Is Modi heading for his ‘India Shining’ moment?

Is Modi heading for his ‘India Shining’ moment?

The country is voting for the next Lok Sabha elections, and this election is a referendum on the idea of India versus the cult of Modi. Television channels and their pollsters are projecting that the BJP-led NDA would come back to power, albeit with a bare simple majority. Only weeks ago, most of them doubted even that, but the Pulwama terror attack and the Balakot airstrike have apparently helped the BJP, and Modi specifically, build up a national security narrative, conveniently to the exclusion of issues on which the Modi government’s performance is under question. There’s a farm crisis and a jobs crisis that is being largely ignored by the BJP, with its hurriedly cooked up – in fact, warmed-up-from-2014 -- manifesto barely saying anything on these issues. This might just be Narendra Modi’s ‘India Shining’ moment – the moment when he seems so distant from ground realities.

‘India Shining’

In late 2003, the world was talking about the India growth story, the BJP had just won the Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh elections, foreign investors, NRIs and domestic business houses all wanted BJP and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to win another term the next year. The party itself was feeling very confident about winning the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. So confident that Vajpayee advanced the elections by six months to April-May 2004. In that exuberant mood, the BJP came up with the ‘India Shining’ campaign.

Vajpayee’s government had performed well on the economic front – the economy was growing at a fast clip, inflation and fiscal deficit were under control, disinvestment had picked up, and the telecom sector, among others, was booming. Vajpayee saw himself as a version of Ronald Reagan. Pramod Mahajan, the man who was to run the BJP’s campaign, and the advertising agency he chose to devise it gave Vajpayee a campaign that was in line with that self-image. Indeed, it was taken out of Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign – “It’s morning again in America”.

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Reagan’s campaign was built around simple messages to the voter, such as ‘President Reagan: Leadership that’s working’ and ‘He will provide the strong leadership that America needs.’ In those pre-Internet, pre-social media days, these messages were conveyed to the voter through TV and print advertisements.

‘Leadership that's working’

It's morning again in America. Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country's history. With interest rates at about half the record highs of 1980, nearly 2,000 families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years. This afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married, and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future. It's morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?

That was the voice-over text of Reagan’s ‘feel good’ advertisement on television, accompanied by pictures depicting Americans hurrying to, or busy at, work. Reagan’s campaign managers sought to impress upon voters that Reagan’s policies since 1980 had led to a vibrant economy in which millions of jobs were being created and unemployment was falling. This was not true. Reagan’s policies had caused unemployment to shoot up, as later studies showed. But they managed to sell the idea to the voter that ‘Reagan’s leadership is working’. 

‘‘…under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better’’. This is a typical Right-wing claim anywhere in the world – national pride and strength are always claimed to increase under a Right-ist leader and government, no matter what the truth is.

The Vajpayee government’s advertisements on television and in the newspapers in the ‘India Shining’ campaign used much the same imagery of bright sunshine over India, of hope and ‘feel good’. ‘Bharat Uday’, the Hindi version, was even closer to It’s morning in America’. Both spoke of a new dawn. The ‘India Shining’ advertisements featuring Vajpayee’s smiling photographs and statistics of progress – such as, 11 kilometres of road being built every day (while claiming that nothing had been done by the Congress party regimes since Independence – sounds familiar, eh?) -- conveyed the same message: Vajpayee’s leadership is working’. The BJP got so carried away that it even claimed that “1947-1997, number of Internet connections in India – Zero; 1998-2003 – 50 million!”

The BJP’s campaign, in fact, started with then-BJP chief Venkaiah Naidu and his boys loudly and repeatedly announcing that India under Vajpayee had become stronger and more prosperous and had risen to international recognition and adulation.

‘Strong leadership’

Reagan’s print medium message was conveyed through a smiling face of the President, with the American flag in the background and the White House for his body. The tagline was, ‘Let’s Make America Great Again’. (Where do you think Donald Trump got it from?!)

