Modi’s McLuhan moment

Ashish Mehta

Modi’s McLuhan moment

Thrills and perils of mixing politics with virtual reality

First, a bit of theory. Marshall McLuhan (Wikipedia entry here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_McLuhan, a Canadian expert on communication, coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message’ in the 1960s. Simply put, his theory was that how you say something is more important that whatever you say. An advertisement or an election campaign will have a different effect if it is delivered through TV instead of a post-card.

Though Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi may not have heard of him, he has discovered McLuhan as he aims to win Gujarat for the third
consecutive time. We are of course talking about his 3D campaign. Modi is a very effective orator. He does not talk the clichéd language of politics that can put even insomniacs to sleep. He prefers simple, plain language, switching to even the colloquial register for effects and jokes. He connects with the audience within moments. He has penchant for dramatics, and his barbs aimed the Congress get claps. He has probably modeled himself on the supremely popular Ramayan kathakar, Morari Bapu. In short, a Modi rally is an entertainment item. Three youngsters going home after a 3D projection rally at Chhota Udepur in Vadodara district actually told me so: “Maja aavi (had fun).

Thus, point one: Modi the orator as the vote-catcher. Point two is that there’s nobody else in the party. The 11 years of the Modi rule are also the period when one after the other, all other BJP stalwarts have called it a day. They have either launched a new party (Keshubhai Patel, Suresh Mehta), or have withdrawn from party politics (Rajendrasinh Rana), or gone to a better world due to reasons natural or otherwise (Ashok Bhatt, Haren Pandya, Kashiram Rana). Does anybody know who is the current state BJP president? Now if Modi alone has to carry the burden, how can he be everywhere, the way Lord Krishna was seen by every gopi? Live telecasts of speeches won’t bring crowds. So, live cast of 3D projection was a technology very much waiting for Modi. McLuhan was right.

Now add to that the fact that, whether bringing fresh faces (like so far) or repeating MLAs (like this time), Modi seeks votes in his own name, not in the name of the candidate. Parliamentary democracy, as envisioned by the framers of our constitution, might be slightly different, but Modi repeatedly has been telling people that it is the vote to select the person you would give the key of Gujarat to. The candidate might be a lamppost for all I know, but vote for kamal. For this brand of parliamentary democracy, where 182 Modis are in contest, you need the right medium to deliver the message.

The first time he used it was on November 17, in Ahmedabad, Surat, Vadodara and Rajkot. There were crowds. It was a hit – largely, though there were technical snags much highlighted by the Gujarati newspapers. The next day he addressed 26 rallies simultaneously and on December 5, as many as 52 towns heard him. People are impressed. “It looks like Modi himself,” you hear in the crowd. But Modi himself is the most impressed. Forget what I have to say, first look at how I am saying it. So he goes paying tribute to this marvel of technology, lest it has failed to impress you: “Gujarat once again sets a new trend. Never before in the history of the world has anybody [correction follows] any political party has used this 3D technology. It is my good fortune (saubhagya) to bring it to Gujarat [though the firm doing it is based in the Congress-ruled Andhra Pradesh, but what’s a little detail between friends]. This dream has been realized on the land of Gujarat. Now a Gujarati youth can take pride and see eye to eye with anybody in the world.” In short, vote for me because I am campaigning hi-tech. That’s what McLuhan meant when he said ‘the medium is the message’.

As for creating a buzz, the technology has done its job. Now, as every Facebook user knows (I don’t know as I don’t use it, but you get the point), technology has its limitations. Modi, as it happens, knows this truth. So, he has to underline and emphasise that he is virtually right there, among people. “Brothers and sisters, I can see the smile on your faces here in the screens before me.” Hard to believe. “I can hear your claps.” From 52 places. Would you believe or the Congress' lies?

He knows the problem, so he cracks jokes. “Yesterday I went to Bhavnagar. One fellow refused to believe it was me. I had to tell him I am Modi, not that 3D-wala Modi.” Here are some more problems that the “tech-savvy chief minister” (as the background voice before his speech described him  twice) would certainly be aware of:

It was a major rally for the party, and yet the local candidate was nowhere in sight. It’s just this 3D show, you listen to Modi and then go home.

For the same reason, technicians were more visible than party workers. Technicians shouted instructions, they made the arrangements. Not only the candidate is redundant, so are the party workers. Talk of wonders of technology.

BJP workers from the village where I am spending the election month arranged for a bus and went to listen to ‘Modisaheb’ in Pavagarh, about one and a half hour’s rough road, when he came there to conclude his pre-election Vivekanand Yuva Yatra. I kept looking for them in Chhota Udepur, less than 45 minutes (actually 15 km). None turned up for this ‘padada-wali sabha” (the rally with curtains – a huge curtained box frame is the stage for the 3D projection). Their complaint: as the Hindi film song goes, jo baat tujh mein hai, teri (3D) tasvir mein nahi.

Region specifically, Modi spoke about Saurashtra, referring to what all he was doing for the Narmada dam and what all the Congress was doing to prevent him from doing. Stray references to a couple of places (like Bhavnagar in the joke above). Folks in this tribal belt on the eastern border of Gujarat did not have any take-home. Effectively, once the wonder wears out, 2D or 3D, it is like a simultaneous telecast.

Since Modi knows this, he is putting this up only as a sideshow, running to storm every constituency.

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features

Gujarat's shame

Editorial :The Financial Times

October 15, 2012 6:19 pm

Gujarat’s shame

Narendra Modi is chief minister of Gujarat, one of India’s most dynamic and business-friendly states. But for 10 years he has also been an international pariah as the Hindu nationalist leader of a regional government accused of complicity in riots which killed an estimated 2,000 Muslims. As Britain prepares to restore contacts with Mr Modi, this shameful episode should not be airbrushed from history in the interests of diplomacy.

Mr Modi has always denied accusations that he turned a blind eye to the riots of 2002 and he has not been charged with any crime. But four years ago India’s Supreme Court denounced the Gujarat administration’s attempts to cover up its role in what are now known to have been, at least in part, organised pogroms. Human Rights Watch this year condemned Mr Modi’s government for its failure to investigate the violence and its persistent efforts to obstruct justice.

Barely two months ago, one of his former ministers was jailed for 28 years after being found guilty of involvement in an attack in 2002 in which almost 100 people died. Despite this, Mr Modi has never expressed any remorse or apologised for the killings.

It is possible to see why the UK government might be keen to move on, even though three UK citizens died in the violence. Commercial pragmatism has played a part. Gujarat’s economy is one of the most buoyant in India. It has become a destination for British and other foreign investment, and is potentially an attractive market for UK exports.

The timing is, however, highly questionable. It comes as Gujarat prepares for elections in December, which Mr Modi is expected to win. His majority could be enhanced by his new-found international acceptance. Recognition may also boost his chances for India’s national elections in 2014, where he is being cited as a possible prime minister. Mr Modi is now a far more serious contender than he would have been had he still been shunned internationally.

Realpolitik means governments often have to take a pragmatic approach in dealing with leaders with questionable records. But this does not mean they have to let up the pressure over human rights abuses or distasteful policies.

Britain and others have now decided to engage with Mr Modi. But they should also make it clear that rehabilitation is not licence for the type of supremacist-inspired nationalism that fuelled the 2002 massacres.

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features