The making of Brand Modi is complete - Aijaz Zaka Syed - 8th November 2013


No more Modi. That’s what I repeatedly tell myself these days, vowing to stay off the issue for my own emotional wellbeing. Over the past few months there has been so much media frenzy and blanket coverage of the man and all the controversies surrounding him in Indian media that we have all begun to feel the fatigue. You see the ‘development man’ (vikas purush) staring back at you from newspaper frontpages and television screens day after day. It seems there is no escaping Modi mania whether you are in ever-bustling Delhi or distant Dubai. He is everywhere – literally.

Apart from the divisive politics and strong emotions the BJP’s prime ministerial hopeful generates on both sides of the divide, what has intrigued me most is his phenomenal rise and evolution right before our eyes as a ‘brand.’ From a hated, minor regional satrap who presided over the worst and most organised religious pogrom in the nation’s history, he has successfully been built into a messianic figure aspiring for the leadership of the world’s most populous democracy.

In the face of numerous court cases and strong resistance from civil society and a large section of Indian society that still holds on to the old-fashioned ideals of pluralism, justice and rule of law, Modi’s spinmeisters and media mangers – with the active support of the corporate media of course – have not just been able to take care of all the bad press and his negative image, they have accomplished something considered impossible.

They have managed to create a scenario where no eyebrows are raised anymore at the prospect of someone who has the blood of thousands of innocents on his hands and enough incriminating evidence to nail him, leading Gandhi’s nation.

The enablers in the media, who are magnanimous enough to concede that “some mistakes” were made by the Gujarat leader in the summer of 2002, insist he is a reformed man today and has done a “lot” for the Muslims post-pogrom. They say he has moved on and forgotten the past, urging his detractors to do the same. ‘Look to the future. Look at all the development Gujarat has seen under Modi over the past 12 years and think of all he can do for the rest of India if elected,’ we are told.

Poll after opinion poll projects him as the future of the great republic. It seems the fast multiplying middle classes and the growing population of India’s young cannot wait to enthrone him. And the man seems to know and revel in the exalted state. There is a new spring in his step and a growing confidence and smugness in his speech and manner. Looks like no one can stop the son of a chai-wallah – in his own words – from ruling India from Delhi. The consecration of Narendra Modi is complete.

There are invaluable lessons for all students of media and politics in the mindboggling rise of Modi the politician and making of Brand Modi against all odds and received wisdom.

But to be fair, the credit for the successful making and marketing of Brand Modi cannot be entirely claimed by the media and clever communication strategists. Some credit for this success goes to the Congress too.

The country’s oldest political party carefully avoided taking on the Gujarat leader on his home ground for fear of upsetting Hindu sensibilities – which does no justice to the generous spirited majority of Hindus. The Congress pretended as though the Gujarat leader did not exist.

Despite being in power in Delhi for the past ten years, it didn’t lift a finger to confront the man and his dreadful legacy. If justice has been done in some cases and the law caught up with a couple of Modi’s ministers, it is not because of the UPA government but in spite of it.

The credit for this goes to the courts and courageous voices like those of Teesta Setalvad and Mukul Sinha and police officials like Rahul Sharma. The Congress looked the other way while Modi mocked and taunted the idea of a democratic, tolerant and plural India.

And now he has come to take on the Congress in Delhi. In fact, he has emerged as the worst nightmare of the grand old party that was once led by the stalwarts of the Independence movement. This is some poetic justice, isn’t it?

Six months before the 2014 face-off, the party hasn’t got a clue what to do with the persistent problem called Narendra Modi. As a BJP leader happily pointed out, with all these corruption scandals and scams and his now famous Hamletian indecisiveness and silences, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is proving to be the best polling agent for the man who could replace him.

No wonder India cannot wait for 2014 to bid adieu to the disaster of the UPA II. Little wonder the Congress wants all opinion polls proscribed. But you can’t keep the bad news out by killing the messenger, can you?

The Congress could have perhaps arrested its free fall had it done some bold course correction a couple of years ago. Changing horses midstream isn’t such a bad idea after all when the alternative is going totally down under. Now it is too late to do so, I guess. Especially when the heir apparent appears so singularly reluctant and unwilling.

There is perhaps one way the Congress can still turn around its political fortunes and those of the country by declaring Sonia Gandhi as its prime ministerial candidate, as Dipankar Gupta suggests. The idea isn’t perhaps as outrageous and outlandish as it sounds.

The eminent sociologist from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and author of ‘The Revolution From Above – India’s Future and Citizen Elite’ argues that Sonia’s personal charisma and gravitas may still rescue the Congress. I am not so optimistic though. Although the Italian-born president of the governing party enjoys wide respect and admiration, especially since she spurned power ten years ago, I am not sure she can work her magic so late in the day. Besides, she has serious health issues and may not be capable or willing to take on the challenge. Also, the BJP has repeatedly made it clear that it will make her foreign origins and probably her Catholic faith an issue if she ever takes the plunge.

Anyway, all this remains in the realm of speculation of course. But unless the governing party takes some dramatic and extraordinary measures or at least joins hands with other secular political players, Modi’s capture of Delhi looks an increasing possibility.

However, as N Ram thoughtfully argues in The Hindu, “2002 as a legal, political, and moral problem will not go away in the conceivable future. The problem could only become more complicated, domestically and internationally, were Modi to become prime minister.”

Terming the 2002 pogrom as the “elephant in the BJP’s parlor”, Ram argues: “There’s a strategic calculation behind the BJP prime ministerial candidate’s position on what happened in 2002. It is this benighted chapter in contemporary Indian history that appeals reflexively to the Parivar and feeds naturally into its core communal agenda. It’s this unbreakable genetic connection between 2002 and the present that makes it clear that a Modi prime ministership would be disastrous for democratic and secular India – where the Constitution’s most important commandment, that nobody is more or less equal than anyone else, can be honoured in principle as well as in practice.”

Rajmohan Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson and Sardar Patel’s biographer, would agree. Responding to the ongoing debate about the first home minister and the BJP’s brazen appropriation of his legacy, he told Karan Thapar: “Patel would not have recognised Modi as his ideological heir and wouldn’t have endorsed him.”

But that is unlikely to ruffle the man, who has taken so much in his stride over the past decade and more, or his powerful patrons.

The writer is a commentator on Middle East and South Asian affairs.