The ‘India Shining’ ads were not much different. The promise was that Vajpayee alone could provide the strong leadership that ‘new India’ (sounds familiar again, eh?) needed. To Reagan’s Let’s Make America Great Again’, Vajpayee had Let’s Make India a Developed Nation’ and a Hindi version that translated to ‘Let’s Make India a Great Nation’.

Unfortunately, for Vajpayee, Indian voters did not give him what the American voters gave Reagan – a re-election victory with the highest margin in US electoral history, nor what British voters gave a similar Right-wing leader, Margaret Thatcher – three terms at 10, Downing Street. It seems the Indian voter is far less gullible than the British and the American voter. 

Cut to 2014: Operation Clockwork Saffron

There is another way in which Right-wing parties operate to win an election. They carry out a negative campaign, a campaign of calumny and fear against Centrist and Left-of-Centre opponents. Intelligence agencies, one’s own or a foreign one (as in the case of Russian meddling in the US presidential election in 2016), play a key role in such campaigns. It was what we saw in India in 2011-2013, inspired by a 1970s operation by a foreign intelligence agency against its own prime minister.   

On the back of the rural jobs guarantee scheme MNREGA and the ‘weakest PM’ (in LK Advani’s words) Manmohan Singh’s strong stance that led to the clinching of the nuclear deal with the US, the Congress-led UPA won a second term in government in 2009, with the Congress itself winning 206 seats. “Singh is King” became an oft-repeated headline. Congress leaders even boasted that the BJP’s dream of coming to power would not happen for at least 25 years.   

The BJP was dead as an opposition party, completely demoralised by the 2009 drubbing. LK Advani, who had, just ahead of the 2009 elections, brought a bag of cash into Parliament to prove his cash-for-votes allegation during the vote on the nuclear deal, had discredited himself. His projection as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate had done the party in. The RSS had begun to take control of the party, given the leadership vacuum. It was only by late 2010 that the party began to recover its voice – the UPA’s alleged scams had begun to come to light -- CWG, 2G, etc.

It was in this atmosphere that a group of high-profile RSS ‘swayamsewaks’, a corporate fixer, a Yoga Baba-turned-FMCG king, an IIM-B professor, members of Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption and some others met at a think-tank led by a former Intelligence Bureau chief and a clutch of former Intelligence officers and came up with a plan to upend the Congress: run a smear campaign, painting it as the avatar of corruption and ineptitude. That was how Anna Hazare’s ‘anti-corruption movement’ took off in a big way, hijacked from the NGO-types who started it, and turned into the vehicle on which eventually Narendra Modi – the ‘Gujarat Model’ CM – could ride into the PM’s office. The social media campaign of ‘Bal Narendar’ and morphed pictures of the humble ‘chaiwala’ and the millions of Whatsapp messages spreading revulsion against the Congress and its leadership came much later, towards the end of 2013, and built up the ‘Modi wave’. But it was built on the foundation laid by the discrediting of the Congress through the smear campaign. 

Where did the inspiration for this operation come from?

Consider this: In the 1970s, Right-wingers and Conservative Party sympathisers in the British MI5, the equivalent of our Intelligence Bureau, carried out “Black Propaganda”, a campaign of calumny and fear against Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson that eventually forced him to quit mid-term in 1976. MI5 officers ran a smear campaign, using friendly journalists, that Wilson was a sympathiser of the Irish Republican Army; that he and his secretary Marcia Williams were Soviet agents; that he was sleeping with his secretary, and so on – whatever it took to discredit Wilson. Years later, former MI5 agents admitted that they had also promoted workers’ strikes to destabilise the Wilson government. Even the Army press office in Northern Ireland was used for the smear campaign – codenamed ‘Clockwork Orange’.

There was even a military coup in the works ever since Wilson became PM for the fourth time, in 1974, with a British General who had built a private army loyal to him, apparently with blessings from Lord Mountbatten, who was then in his 70s and willing to take over as ‘military ruler’. The General even had a speech ready for the Queen to read out endorsing Mountbatten’s take-over. In 1974, early in Wilson’s term, an Army unit had occupied Heathrow Airport on the pretext of an anti-terror training exercise. However, Wilson’s government was not informed, leading it to believe that the operation was a practice run for a coup or, at the least, a show of strength meant to rattle the prime minister.

