The Modi Masala that Makes the Brand Modi: Half Truths, Lies, Deceptions and Storytelling

Modi

Recently, I received a video (YouTube shorts), on WhatsApp, of a comical portrayal of a scene where Rahul Gandhi is peeping from behind to see how Narendra Modi prepares tea. Rahul Gandhi is curious to know, in this video, what masala (spices) Modi adds to the tea that makes people consuming his tea come back again and again. Modi tells Gandhi that he will never understand his way of making the masala tea.

In the humour, perhaps, lies an idea. The comical portrayal, perhaps, can be understood as conveying the idea of the ingredients of the masala, in a metaphorical sense, that goes into the making of the Brand Modi. Such a brand, once built and established, has to be defended and guarded from onslaughts to sustain the brand image and value. This is more so in the case of political brands where people, as voters, have to be made brand loyal to come back again and again to elect. It is here that the masala plays a vital role.

Come the elections, whether general, state or even municipal elections, what predominates the thinking of those voters deciding for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Both its landslide victory gained by an unprecedented mandate in Gujarat and its loss in Himachal Pradesh and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) are seen by the media in terms of Brand Modi; the loss is seen as making a dent in his brand. Therefore, to continuously sustain this glorified image the BJP and its government at the centre are always buoyant when it comes to outpourings of adulation for Narendra Modi.

Further, any exposés like the BBC documentary series India: The Modi Question and the Hindenburg Research report on Adani Group are seen as onslaughts to the image of Narendra Modi that negatively affect his brand value. Hence, the army of image makers, guarders and warders ranging from media ecosystem, officials of government institutions, the BJP leaders, other acolytes of the ruling dispensation in different fields and the troll gang swoop down to discredit such exposés in order to protect the brand. Often, they go “ballistic” with masalas prepared from the propaganda cells transmitted through “fake news chains” using twitter (the point that this is so is well argued here).

An issue of New India Samachar (September 16-30, 2022), an Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry magazine, carries a surfeit of “adulatory references to his feats”, as this tweet points out, along with his quotations and photos of different sizes. This perhaps makes for what is known as the Modi cult that is cultivated so indelicately.  The indelicacy is writ large and can be gauged by the way in which his every public act and private moments- those moments that influence and play on the voters-, including even the ones associated with pain and suffering arising out of a tragedy, is made into an event. It becomes an event management exercise that needs to be skillfully managed with photo shoots. An example was his visit to the Morbi hospital where the victims of the Morbi bridge collapse tragedy were admitted. The poor condition of the hospital was covered up by a quick facelift to prepare for the photo shoot during Modi’s visit.

Modi’s visit to Kedarnath temple in October last is another example of his public act-private moment event. His moments of humility and submission before the Lord’s image, in the precincts of the shrine, were captured from different angles. Such displays go a long way to impress the immature bhakts (believers) and bolster his image.

This article details the expanding and never-ending Modi cult that is so pervasive and begins with a list of how his figure has been enveloping all the spheres of our mundane daily life. Beginning with the vaccination certificates, the many images of Modi make their appearances on even saris.

Apart from the I&B Ministry magazine and other such means that promote the Modi cult there is also something known as Brand Modi, which some have opined, perhaps rightly, as one of the most powerful political brands in India’s history. Or is it, as it appears now, that Brand Modi is developing into Cult Brand Modi?

Cult Brand is a marketing concept. The customer base of cult brands is extremely loyal and fanatical. The cult brand speaks and connects to the customer’s emotions and engenders a sense of belonging. It builds a kind of consumer culture where the loyal customer thinks of consuming the product as part of her lifestyle. It persists for a long time.

Brand Modi was built before 2014 elections and that continued throughout his tenure and further in 2019 elections. The taglines that created the brand tell it all: Modi hai to Mumkin hai (if Modi is there it is doable), Ayega to Modi hi (Modi only will come), Vikas Purush (development man) and many others were aggressively pitched as campaign slogans.

Here is a brand without a concrete visible product or service (This essay and this show how much efforts were involved in brand building of Modi. One can imagine the money spent on such efforts). Thus the brand building exercise became just tagline pushing coupled with making every public act of his an event management exercise.

Brand Management in Politics

Brand Management is a marketing activity. Philip Kotler, the marketing guru, says that “the most distinctive skill of professional marketers is their ability to create, maintain, enhance and protect brands”.

It is indeed unfortunate and regrettable that the neoliberal marketing idea of brand has been brazenly used in the present times in popular political discussions. It makes one wonder whether the virtues of social justice and welfare etc. that have been so central to serious political discourses have been given a complete go by. The idea of a free citizen with a critical voice in a democracy is giving way to a brand loyal blind customer (or Andh Bhakt) susceptible to manipulations in a market.

Though there should be an aversion to such marketing ideas being part of political discussions it would still be a matter of much significance to unpack the idea of the making of Cult Brand Modi. It would also reveal the ingredients of the Modi masala that goes into the making of Brand Modi.

