‘Modi! Modi!’chants mimic global celebrity culture

‘Modi! Modi!’chants mimic global celebrity culture

The 'Modi! Modi!' chants are a first in the history of Indian elections

Over the past few weeks, there have been a number of social media as well as news items relating to a particular chant heard at rallies organised by the Congress party. 

These relate to videos that purport to show that various Congress leaders have been confronted with the chant of ‘Modi! Modi!’ at campaign and other rallies to boost the party’s cause. A video posted in March 2019 claims to show that, at a Gujarat rally, when asked to shout ‘zindabad!’, after a Congress leader calls out ‘Rahul Gandhi!’, a section of the crowd responds with ‘Modi! Modi!’. This was shown to be a doctored video. 

In the same month, Republic TV gleefully showed Patidar leader Hardik Patel attempting to address a rally where he is drowned out by the crowd shouting ‘Modi! Modi!’. There is yet another video that shows a group of women waiting at a temple premises in Mirzapur (Uttar Pradesh) awaiting the arrival of Priyanka Gandhi. The women too can be heard shouting out Narendra Modi’s name. 

And finally, perhaps the most circulated and reported on, is a news clip of a Priyanka Gandhi roadshow in Bijnor in April 2019. As Gandhi tours the streets of the town in an open truck, her cavalcade is met by an opposing, aural procession of ‘Modi! Modi!’. Gandhi, we are informed, responds by throwing a garland of flower towards her interlocutors.

It is noise – horns, shouting and loud talk, barking, music, singing – that most clearly differentiated Indian public culture from that of many other (certainly Western) societies. The cultural stereotypes of being an ‘inward’ focussed people is precisely that. We are not much given to quiet social exchange.

Notwithstanding this, there is something unusual about a form of political activity that is more akin to chants at English sports arenas and rock concerts in various parts of the world. This is the first time in the history of Indian elections that this form of sloganeering has been reported. It is not important whether, in each case, this is exactly what crowds have been shouting (or whether videos have been doctored). Rather, what is peculiar is the changing nature of our public soundscape and what this might tell us about changing ideas of the self and the new ways in which we interact with figures of authority.  

Firstly, the cult of personality that surrounds PM Modi is a new form of celebrity culture that borrows from global ideas of celebrity-hood. That is, it is a consolidation of a trend where new forms of Indianness are fundamentally linked to being ‘global’. In some contexts, this takes the form of simply attaching the word ‘global’ to schools, universities and hospitals. 

Within the Modi-cult, this has taken the shape of actually borrowing Western forms of fandom where chanting the name of the object of admiration is experienced as a way of sharing some part of the celebrity’s being. 

Repetition during chants also expresses the idea of omnipotence: In prayer, names of gods are repeated – and quite often that itself constitutes the prayer – because repetition saturates the world with the god’s presence. He or she is everywhere, the repetition slowly filling up all possible spaces.

In a similar way, the chanting of ‘Modi! Modi!’ reflects the idea that he – like divinity – is beyond criticism, his name and his ideas having become one and repetition of the former translates into the spread of the latter. 

There is, of course, an irony here: While we have borrowed a Western method of expressing fandom, we have also incorporated within it the very Indian idea of uncritical respect for authority figures. Modi is like a rock star but he is also beyond criticism. 

This is an irony that is at the heart of many of our public rituals: We are global in remarkably Indian ways and our sense of individualism is deeply collective. The nature of Indian crowds is quite different from the ones in societies where public chanting of names of celebrities does not necessarily imply uncritical admiration.  

But, ultimately, repetition is also about participation in consumer culture: The act of consumerism is the act of endless repetition. And, Modi is a figure who is strongly associated with new forms of consumerist activities, including his vast array of clothes, obsession with selfies and tweets, and, frequent foreign travel. Think of how peculiar it would seem if we were to imagine a crowd shouting ‘Manmohan! Manmohan!’, even though the former PM was a key architect of economic liberalisation. 

The celebrity-hood that is announced through ‘Modi! Modi!’ chants is also a celebration, then, of a certain kind of consumerism. The market, for all its shortcomings, allows for multiple kinds of goods to be sold. The market within which the Modi chants seek to drown out other voices, however, is about the value of a single good, to the exclusion of all others. And that, too, is an irony in a democracy. 

(Sanjay Srivastava is Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi)