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Narendra Modi, the present incumbent to the Prime Minister’s chair, had a little break the other day for an award ceremony. Well, little different from the usual award ceremonies — where the Prime Minister presents awards and gives some pep talk, here Modi himself was presented with the ’First-ever Philip Kotler Award’.

Perhaps looking at Modi’s much-publicised workaholic nature (if one is to believe what is written about him, he is reported to work 18 hours a day without any break) the organisers had seen to it that people who were to be presenting the award were flown in to save his time.

As expected, not only the bhakts but many of Modi’s cabinet colleagues could not hide their glee with this ‘first-ever’ award and went on overdrive to shower praise on him. Soon it dawned upon them that (thanks to The Wire report, which merely posed a few basic questions about this award) there was not much to be elated over this award, so they preferred to suddenly turn mute.

A little search on the internet revealed to them that this man, Philip Kotler — whom the American Marketing Association described as “the most influential marketer of all time” is basically a management guru (it would be opportune here to remember what Peter Drucker, a well-known management consultant from the earlier generation, had said: ‘People use the word “Guru” only because “charlatan” is too long) who has written many books on the subjects which are read by students all over the world and is a consultant to many corporate houses, has instituted this award in his own name and Modi has been selected for this in a ‘very confidential manner’.

It is as if some management consultant in India, a darling to many corporate houses and also taking courses in some elite colleges, one fine morning decides to institute an award in his name and confers it on the President/Prime Minister of a country, to further his personal/professional interests.

By evening of Monday (when the award was announced), it was the turn of the Opposition parties to congratulate the Prime Minister for this ‘unique achievement’ with a tongue-in-cheek comment.

“I want to congratulate our PM on winning the world famous ‘Kotler Presidential Award’! In fact, it’s so famous it has no jury, has never been given out before & is backed by an unheard of Aligarh company. Event Partners: Patanjali & Republic TV :),” Congress president Rahul Gandhi tweeted.

A day after, it was also discovered that this award had some Saudi connection to it and a particular Saudi company, which plans to spread its network in India, was behind this. Another media group even found out that one of the sponsoring companies, Suslence Research International Institute, to this award had given a fake address from Aligarh.

Whatever be the case, all these details, definitely do not add any glory to the Prime Minister’s post.

Imagine the head of any other country receiving such an award with dubious connections and questionable motives without an iota of transparency behind it, who goes on tom-tomming about it. What impression could this create about him/her in the rest of the world? This is an act similar to the one when US President Barack Obama had come to India and Modi had welcomed him wearing a suit that repeatedly spelled out his name in gold pinstripes,  becoming the second leader in the world — after the disgraced Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak — to do this and inviting ridicule all over the world.

All these details about the award were readily available in the public domain and must have been known to close officials of the Prime Minister. They must have verified these details and later shared these with him. And he must have contemplated on these and then given his consent.

The question then arises as to why the Prime Minister readily agreed to accept an award that does not have any international credibility and even shared the news on his official Twitter handle as some ‘big achievement’, thus effectively becoming a ‘poster boy’ for the likes of Philip Kotler and his people, providing legitimacy to what he stands for?

PM @narendramodi received the first-ever Philip Kotler Presidential award.

The Award focuses on the triple bottom-line of People, Profit and Planet.

It will be offered annually to the leader of a Nation.

Was it because of the Saudi connection to it, as argued by some, or was it part of some quid pro quo which was being envisaged with the marketing firm, where Kotler and his expertise could be used to further boost the image of ‘Brand Modi’ which is in rough weathers these days?

The fact is that Modi’s charisma is fading — which has become evident with his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s loss in three Hindi heartland states and reaching on the margins in two other states – and he is keen to add some artificial gloss to his image.

How careful Modi is about building his image, using all possible means available, is widely known.

A few months ago, the Consortium of Petroleum Dealers, an apex organisation of petrol-diesel pumps spread over the country, disclosed how state-owned marketing companies (OMCs) had issued a verbal advisory to petrol pump dealers to display pictures of Prime Minister Modi at their outlets ahead of the 2019 elections and reportedly even  threatened them with cut in supplies if they refuse to comply.

Not many have forgotten the uproar in the media when the Mukesh Ambani Group launched its Jio mobile phone services. It freely used Modi’s image, without any formal permission from the Prime Minister’s Office – in its advertisements. What did this ‘free’ use of his image signify? Here was the Prime Minister of a country, elected democratically, acting as ‘brand ambassador’ of a new mobile phone launched by the biggest corporate house in the country!

Digital payment gateway, PayTM, was a similar case. A day after demonetisation, leading newspapers flashed full-page advertisements of PayTM welcoming this step. Here, too, Modi’s face popped in from the advertisements.

Remember, Modi is the first mainstream Indian politician who has carefully tried to build his image rather assiduously. More than a decade ago, when he was still Chief Minister of Gujarat, he had embarked on building his image by roping in a US lobbying firm, APCO Worldwide, at a monthly cost of $25,000 (2007). A lobbying firm which in its own words

..[o]ffers “professional and rare expertise” to governments, politicians and corporations, and is always ready to help clients to sail through troubled waters in the complex world of both international and domestic affairs.’

That was a period when none from the class of politicians had even heard about such a firm and had not even thought of using their services. It was also the period when Modi was particularly worried about not getting a US visa because of the Gujarat carnage of 2002. This was a direct fallout of the communal killings in Gujarat that had followed the tragic Godhra train fire incident and had been widely covered in the national and international media. Very keen to build a positive image and attract foreign investments, Modi roped in lobbying firm, APCO, which had earlier serviced clients like former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha and President for life of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev. This was the same period when APCO was lobbying for its most recent client, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian billionaire with mafia links.

American tycoon, the late Steve Jobs once wrote: “To me, marketing is about values. This is a very complicated world, it’s a very noisy world. And we’re not going to get the chance to get people to remember much about us. No company is. So we have to be really clear on what we want them to know about us.”

It is possible that Modi and his team are rather keen to project a different image this time which would facilitate ‘what we want them to know about us’ and hence the good offices of “the most influential marketer of all time”.

The writer is a senior journalist. 

Originally published in NewsClick

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