not in terms of a report as evaluation, not in terms of an accountant’s chart, but in terms of the language of a brand.

Brand is a symbolic word, a mnemonic of remembrance and recall in advertising jargon. One emphasises what one thinks are the ideal properties of thing. In branding an object, we reduce it to a commodity, an object of desire, a message with symbolic power. Despite the intensity of the word brand, a brand evaluation is necessarily narrow and technical. Three years of Mr Modi becomes three years of the production and consumption of Mr Modi in public life. The analysis then focuses on image-building, on how Mr Modi has become the collective Rorschach of an era.

Brand Modi projected Mr Modi as an act of conquest, an attempt by a rank outsider to conquer and domesticate Lutyens’ Delhi. The historical trope was clear. It was the second conquest of Delhi, an overthrow of the Congress as a Mughal regime, with Mr Modi playing Rana Pratap. It was also in brand terms, an act of erasure. Jawaharlal Nehru had to be erased and Mahatma Gandhi smudged. By playing the Sardar Patel chord, Mr Modi returns to defeat Nehru and return nation building to its original power. The tropes of Mr Modi were the tropes of an NCERT book, the list of chapters — nation state, patriotism, development and governance — were his new goals. Mr Modi was stepping into history as a giant new civics lesson where he would teach Indians the basic rules of citizenship.

There is something about a brand which is more catchy, but less intense. Brand is contrivance. Here even the sense of the natural is constructed. In that sense, Mr Modi, it was clear, was a construct, more of a Lego set than human being. Yet he was a Lego set that fitted perfectly in middle class India’s hands. Both he and they read the same tutorial college looks on personality development and nation building. Brand Modi revealed that Mr Modi could not be as complex as Nehru or Indira. They exploded as original charismatic figures. He accepted his secondariness and then sought to expand and inflate it. His career began as a handbook, a kunji on how to be a political leader, an aspirational mobile history of politics where India no longer depended on the elite but on new regional entities. It was not an India of Nehru, Azad and Rajaji, but of Rajnath, Adityanath, Amit Shah and Mr Modi. The brilliance of Mr Modi lay in understanding that contemporary India was more at home in the second lot. It was a sense of a new lowest common denominator democracy where Allahabadi-Oxbridge leaders gave way to the hyper-intelligent chaiwala. The homely intelligence of “Chai ki Charcha”, the sense of inclusiveness, which allowed any man to be Prime Minister, suggested a demystification of politics. Mr Modi playing the common man with chutzpah erased the legendary common man of R.K. Laxman to create a democracy home in dhabhas, pan shops and mandis than in exclusive clubs.

Once this propaganda web of homespun democracy was spread, Mr Modi marshalled words, created glossaries, proverbs and fables for understanding state and governance, which was impressive. This new wordspeak created a mnemonic of accessible words that made it easy to talk and proud of being India. A nation suffering the angst of third-worldness and secondariness suddenly felt a muscular confidence about itself. Waiting to be a successful NRI, a seat in the Security Council, a place in the nuclear club were things India thought of as its right Mr Modi created what one can call a foreign policy for internal consumption which was different from a foreign policy for external consumption. The local variant was a no-nonsense theory of Pakistan, no tolerance idea of Nepal, a muscular sense of Indian cavorting with the biggest and best. It was a view of power for those who lived through stereotypes about it. Second was a more pragmatic scene of India as a sense for experiments in governance and a place for investment. The success of Mr Modi lay in making these wishful narratives into what people considered self-fulfilling prophecies. Mr Modi projected a spring-cleaning of a nation which projected a new role for India in history, and Indians loved it.

Brand Modi needed gossip, needed folklore, stories to spread which made Mr Modi a larger than life character in oral and digital life. It is this double uniqueness that made him important as Prime Minister. He let himself be soaked in the oral imagination with what can call his dohas and acronyms, and yet he was seen as a Twitter and WhatsApp person, an expert who understood the narcissistic joy of a selfie. Between the oral and the visual he created a semiotic self, which could simultaneously evoke tradition and digital modernity, without creating any sense of contradiction.

Mr Modi saw himself as a Chanakya who had become Prime Minister. He enacts this performance in every speech by creating a prime ministership made-easy, giving everyone a sense of the accessibility of power, both through body signals and language. He portrays both the picture of power as instant gratification and as a sense of sacrifice. Pushing through demonetisation was to be seen as a morality play where honesty as policy, as public virtue, has to be seen as public display. In that sense, Mr Modi conveyed a sense of pragmatism, of instrumentalism, secularism about ethics and feelings. Power like plumbing was no longer about values but about fixing things. I think there is no PM who is more instrumental about religion than Mr Modi. If the Ganga can be harnessed to perpetuate power, it will be. What he demystified in constructing Brand Modi was not power but values. Values were only something to be measured. It was not a vision of things. Doing, acting, fixing and building were the new key words as values disappeared from daily life. Instead of ethics, we had a civics of nation-building that a Stalin or a Kim Il-sung would be proud of. What Brand India constructed through Brand Modi was the idea of a fixer. The only thing the “Make in India” project was designed to do was to make images of India projecting its world of intentions.

Brand Modi was the new costume ball of the Indian State in an era of globalisation. Mr Modi was the chaperon, the hostel warden of both events. Brand Modi told India that the act of mimicry, which created him, was to also construct a myth of a culturally confident India. In an odd way, Mr Modi is India because every Indian seems desperate to construct himself, to create a version of himself. The speed the masculinity, the impatience has helped him create a rush-hour India and one wishes there was a deeper semiotic analysis of it.

Brand Modi was a victory of perception over practice of image over ideology, of the power of fiction over the realism of fact. In fact, Brand Modi is a secular theology where a nation, leader and society is created as an image, and yet the power of the image is so real that an icon is born. Modern India has finally taken to idol worship. That is the power of Brand Modi.

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