In the unpacking of this idea it would be appropriate to draw upon how marketing professionals have expounded on the subject of brands; how brand management in politics involves lying as a mode of deception, and in times of crisis, when a product or service is not to be found, it is the crisis that delivers the blow to the brand image.

The American Marketing Association defines a brand as “a name, term, sign, symbol, or design, or a combination of them, intended to identify the goods or services of one seller or a group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of competitors.” The goal of branding a product is to establish a certain product leadership in the market leading to increased profits.

The brand is projected in marketing campaigns through well devised taglines. In its bid to capture the consumers’ loyalty brand taglines end up being misrepresentations of the product, sometimes short of lying.

When it comes to political cult brand, in its bid to capture the voters’ loyalty, brand management requires the skill of storytelling where facts do not count. Truth, thus, becomes a casualty. The content of such stories, with the intent of building cult brand, operates beyond truth on the peg of misinformation, misrepresentation and, most of the times, outright lies.

The Making of Brand Modi

Brand Modi is built upon such stories and tales, woven from falsified history, combined with powerful propaganda and public relations machinery at BJP’s disposal. The lies and deceptions of Brand Modi are endless beginning from the pre 2014 election jumla of promising to credit Rs 15 lakhs in every person’s bank account to the distortion of facts and figures during demonetization and after. Thus there was a total disregard for the state of affairs and truth.

Modi taglines were pushed to project a positive image of a strongman. In an article, David Dyzenhaus, professor of law and philosophy at the University of Toronto, questions: What allows these strongmen to rise? The answer, he writes, “is often wrapped up in some idea of ‘populism’”. The idea, perhaps, can be unwrapped by understanding the making of political brands.

The populism, which gives rise to the image of a strongman through brand building, is generally associated with a particular understanding of ‘the political’. That understanding is in terms of what Carl Schmitt, the much despised German constitutional lawyer and political theorist, enunciates as the friend-enemy principle.

This principle plays out on the ground as toxic intolerance and hatred. The outcome of that hatred is violence perpetrated on those seen as enemies of the state- the minorities, particularly the Muslims- who have to be vanquished. These are done in the form of use of bulldozers by the state in demolishing their (members of the minorities) houses. This event is then projected to enhance the strongman image. Their places of worship are also attacked.

Such violent occurrences, however, get shrouded by Modi’s silence coupled with his preacherly cant through reeling out stories, later amplified by the media.

It is the negative emotion of toxic hatred coupled with the belligerence of Sangh Parivar outfits like Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal that created the loyal Andh Bhakts (blind followers) of the brand. His populist practices of Thali banging, claps, Diyas, and switching off lights further added to his image. The taglines were mere frippery and moonshine and the brand was a mask.

Fake news and half-truths inciting animosity play an important role in targeting the minorities. It forms a component in this brand building exercise with the purpose of creating a strongman perception. These are generated and delivered by well-cultivated propaganda machinery and the ever compliant media. This machinery also includes social media messages eulogizing Modi with the best of adjectives. The media is always on its toes to shower him with the best of taglines that further enhance his brand value.

The fabricated image of Modi alongside the headline (or is it tagline?) ‘Last, Best Hope of Earth’ in what appeared to be the front page of New York Times, that social media users were posting last year, is one example of such a machinery.  The taglines and the slogans for establishing and promoting Brand Modi become exaggerated versions of non-existent virtues. Thus, in the creation of these taglines there is an element of deception to capture people’s loyalty towards the brand and in this way he finagles to get the votes.

Modi the Storyteller

Storytelling is another important element of brand building where the product itself speaks to the customer of its putative virtues. If one goes through Modi’s speeches here it can be seen that lies are not blandly presented but are rendered as a spiced tale. The narrative of self-glorification is well scripted with virtues and the narration is well-rehearsed. One example of this is how as a fakir he can walk away with a jhola (a shoulder hanging bag).

Modi wields his flair for the dramatic and delivers the story as a performance with engaging histrionics, well-crafted voice modulation and well-calibrated pitch variation. Both the narrative and the narration matter in the performance. As Arundhati Roy rightly observes in her interview with Karan Thapar, “Fake news is not just about fake facts. Fake news is about a fake narrative.”

The senior journalist Harish Khare’s masterly portrayal of Modi as a master storyteller, particularly in one of the episodes of his (Modi) falsifying history with partial truths, effectively characterizes his storytelling ability.

Khare draws upon a dialogue from a Sam Bourne’s thriller To Kill the Truth. The dialogue, as he reflects, best captures Modi‘s ruthless “disdain for facts, figures, data and history”. As a consequence truth is smothered by Modi’s uncanny knack of crafting “invented stories”.  Khare, however, apprehends that there could be an objection to his quoting from a pulp fiction to make a serious intellectual argument.

