Fever Pitch – Notes From an Election Campaign

modi masks

The Desh ka Maha Tyohar has come to an end but Modi’s juggernaut rolls on. Modi wave has swept the nation (for now, let us believe that there was no tampering of EVMs etc) once again. The festival of colours, flags, symbols, masks etc is over.

What was striking about this election campaign was the amount of party merchandize being sold and circulated in the market. T shirts, mugs, caps, umbrellas, masks, among others, were up for grabs. Each displaying the party logo or the candidate. This, apart from all the newspaper, radio and billboard advertising that has occupied much of the public space. Who pitched their merchandize best? And does it have anything to do with the end result?

In case you missed it, there was a Namo rath that accompanied BJP rallies everywhere. The purpose of the rath was to sell BJP merchandize or more correctly Modi’s image plastered on T shirts, mugs, pens, pendrives, clocks, wrist bands, sarees etc. I haven’t been through all the merchandize, the first shelf itself was overwhelming. For those of us who could not buy the products from the rath, the same was being sold on the Namo app that citizens must have downloaded on their mobile phones back in 2015 when it was launched. The app boasts of 1 crore downloads. Anywho, that website came of great use in selling their products, making recoveries to the tune of 5 crore Rupees. Yes! According to economic times, some 15.75 lakh units were sold in three months on the Namo app alone.
Were they expensive? There were several grades for several income brackets. The richest probably got a free sample mask made of best (leather? No,) fiber glass for their generous donations in terms of election bonds. The middle class could buy the soft rubber easy-to-fit mask which was priced at around Rs500. The lower class had to make do with cheap Chinese plastic ones which shrank in the summer heat, and wouldn’t come off at the end of the day, so many of them are now facing an identity crisis. T shirts have been a huge hit with the masses, selling in lakhs of units. It is likely people will wear them on a daily basis, which is fine and safe to do so in most parts of the country. Just don’t go to a job interview wearing one saying ‘ mei bhi chowkidar’ lest it be mistaken to be your CV. Boasting of being a chowkidar bears fruit only if there’s an entire election campaign built on it. Otherwise I am sorry it’s wasted.

The Congress had fewer products on display, as expected. Apart from a lack of imagination as to what could entice the public to go for their candidate, uh… merchandize, they also lacked in funds. Having received funds about 1/5th of what BJP got from election donors, they were way behind even before the race had begun. Congress T shirts with catch lines ‘My next PM Rahul’, ‘keep calm and vote for Rahul’ had poor or no rating on e-commerce sites. How much effort does it take to artificially inflate your ratings or give good reviews? Apparently too much for Congress to bother. They do not realise that the internet is a critical tool for framing an opinion. But that’s the Congress, clueless to the winds of change. The Congress also sold mobile back covers with the symbol of the hand printed on it. It also had Rahul masks in their merchandize. Going by the rallies there seem to have been few takers.

At the end of the day it isn’t the number of units sold that really mattered though. It is what they sold. No I do not mean the variety or its utility in the Marxist sense, use-value. I mean it’s symbolic use, its social status, in the Georges Bataille way. What social value does the product have that which is on sale?

Modi was not just selling a product for an election campaign. He was selling an ideology. Not Hindutva. Something more appealing, Moditva. Moditva enjoys immense social and emotional value. People are drawn to Modi, like homo sapiens to a newly inaugurated Starbucks coffee outlet.

Modi has put in lot of effort in erasing his Godhra past from his image. In 2014 he released a children’s book called Bal Narendra which was full of stories of his childhood, his struggles and other heroics. It might have sounded absurd proposition then but it has become a very popular bedtime story for kids of all ages. You see, these 5 year olds in another three election years will be old enough to vote. That’s how far-sighted he is. But the book is not just inane stories of his past, it makes him a tangible figure in public. So from the dais where he gives his speech, your mind races back to his childhood struggles, heart swelling with pride at how far you…err… he has come. He could not have committed sins like riots, and demonetization. It was his party at fault. He is truly a Messiah. Why, when he was a child he jumped into the water to save a girl from drowning.

In 2018 he released a book ‘Exam warriors’ which is a book for students on how to manage stress and ride the wave of challenges. His Mann ki Baat addresses on All India Radio are vastly popular among the urban audience. Modi is no great orator (let’s be honest) but he connects with the masses. You may scoff at him for talking about eating mangoes or about his daily schedule and other generic stuff but therein lies his charm. In public speeches when he asks what PUBG is, he draws immediate connection with anxious parents. He takes his mother out for a stroll on Mother’s day. Hearts!

He might even talk through his ‘radar’ at times but most of us do not care. This is because the average human is given to cognitive ease or a situation where the brain ceases to think and functions in an autopilot mode, unquestioning of what is being said. This is mostly because Modi has won the trust of the masses, his confidence/authority puts us at ease.

His ‘chappan inch chhati’ has delivered two surgical strikes in five years, which is so impressive. It has paid rich dividends too. This election there were special ‘surgical strike sarees’ and ‘air strike sarees’ selling in MP and Rajasthan and other states. Women want to wear these to display their love for the PM, the army and the nation. (Disturbingly enough each of these terms are interchangeable now). Those sarees are worth seeing really! But a warning here, you cannot un-see them thereafter. Of course one must not forget, that the revenue collected from these sales will go into Project Namami Gange, an added incentive to buy, is it not?

There is one thing you must have seen or should see. The charming picture of him and Vicky Kaushal (of Uri fame) standing together. It must have topped the Make in India Charts of symbolic value that week. Modi has a picture with all your favorite Bollywood stars. It cannot be over stated how important cultural power-tools like TV and films are in politics. Just an example will clear your doubts. Sunny Deol of 90s fame joined BJP two weeks before the polling day and won from Gurdaspur with a margin of more than 82000 votes! Literally, all in a day’s work. (So if you want a foolproof method of joining politics, either become a sadhvi or an actor.)

Modi is not just any product but has marketed himself as having some intrinsic value that sets him apart. Like a professional advertiser he tells you why his product is different. Buying his goods has the symbolic value of national pride, security, family, childhood struggles, sacrifice. Modi is a stamp of authority, yet family, the typical Indian household, disclipinarian male figurehead. (Meanwhile Rahul Gandhi is still trying to shake off the Pappu tag.) In the game of aesthetic appeal Modi has won hands down.

That is why a Modi mask is just not any mask. The wearer believes in Modi, knows him from his childhood days, shares a bond with him that goes beyond politics. He is family. You want to be like him. Like a Leviathan he is the multitude in one body.

The cultural capital of Moditva fuels the juggernaut that lumbers on. That T shirt isn’t coming off for a few weeks, though I wish the mask would. You know, I’d really like to feel my face.

Debjanee Ganguly is a political commentator


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