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Narendra Modi © sambeetarts / Shutterstock

Is Modi’s Government All Hype and No Substance?

The BJP is spending large amounts to promote the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, intending to win the election on the strength of his brand.

India is home to over a billion people. It is the world’s biggest democracy. It has a fast-growing market. Even elections are a market place, where brands compete for market share and include parties, political dynasties and prominent individuals. Today, many brands are in the fray. The Indian National Congress party and the Nehru family continue to enjoy name recognition. Regional players such as Mayawati Prabhu Das and Mamata Banerjee have their loyalists. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), once known by its lotus symbol, has a new brand and is spending money hand over fist to promote it.

In fact, from 2015 to 2018, it has spent more than 27.6 billion rupees ($400 million) of taxpayer money on advertising in electronic media alone. Today, the BJP has become the top advertiser on television.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the new brand of the BJP. He is portrayed as a superhuman with a 56-inch chest, a brahmachari (bachelor) like Lord Hanuman, and the savior of India. He promised “acche din” (good days) to India, and many believe that he will bring ramraj (utopia). As a father figure, he listens to the Mann Ki Baat (inner voice) of the citizens of India, and, as an honest chae wala (tea seller), he promised to an end to corruption: “Neither I will be corrupt, nor will I let others be corrupt.”

The BJP is not only spending handsomely on rebranding itself, but is also doing it smartly. This author has investigated the party’s spending patterns by examining the government’s response to a right to information request by Ramveer Tanwar, a social activist from the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). The government response reveals many things. First, the expenditure is highly correlated to the election timings. Second, the BJP spends more in UP state elections, the largest marketplace of voters.

In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP had spent a lump sum amount of more than 11 billion rupees ($158.6 million) for advertising in the electronic media alone. Third, the BJP had always spent more on advertising the quintessential needs of the market. In UP, the BJP had spent $1.2 million on depicting Modi as the “savior” who will solve the problem of unemployment and discrimination among the minorities.

The BJP has been spectacularly successful in creating the Modi brand. First, more than 43.5 million people like Modi’s page on Facebook, making him the world’s most liked leader. US President Donald Trump, number two on Facebook, is far behind Modi, with 23.9 million likes. Second, innovative marketing strategies such as Make in India, a type of Swadeshi movement launched by the government to encourage companies to manufacture their products in India, and Swach Bharat Abhiyan, a clean India initiative, make Modi seen as a visionary transformative leader.

A team hired by the BJP consisting of bureaucrats, politicians, media outlets and a script written by elite officers like India’s former ambassador to France, Vinay Mohan Kwatra, and the high commissioner to Singapore, Jawed Ashraf, have all together made Modi, the film, a hit.

The BJP has been a cadre-based party. In contrast to personality-led political projects, it has functioned more collectively. Until recently, many leaders rose from its base as the BJP lacked the hierarchy of Congress or even other regional parties. Gone are the days of politicians like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi. As recently suggested by BJP MP Shatrughan Sinha, it has become “One-man government, and two-man party.”

The BJP’s laser focus on branding has led to the fundamental neglect of good governance. For instance, Smriti Irani was reportedly made education minister not because of her academic achievement, but because she was a famous TV actress. Her time in charge was noted for second-rate publicity stunts, not for any innovation in policy. Noted scientists such as Anil Kakodkar and Raghunath Kashinath Shevgaonkar were not impressed, resigning from senior posts in protest. In fact, the Supreme Court overturned one of Irani’s landmark policy decisions, in which she proposed to add Sanskrit to the school curriculum in the middle of a semester.

Modi is painted as a great manager of the economy. Yet he has wreaked much economic havoc on the country. First, small-scale enterprises have either closed or are running well below capacity. Second, India is facing a terrible jobs crisis. As per one survey, bad policies caused a loss of 1.5 million jobs. Modi’s proposed solution for unemployment, selling pakoras, is not a feasible option for most Indians. Third, the government has weakened institutions like the Reserve Bank of India, the country’s central bank. This poses risks for the banking industry, monetary policy and the country’s economy as a whole.

All these setbacks suggest that the Modi government is no more than a party of rhetorical statements — a hype without substance. Chanakya, a political research organization, forecasts a tough road to victory for the BJP in the ongoing general elections. Yet such is the “hyperreal” world we live in today that brand Modi might still emerge as a winner in the 2019 electoral marketplace.

*[An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that 11 billion rupees was $5.8 million.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.