“I have not seen a face as much as I’ve seen Narendra Modi’s in all of my life,” says a retired octogenarian in a steel town. And he has been around long enough to see both the original Gandhi and, now, all of the famous family that has taken up the more famous name. Put it down to the sheer volumes of…what? Something that rains down on us constantly. Not words, not ideas, not election slogans on the wall or campaign limericks screamed from the autorickshaw ghettoblaster. It’s images. In the old battle between word and picture, the latter has upped the game...and is winning. Photos, memes and moving pictures now fill and saturate our public space, infinitely self-replicating like some mythical demon. It’s not just that. The simplified visual gives you aura rather than nuance; it’s a different mode of accessing reality altogether. And politics has shifted wholesale to this terrain—among all the things that endure from the old world, it’s one that has adapted marvellously to this new sea of magnified images.
It’s this new species of politics that fights and wins elections today. While it swims with ease in these hyper-real waters, the laws that govern it are still stuck in the old world. On April 1, the Delhi High Court dismissed a PIL against the release of a biopic on PM Narendra Modi, slated for the same week. Around the same time, a book on the controversial Rafale deal was not allowed to be released by the Election Commission because it ‘violated its rules’. Modi’s is not the only political biopic on this summer either. Rahul Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee are also coming to theatres near you soon, as is a web series on Modi. What’s more, on March 31, a day before the court’s decision, ‘Namo TV’ was launched by the BJP across DTH platforms to broadcast exclusive ‘Modi content’ full time.
‘Comrade’, just a social media poster; Biju Babu, released in Odisha.
There was a time when the Election Commission held tight reins on election-time propaganda: wall posters were banned, even symbolic statues were clothed. But today, the Model Code of Conduct seems like a witless anachronism—like a driving manual in the age of automated, driverless cars. Political propaganda has moved into another orbit: faces adorn cups of chai on the train, the train ticket itself, and flight boarding passes. They stare out at you from branded merchandise—saris, T-shirts, bindis—and uncountable social media forwards. It’s such an explosion that it doesn’t merely defy policing, it takes the game outside the old jurisdiction altogether. To a place where the distinction between private and public space collapses.
In 1961, when the semblance of a model code of conduct was in place in Kerala, the first state to have it, daily transmission of television on AIR was still about four years away. It’s safe to say a fair bit has changed since then. The transition from radio and cinema to DD on that family-sized TV set seems like an orderly march on the parade ground compared to the full-blown mutiny that followed. The revolution was not just televised, it was screened, it was streamed, it was webcast, and shared many times over.
They all coexist: the evergreen silver screen, TV, the PC, tablet…and don’t forget that you hold an entire hall of mirrors in your hand (it’s called a phone because once it used to transmit only sound). Hyper-reality comes in varying, malleable inch-sizes, sneaks into your subconscious from every pore. Visuals were always there, but so was their policing. The defining image of political parties, designed for a pre-literate India, was the election symbol. But the EC was a supercop with a big stick then—those were the days when Jyoti Basu called then CEC T.N. Seshan a “mad dog”. Now, the symbol turns into a meme and spills over the boxes meant to contain it. In 2014, then PM candidate Modi tweeted his photo, white lotus in hand, after casting his vote; last week, he went on national TV to announce something an ISRO chief would have done earlier. In either case, the Model Code of Conduct wasn’t quite designed to contain the kind of virality that ensued.
Yes, the EC still deals with graffiti, loudspeakers, posters, larger-than-life cutouts propped up on bamboo structures, and entire herds of elephant statues. Mayawati’s elephants can still be put behind a purdah, but what do you do with the Statue of Unity? What do you do when all of Calcutta’s kerbsides are awash in blue-and-white, in Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee’s cotton sari colours? The entire city becomes an election poster then. Tracing money trails and poll expenditures is a game from the old world, meaningless in a world of Namo saris, T-shirts et al (even if the PM tweets about it). Memes beget more reality, and that breeds more memes. It’s an infinite loop of multiplication.
Politics is entertainment
The trailer of the Modi biopic was trending at the top spot on YouTube in India on the day of its release. It now has 21 million views. The Rahul film, titled My Name is RaGa, too awaits a different kind of exit poll at the box-office. Even Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee’s biopic ‘Baghini’ is slated for release. That’s when the fans of Pinarayi Vijayan set off a pseudo-revolution online with a film poster (titled ‘Comrade’) that had superstar Mohanlal in a very comradely look—the director had to go public saying there was no such film, just like Javed Akhtar disavowed any part in the Modi film.
Too lazy to go to the cinema? You can literally go over the top right at home. On March 13, Eros Now tweeted a teaser: “Common man to becoming the PM, you know the leader, but do you know the man?” The 10-episode web series titled Modi, produced by Benchmark Pictures and directed by Umesh Shukla, starts streaming OTT soon. “The timing is purely coincidental,” offers Ali Hussein, COO of Eros Digital. “It’s an inspirational story, very interesting from the narrative point of view.” Eros’s mobile app has 10 million+ downloads from Google Play. Ali waves away any talk of politics. Eros’s content is subscription-based, he says, viewers have to pay for it.