Apart from theatrics and distortion of facts, language as a tool can be used for effective storytelling. It is here that Khare’s apprehension can be partly relieved, perhaps, by supplementing his reference with Amanda Montell’s 2021 book, Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism. It is a book about how language as a tool can be deployed craftily by cult leaders, spiritual gurus, politicians, brand builders etc.

Unlike the marketing concept of cult brand, where there is a hazy line of difference drawn between a brand and a cult brand, Montell collapses this difference between a cult and a brand. Cult and brand are the same and “language is the key means”, according to her, by which cultlike influence is exerted.

Coining new phrases, redefining old words, secret codes and powerful euphemism etc. are, according to her, language games that can be played, another attribute of a cult leader and brand marketers.

Language games that Modi plays, as part of his storytelling, is well known. “Double engine ki sarkar” and “revdi culture” (freebie culture) are some examples of his lingo in his public addresses.

Philosophers on Lies and Deceptions   

Philosophers have provided their own take on lies and deceptions. It is in this context that the essays of Max Black and Harry Frankfurt can be alluded to. Black, a British-American philosopher wrote The Prevalence of Humbug and Frankfurt, the American moral philosopher, wrote an essay titled On Bullshit.

The titles of these essays look frivolous and bizarre, in the sense that these words (humbug and bullshit) are generally used in casual conversations to express a pejorative sense toward something or some issue that is absolute bunkum. Moreover, these words typically are not seen to carry any profound concepts that usually interest philosophers. However, the essays unfold a certain sense of these words cogently in an analytical manner with appropriate illustrations.

Black begins his essay with clear cases of humbug and, at the end, attempts to formulate a definition of humbug which runs as follows:

Humbug: deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.

Frankfurt, referring to Black’s essay, offers a more nuanced analysis of each of the elements in the above definition. In humbug the speaker actually misrepresents what is in his mind to the audience. What the speaker says through these statements is not important but what he wants the listeners to think of him becomes significant. This is the art of demagoguery that Modi has so well imbibed and the listener voters were swayed by his oratory.

Frankfurt then distinguishes his account of bullshit from humbug as follows. Here, when the speaker speaks the listener takes the statements made as purporting to give a description of a certain state of affairs. The listeners take it that the speaker is “engaged in an activity” where the distinction between truth and falsity is crucial. But it turns out to be the case that the speaker is not concerned with truth and her statements are grounded neither “in a belief that it is true” nor “in a belief that it is not true”.

There is a lack of concern with the state of affairs and she is disconnected with truth. This, for Frankfurt, is the essence of bullshit- characteristic feature of the art of demagoguery that draws voters and makes them brand loyal and one that is true of the making of Cult Brand Modi.  This is the art that Modi has so well perfected.

Branding is required to capture power in the market as far as products are concerned. Politics is also about the capture of power. Black argues that misrepresentation and lying are ubiquitous phenomena that people use to gain political power. This whole exercise of branding in politics, it can be claimed, is nothing but misrepresentation and lying to capture power. The only difference being that here the product is the brand and it represents something that is emotional and intangible.

Blow to Brand

Could there be circumstances that can have a negative impact on the brand? Currently there are things that have happened that should have a negative impact on the brand. One is the release of BBC documentary series that directly indicts Narendra Modi for Gujarat riots. The other, that causes further injury to his brand, is the Hindenburg Research report that accuses Adani Group of companies of stock manipulation and accounting fraud. Narendra Modi is seen to have close links with Gautam Adani and his group. It is alleged that the Modi Government has been   facilitating the growth of Adani by a series of partisan measures.

Will these negative perceptions caused by these events have any impact on Brand Modi? Even earlier there were instances of disastrous incidents that could have led to erosion of brand value. In 2021 the same BBC stated how the Covid crisis did deliver a blow to Brand Modi (and also here). Or even the tragic incident of Lakhimpur Kheri- whose roots can be traced to the power and arrogance of Modi’s men. It could also be due to government’s failure to manage the economy. These did dent his image a little.

Did or will such negative happenings make any big difference to Modi’s cult brand? Not at all.  Modi and Amit Shah are “hardened operatives”, as Harish Khare remarks, who would be unconcerned about such incidents as their only concern is success based on the exercise of brand building by deploying skilfully an arsenal of lies, deceptions and masterly storytelling to divert attention from such scandalous happenings.

If at all it makes any difference it would be in the following direction: what should be the next strategy of brand resuscitation, now that this has happened? Modi and his political consiglieres will pitch in to do the needful to work out the ingredients of the masala to work wonders in the continuous remaking and sustenance of the brand.

But the question before us is: How long should one bear this pervasive unbridled bumptiousness of the Cult Brand Modi? Can the opposition be strong enough to counter the humbug of the brand and build countervailing stories?

S K Arun Murthi is Ex Faculty of Philosophy in IISER, Mohali (retired), Department of Humanities and Social Sciences

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