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Marketing Modi: How PM’s brand has unfolded

The evolution of the Modi persona has seen constant refurbishment, right from Gujarat and Godhra in 2002 until Lakshadweep just last week.
Last Updated 13 January 2024, 19:53 IST

Everyone, especially politicians, positions themselves as brands in competitive fields. Each Indian prime minister evoked a brand image among people, using a combination of public images, and policies pursued and broadcast through carefully curated vocabulary and delivered by choreographed performances. All of this was meticulously wrapped in beguiling attire, providing her or him with a hallowed persona.

Jackets became synonymous with Jawaharlal Nehru’s name. Indira Gandhi’s strand-perfect white streaks starting from the forehead onwards and wide range of ethnic saris provided an image of seniority, vital when outsmarting ‘elders’ in the party. Rajiv Gandhi’s smart casual outfits, alternating with the politicians’ ‘uniforms’, reached out to the youth while stressing the need to prepare for the 21st century. Likewise, today, Modi packages a brand, refurbished constantly with a wide range of attires – from pin-stripe suits to snorkelling gear. There is never a dull moment for anyone tracking the evolution of the Modi persona and brand, dabbed with regularity.

Even less brand-conscious or not-so-flamboyant PMs, be it Lal Bahadur Shastri, Morarji Desai, V P Singh, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, or even H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral, never shied away from positioning themselves as ‘products’ in the political marketplace. This trend evolved from the national movement, whose leaders used appearances to make statements: Mahatma Gandhi, for instance, with his frugality, and Nehru with modernity, while Sardar Patel emphasised rural-rootedness. Amid all efforts at brand creation, few were as multi-dimensional as Modi. Paradoxically, although most previous premiers carved brand images close to familial roots, Modi’s attires were in contrast to the claimed hardships he faced in childhood. This makes Modi’s brand image that of an aspirational and enigmatic figure.

When he became Gujarat's chief minister in October 2001, Modi had no brand identity. He had been an efficient right-wing apparatchik fulfilling responsibilities allocated to him. Yet, there was little to distinguish him from his peers. 

True, during the Kargil war, as one of the party’s general secretaries, Modi displayed the gift of the gab, albeit pugnacious, raising his hand to claim the ‘made for TV’ name tag, but beyond that, he had no signature tune.

The Godhra carnage and consequent Gujarat riots changed this. Within a few months, from February 2002, while leading the BJP to a resounding re-election, Modi acquired the product name of ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’. Such branding elevated him from being an RSS Pracharak (or BJP leader) to a fiery Hindu right-wing leader, unabashed while reining in Muslims amounting to almost 10% in the state. While campaigning in the early election he asked for, Modi closed refugee camps and delivered several offensive speeches. His brand value increased in the face of criticism from adversaries in other parties and national media. Importantly, he remained steadfast despite criticism from within his party – even Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee sought his resignation.

Donning attires

But Modi did not remain loyal for long to a single brand; very early he displayed traits like the fox depicted in philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s popular essay — ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’, as one who engaged with multiple ideas and not the hedgehog, who assessed the world from a single lens. Modi continued shedding one garb for another. Initially, it was to do with the realisation that unabashed advocacy of Hindu majoritarianism had, at that point, limitations beyond Gujarat. Already in with a chance of securing political permanency in the state, his eyes were set on the whole of India.

Consequently, Modi donned the attire of ‘Vikas Purush’ – a brand that was applauded by corporate leaders for promising development, committing to bring in investments to Gujarat and trimming bureaucratic red-tapism. Modi’s vocabulary metamorphosed from the ugliness of communal discord and majoritarian protectionism, to economic jargon, the need for improving infrastructure and putting Gujarat on the fast track towards growth. In time, the notion of the ‘Gujarat model’ was added to provide depth to this brand. He secured the belief of large sections of Indians, that it was the panacea for all deficiencies in every state and at the Centre.

This specific conceptualisation and its attributes remained shrouded in hype and mystique, although few in the media and among the masses could say what the ‘model’ was. In between, Modi the fashionista evolved, with a kurta, jacket and a preferred tailor who, like him, grew from the sidelines to become a brand. Working hard, the emerging ‘brand’ worked on speech delivery, paid attention to voice modulation, vocabulary and gesticulations. Few leaders prior to Modi, even thereafter, worked half as diligently on creating a public image. The brand remained distinct from the actual person at heart and mind.

Varying packages

Modi never displays the same brand to different social groups and at different times. Come elections, the language of Hindutva is still unsheathed wherever necessary. Elsewhere, he markets the development spiel. He had clutched onto this trait throughout his premiership and remains at his eloquent best perpetually. If he lectured on the prevalence of plastic surgery in ancient India to one lot, he spoke to a contrasting group on the need for technological advancement and applauded Indian scientists for successfully executing the lunar mission. Modi was similar to early experiments with products — from shampoos to biscuits — consumed by different demographic groups, packaged in sachets for rural markets initially, and in differently-bottled sizes for urban consumers.

In 2012, when he led the BJP to its third successive Assembly victory, it was evident that ‘Brand Modi’ had evolved considerably in barely a decade, and was also gaining acceptability in India. He became a bigger brand than the BJP or RSS, forcing its leaders to anoint him as electoral mascot.

The Vikas Purush, who became the prime minister in 2014, remained a ‘product’, cunningly marketed. A pioneer in the use of social media in politics in India, Modi did not allow himself to be limited to being either Hindu Hriday Samrat or Vikas Purush. He went beyond and soon Modi became the brand. If the Indian electoral field is imagined as a marketplace, Modi is no longer a brand but has become the ‘product’. 

A personalised brand

Brand Modi weathered two principal handicaps: Originally being a regional ‘product’ and the stain of 2002. Instead of replying to accusations of being authoritarian, he marketed himself as a ‘decisive’ leader brooking no nonsense.

For charges of being a megalomaniac, his display counter had the tag of ‘strong’ leader. Brand Modi never apologised to neutralise the blemish of 2002, and did not use that vocabulary personally post-2014. Also, he chose silence when others in his flanks did so.

Brand Modi in 2024 has been presented as the ‘guarantor’ of all that his fox-like characteristic perceives as essential for ‘his’ people. The institutional guarantee of the past is gone — for instance, rural employment introduced by the UPA. In its place, it is ‘Modi’s guarantee’ — get on board and people are ‘ensured’ mentioned facilities. India’s first social-media technocrat-politician, Modi spawned innumerable clones who spring to his defence — albeit with a slight prod from IT cell managers in government and the party — to rise to his defence as l’affaire Maldives demonstrated.

In the course of the 1971 parliamentary polls, a Newsweek journalist asked Indira Gandhi what the main issues were in the elections. She replied with a straight face: “I am the issue.” Similarly, Modi has famously told audiences on several occasions during polls, “Main hi mudda hoon”. Little has changed since then. If at all it has, Brand Modi is now more personalised.

In time, Modi may fail to win an election, or in the future, choose not to remain in the fray. But Brand Modi, in various dimensions over different periods of time, would remain a subject of interest for all engaged in the realm of political marketing or its subfield, political brand-building and its management.

(The writer’s latest book is ‘The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India’. His other books include ‘The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)

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(Published 13 January 2024, 19:53 IST)

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