For a film industry that’s traditionally avoided political (or government-related) themes, the past one year marked a curious crescendo. Samples: The Accidental Prime Minister, Thackeray, Mere Pyare Prime Minister, Parmanu: the story of Pokhran, Uri: The Surgical Strike, Toilet Ek Prem Katha, Sui Dhaaga (on Make in India) etc. Even the History TV18 docu Special Operations: India ‘Surgical Strikes’ had over 1.7 million YouTube views. But market reports that say political ads in the entertainment space will hit an unparalleled high in 2019—an estimated Rs 4,000 crore, a 40 per cent bump-up from 2014—miss a vital point. The entertainment itself is the politics. First, the obvious. Movies can indeed influence voter behavior, says a PwC media analyst, adding “millennials are attracted towards patriotic themes like surgical strikes”. Next, the subtler bit. “All such films, like Uri, being made today are an attempt to distort or create myths: no one is working on the level of fact. That’s the fascinating part of this game,” sociologist Shiv Visvanathan tells Outlook.
Mamata’s city shades.
Now, the confusing part...the rules. “With the code of conduct in place, it’s surprising how biopics on Modi could be released. It’s promotional material, there’s a direct correlation to elections,” says political analyst Manisha Priyam. She was all for a petition against the release of the web series and movie at poll time, but the courts have already ruled.
What does the code of conduct say? Its March 2019 version seems right out of the 1980s: ‘telecast of feature films (other than commercials) won’t be allowed on public-funded DD if the actors are contesting elections’. Queries e-mailed to the EC remained unanswered till the filing of this report. An election officer said, on condition of anonymity: “With evolving technology, the EC is facing several challenges. This is new territory. There’s no regulation for platforms like OTT or web series, but if people feel something is a violation, they should complain to the EC. We would surely look into it.”
The BSP’s veiled elephants.
The Political Supermarket
Merchandising is the other sphere where parties bet big. These artefacts are visual, but also tangible…and shops are slowly being flooded with it across the country. Last September, the NaMo app officially launched a line of Modi merchandise—T-shirts, caps, wristbands, hoodies, stationery, magnets, keychains and clocks. Then there are the saris. Says Nitin Harnesha, owner of Roop Shringar textile shop in Surat, one of the many selling those saris in the city, “We do it out of love for our leader. We don’t have any connection to parties. We get 500 calls a day and it’s impossible to keep up! We actually deleted our phone number for two days.” He has sold over 15,000 Namo saris in three months. “We planned them three months back, then designed the pieces. We already have 18-19 variants.” The synthetic saris are generally priced at Rs 650-750, depending on the quality of fabric and complexity of design. Dwarkesh Bhartia, who launched NaMo India in 2013, has a chain of 18 stores across India now, each making “around Rs 2-3 lakh every month” now. He too is coy about the overt political bit—he says saris with a face on them are “propaganda”, while his “NaMo” T-shirts only deal with it symbolically. “Namo also means namashkar. My brand was the original, everyone copied us,” Bhartia says.
Modi merchandise on Amazon.
Harsh Sanghavi, BJP’s Surat MLA, too affirms that it’s all private-led. “There are 328 stores across Surat’s textile market making these clothes…saris, kurtis, everything made with ‘Namo Again’, ‘Beti Bachao’ and such slogans printed,” he says. Sometimes, the lines intertwine more clearly. Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, aka @Tshirtbhaiya, had to shut the unsuccessful T-shirt venture he launched in 2013. Now, in his new avatar as a voluble BJP spokesman, he has breathed new life into his business, with a twist. “I wondered why we always have Bob Marley and other icons from elsewhere on our T-shirts. So I started printing T-shirts with our national heroes on them and they took off,” says Bagga. With tees boasting of ‘Indian Avengers’ (with embossed images of Modi and Nirmala Sitharaman, among others) and lines reading “#SurgicalStrike, India’s Pride” accompanied with illustrations, Bagga tells us who the winner is among the hundreds adorning his catalogue. “It’s the one that says ‘Indian Army, saving your ass whether you like it or not!’” This one depicts the controversial human shield incident of 2017. “We sell 50-100 T-shirts daily. We also do customised orders. Just after Balakot, we had hundreds of requests on social media for T-shirts on Abhinandan Varthaman. We even take bulk orders. Only rule is, nothing anti-Modi,” Bagga says.
The virus spreads on its own. Mansa, a store in Calcutta’s New Market, was recently spotted selling saris carrying the joraphool (Trinamool’s symbol) and the lotus. The owner says it’s an initiative taken by the establishment independently. “This is an election special collection. Right now we are only selling BJP and Trinamool saris. Our silk variants cost Rs 1,000, pattern crepe is for Rs 1,200 and chanderi is for Rs 900,” he tells Outlook. Trinamool MP Saugata Roy says his party isn’t indulging in blatant merchandising, except “maybe some T-shirts”. The Left, meanwhile, hasn’t been above a bit of commodity fetishism itself: check the CPI(M)-branded coffee mugs in Kerala!
