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Beyond The Modi Mandapam: Understanding PR War Machine Driving ‘Brand Modi’

The morphology of what’s now a global best-in-class war machine is a fearsome thing for anyone standing in the way.

There is no occasion when verbal grandstanding is not part and parcel of this Big Leader’s sound effects. Photo: Vikram Sharma
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On an astrologically appropriate date three months from now, watch every TV channel as our new prime minister strides towards Parliament just days after having taken his oath of office outside Rashtrapati Bhavan. The new cabinet has still not been announced, but this is the moment that the faithful have been waiting for.

That age-defining and historic moment begins as he alone strides forth. No one else can match step with him. None dare occupy centre stage, or even be on the edges of that stage he owns. His presence alone now keeps away not just intruders and interlopers, but any insiders too. For those tuned to listen, there may be sounds of the clanging of temple bells. The newly-installed Papacy at Ayodhya may symbolically be part of the visual stage setting. As India’s avowedly most blasé Image Guru, even I’m gobsmacked by the sheer scale of each spectacle.

Photo: Getty Images
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This is a practiced and almost holy ritual. For observers like me, it’s by now a familiar visual, but enhanced each time. This one is several notches above its last outing. By now, even his closest claimants have realised that he is at his best alone, unalloyed. Best by himself with no props and most certainly walk within seven paces.

These images and the prolonged surround sound inevitably raise the question whether this imagery is indeed ‘par for the course’ as far as India is concerned. Does India ‘fangirl’ only to images of a strong and powerful leader? Of those who stride alone like a colossus, across our landscape, and mesmerise the largest population on earth? Like the reality show, do we need the complete and total sound and sight of just one Big Boss?

Whether it’s a giant like Jawaharlal Nehru or his successor like Indira Gandhi, whether it’s a doughty farmer like Charan Singh, or a grizzly newbie like Chandra Shekar, the images of the powerful in India have always been frighteningly similar and mostly solo acts. They’ve all got immense presence, a certain mesmerising quality, an isolationist stance that defies any easy definition. Of course, there have been exceptions—from the diminutive Shastri to the tremulous Manmohan and the joined-at-the-hip Vajpayee, all of whom flaunted partnerships. But those are not examples that matter now.

Photo: Getty Images
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Today, the images are different. Now we have the visuals of a leader who is equally at home bronco busting a new Tejas fighter aircraft and equally adept at reverentially performing the consecration rituals of a temple. He is 'the internationalist' as adept at backslapping global leaders like Trump as he is being the mein-host to G20 leaders at the hastily-completed Bharat Mandapam or the unsurpassable Modi Cricket Stadium.

Then there’s the domestic drama he’s the hero of. Whether he is goofing around in a semi-fatherly mode tweaking children’s ears or appealing to women to use the cooking gas he’s delivered to their wood fired kitchens, there’s a naked native narrative he’s able to spin and sometimes get teary-eyed about.

This wall-to-wall imagery that seems to be everywhere may just be a factor of how social media and media itself have grown to occupy a disproportionate share of our own mind space. But there is no doubt that the powerful images we are being bombarded with have been designed for and will have lethal consequences on the imminent elections. There’s no doubt that the Man is as hydra-headed as he is indefatigable. Being on 24X7 is a fundamental ingredient that allows the time and detail that’s critical if each of the acts requires the patient and variegated make-up of the kind only traditional Kathakali demands.

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Visual images are only one half of the story. There is no occasion when verbal grandstanding is not part and parcel of this Big Leader’s sound effects. There is no day when a major grandiose statement is not delivered. The dreams are spun mega sized, and whether it is the promise that India’s rupee will eventually overtake the dollar, or that we will proceed to build a commercial aircraft domestically, or even repetitively chest-thumping on our successful missions to the sun and the moon. Promises and platitudes mix seamlessly to create a charming worldview that only a true leader can mesmerise listeners to embrace.

The totality of these multiple image-crafting exercises has allowed the morphing of Leader 1.0 into Leader 2.0 and opened the space for many more versions in future. There’s little doubt that the crescendo is yet to come. There is clearly space for more heights to be attained. The morphology of what’s now a global best-in-class war machine is a fearsome thing for anyone standing in the way. History shows us that this combination of imagery with rhetoric is both powerful and sustainable as long as a leader with commitment to this route is rewarded with sustained and successive terms in office. And that can last for as long as there’s no contestant in sight. Never tested, never contested, the only sense of democratic triumphalism is provided by severely stunted pygmies at play in the arena.

Globally, this kind of focus on hype, is not a rarity. The multidimensional testosterone-loaded leaders have usually been those who have arrived on the scene when devastation faced their nation, and when people felt they needed a Swiss Army knife-type ambidextrous leader who could champion them out of a multidimensional morass. The best example of this kind of macho leadership in motion, that used both images and surround sound well, is probably Winston Churchill. Watch him, as he leads the United Kingdom out of the possibility of being invaded, and fine-tunes his visibility to channel victory. This, between his cigar-chewing bulldog persona and a mesmeric ability to use his booming voice on radio broadcasts to rally a nation that was trembling before Nazi Germany.

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In more recent times, we have the example of Vladimir Putin pulling Mother Russia out of the quagmire of the disintegrating Soviet Union. Whether he’s seen riding a horse, bare-chested, or firing a tank, there’s no doubt that he flaunts all the visible signs of a leader who leads from the front and who can inspire every man, woman, child and conscript. His is also a controlled image, and one that has no space for either softness, or even simplicity. The words used may vary, but a Stalinist sense of being totally in control obviously overhangs the Kremlin air.

All this is just the culmination of what we have been witnessing over the last nine years in this era that is Modi’s. The personal imagery is now set for its next evolution, and there is no “riding into the sunset” chapter in this book. We are privileged to witness this act of creation in real time. We are mute spectators to an elevated new gladiator sport.

The enemies, for the future, may be many, but they’re mainly imaginary, except for the ones creeping past our borders. Our striding War Lord faces no opposition. He seeks nothing. It’s the citizenry that seeks him out. He takes nothing except Victory as the obvious ending. The new era of wall-to-wall hagiography may well have just begun. Look no further. It’s coming to every screen next to you.

(Views expressed are personal)

(This appeared in the print as 'Morphing and Morphology')

(Dilip Cherian is India’s image guru.)

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