Two years later, the General with the private army even had his soldiers march close to Downing Street, causing Wilson to remark to his secretary that “they could do a lot of damage before the troops came in, if they ever did”. Wilson quit soon after, on health grounds. (Remember the Indian Express report on April 4, 2012 “The January Night that Spooked Raisina Hill: two key Army units moved towards Delhi without notifying Govt”? Of course, it was dismissed as a routine exercise, as the British Generals did, too). The whole conspiracy was said to be a joint MI5-CIA operation. CIA chief James Jesus Angleton was said to have instigated and backed it.

Anyway, the playbook adopted by our Right-wing conspirators in Delhi in 2014 was very much that from MI5’s ‘Operation Clockwork Orange.’ We can easily call it ‘Operation Clockwork Saffron’.  

Of course, while the US-Soviet Cold War was the backdrop for Clockwork Orange, Clockwork Saffron did not have such a baroque theme behind it. Still, it had multiple dimensions. It was, as Winston Churchill would probably have said, “a smear campaign wrapped in an anti-corruption movement inside a political conspiracy.” While Wilson and Labour were smeared as being Soviet agents, Manmohan Singh and Congress were smeared as the fount-heads of corruption. When Anna Hazare recently admitted that the BJP had used him to get to power, this was what he meant.

One must not forget the consequences of what happens when Intelligence agencies or former Intelligence agents get into conspiratorial mode. Wilson, playing his own ‘Deep Throat’ after quitting in panic, confided in two BBC journalists that “for eight months, I did not know what was happening in security.” That is, for eight months, the British prime minister did not get crucial Intelligence inputs from the agencies and agents who were supposed to report to him. Did Operation Clockwork Saffron similarly handicap Manmohan Singh when he was in office and cause the ‘policy paralysis’ of the time?   

Cut to 2019: Modi’s ‘Mahamilavat’ Campaign

In this election, what we are seeing is a Right-wing government that has been in power for five years. So, it claims that India is better off today, is a strong world power and that the whole world respects it, that more people have jobs today than ever before, and so on – that “Namumkin Ab Mumkin hai.” At the same time, knowing well that it has not exactly lived up to its promises on the econ0omic front and further that it has blotted its copybook by tearing apart the social and democratic fabric of the country, the BJP is also engaged in a campaign of calumny and fear against what seems like a resurgent Congress. “Congress is soft on terrorism”, “Congress speaks for Pakistan”, and the latest from Modi himself, “Congress created Pakistan.” (Someone must tell Modi, the BJP, the RSS and their ideological co-travellers like the Hindu Mahasabha to look at themselves in the mirror on their role during the freedom struggle and the role of Hindutva-vaadis in Partition, but that’s for another time).

Therefore, what we are seeing is, in Modi’s own language, a ‘Mahamilavat’ campaign of the two ways in which Right-wing political parties run their election campaigns. On top of this, of course, Modi ji also needs NaMo TV, NaMo movie, NaMo web series, airstrikes, space chowkidaari, and heavily polarising speeches, etc., to win this election. Let’s see if all of that will be enough to help him win a second term.

In 2004, Vajpayee and his boys missed one significant problem: as Ruchir Sharma writes in his recent book, “Democracy on the Road: A 25-year Journey through India’, “Most commentators thought Vajpayee had his finger on the pulse of India’s aspiring young voters, and would ride the momentum of the economy…Opinion polls suggested that Sonia Gandhi was much less popular than Vajpayee, and the satta bazar put heavy odds in favour of a BJP win. The polls also showed, however, that the most important issue to voters was unemployment, which remained high even as India boomed…” Sounds familiar, eh? Which is why the question: Is Modi heading for his own ‘India Shining’ moment?

Ronald Reagan had a memorable line when he upended Jimmy Carter’s re-election bid in 1979. It was the line that perhaps won him the election. Rahul Gandhi could well turn it on Modi: A recession is when your neighbour loses his job, a depression is when you lose yours; and a recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”