Brokers of Likes and Shares
And we haven’t even yet come to social media, that extra-terrestrial beast running amok, the very birthplace of the new hyper-real politics. After a befuddled EC was badgered about it, on March 20, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Google, ShareChat and TikTok presented a ‘voluntary code of ethics’. Among other things, that involves insisting on transparency in political ads—a small beginning. Why small? Well, it’s the tip of the iceberg. If fake news was the flavour of 2017, the internet space in India has morphed since then.
Modi and Mamata saris.
A tiny bit of misinformation, omission and commission, and ‘quality content’ produced with editorialising is the way to go. Out of all the platforms, only FB has released numbers for political advertisements…the figures run into crores and the top spenders are predictable. Between February 24 and March 30, a page created on January 27 had spent over Rs 2.23 crore on 3,726 advertisements! The page, ‘bharatkemannkibaat.com’ has a BJP copyright and was inaugurated by the party as a crowd-feedback page. Of the top ten spenders in the period, four have clear BJP affiliations—they spent Rs 4.8 crore out of the Rs 6.7 crore spent by the top ten pages. The sole politician in the top ten is Naveen Patnaik at eighth, spending over Rs 39 lakh in that period—he has simultaneous polls coming up. How does it work, and what’s the reach? This is where it gets hyper-real.
For example, take the first two ads with disclaimers that the BJP put out, spending Rs 3,30,202 on each on an average. Organically, the posts would have reached about 4.5 lakh of its 1.5 crore followers, but the money spent would push them to an additional 36 lakh. For ‘total impressions’—the number of times a unique pair of eyes sees them—one would have to count all the multiplying shares thereafter on all platforms. Imagine this domino effect for non-disclaimer ads too, and it gets seriously vertigo-inducing. But the overall modus operandi has changed. Party pages no longer have links to stories from pliant web pages in the fake news category; it’s images and videos that travel like greased lightning. There are even teams keeping a hawk’s eye on gaffes made by other leaders, to be replayed for pleasure.
A social media Modi fan poster; posing with Kerala CPM mugs in hand.
But is this starburst of imagery unparalleled? Weren’t the old ‘icons’ always doing it? “You can’t compare Modi to Indira Gandhi and Nehru. They are historical creatures, he is an electronic fiction. Comparing across decades just doesn’t make any sense. This is a new paradigm,” says Visvanathan. “It’s actually the semiotics of the digital where Modi scores. The symbolism of the digital is very different from the symbolism in our ordinary lives because this is information in a condensed form. I think whoever is doing it has tremendous ideas.”
Vivek Wadhwa, author and distinguished fellow at Carnegie Mellon University, is not convinced by what the digital bosses are saying, and feels the law can catch up. “Facebook is raking in huge profits by promoting misinformation, hatred and bigotry. The company is pretending to do something that it knows doesn’t solve the problem by displaying the information about political spending. The way to solve the problem is for the EC to impose a fine of say Rs 1 lakh per view of an ad that breaks the rules. Let the fines for transgressions by tech companies be in the hundreds of crores and the companies will figure out a way to stop this. The EC needs to create a clear set of rules and stipulate fines. The problem will be solved within a week,” he adds. Others have echoed Wadhwa’s feelings too, that’s perhaps why on April 1, Facebook decided to remove 687 pages and accounts associated with the Congress and BJP IT cells in an apparent effort to control ‘coordinated inauthentic behaviour”.
Modi merchandise and Modi bindis.
There are also sceptics to the menacingly infinite potential of the digital space. Prof Mirza Asmer Beg of AMU, for instance, concedes the dizzying array of visual effects “create an atmospheric in favour of one party or the other” but downplays the potential impact. That perhaps misses the new India of cheap internet where WhatsApp groups infiltrate every rural block. Visvanathan sees nothing short of a new kind of politics that old institutions and actors are unable to grasp. “I’m sorry I think the EC has no understanding of social media as a public sphere. The Left has no sense of it either. This is a new way of looking at political structures,” he says. “Today you can distort realities, reconstruct realities. I think each party is creating a fiction, a fiction of the opponent. There is no crisis of conscience in the digital world. They think it’s a parallel world and you can destroy realities there.” Visvanathan says the EC is working on a 19th century idea of reality. “This is organised information on a scale people have never imagined, organised misinformation, and I think this has become more lethal than corruption or violence or the criminal background of politicians,” he says.
Historian and social reformer Rani Dhawan Shankardass, who has seen elections up close in the UK and India, says she doesn’t want to sound “cynical” but asks: “Before legal structures came in, how did we punish people? We shamed them. And people had what they call ‘sharam’ so they held back from doing certain things…. Concepts of shame have gone out of the window.” And “the law is so abstract, clinical and sterile that the model code means nothing,” she adds. The age of 3D holograms, larger-than-life caricatures and cute cat videos is clearly here to stay, regardless of what happens in May. Anyone miss pamphlets?
By Siddhartha Mishra with Arshia Dhar and Jyotika Sood