May We Ask Just One Question About Modi’s Permanent Campaign?

By Shivam Vij

Governing with political approval requires a continuing political campaign, wrote a pollster for US President Jimmy Carter in 1976. This gave birth to the theory of permanent campaign.

Reliance on political patronage and the party organization gave way to pollsters, campaign strategists, data and technology. By the time the Bill Clinton era arrived, this had given way to the idea of the permanent election. The administration behaved as though an election was always round the corner.

Narendra Modi’s 2014 election campaign was never over. He’s always campaigning, always pitching, as if an election is always round the corner. An election is indeed always round the corner in India, and every state election is seen as a referendum on Modi. 

In 2014, Modi ran a presidential campaign. A lot of it was clearly inspired by US-style political campaigning. He even had an external campaign strategist in Prashant Kishor, who headed a 600 strong team called the Citizens for Accountable Governance. Modi’s message of Achhe Din was similar to Obama’s promise of hope.

It is therefore unsurprising that Modi has also followed the American idea of the permanent election. Be it before NRI audiences in world capitals, or any part of India every other week, Modi is always giving speeches as though he’s fighting an election. Modi likes to make sure he’s always the news, he sets the agenda, he is the conversation. Love him or hate him, he’s always the centre of attention.

Modi’s in your radio, all over your newspaper, on your Whatsapp. His government sends you email and SMS to tell you about its achievements, asking you to download his app. Every other day he comes up with innovative photo-ops. His speeches are covered live, and God knows he can speak. He doesn’t do press conferences or take journalists on his plane on foreign visits, because answering questions won’t let him set the agenda. He decides the questions, he gives the answers.

An analysis by The Wall Street Journal showed that mentions of Modi in English language news in his first year as prime minister, were thrice that of the mentions of Manmohan Singh in his last year in office.

A similar analysis by WSJ found that mentions of Modi in news articles began declining steadily since he became prime minister. The last month they measured, February 2015, was the lowest since he took office.

Since Modi’s defeat in the Bihar assembly elections, the conversation had begun shifting away from him a bit. Even in the recent nationalism debate over the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Modi was absent from the question. Other such controversies from his own Hindu nationalist base – over beef, inter-religious marriage or religious conversion – took the headlines away from him from time to time.

Modi’s persona and prime ministership was not made central to the BJP’s campaign in Assam, where the party’s pre-poll alliance won a majority. This was in contrast to Bihar, where Modi addressed some 40-odd mega rallies. It makes you wonder if Modi is losing the conversation, regardless of how his government and his party are doing.

This is what explains the week long second anniversary bash. Modi and his government do a marathon five hour long self-promotion at India Gate, broadcast on Doordarshan and by all news channels – so much for being told the media is hostile to him and his party. The India Gate event was only the cherry on the cake. The BJP’s programme to go across 200 places to highlight his government’s achievements will last 21 days!

There are many problems that the US faces with permanent campaign. It is not only during elections, but all the time, that a democracy gets busy in perception making an un-making. The image is the reality. All governance is defined by the need to come with branding, marketing and advertising. Taking tough, long-term decisions becomes difficult as the leader has to serve the image.

As if Modi’s hyper-communication was not enough, we see stories from time to time about how he wants his ministers and lawmakers to go across the country and make people aware of the government’s policies and achievements. We have seen news stories about how he’s unhappy with the BJP’s spokespersons for not highlighting the party’s achievements.

The obsessive-compulsive hyper-communication begs one question. If Modi’s government is doing so much, transforming India in ways never heard of, then it would be visible to the people. If people can feel their lives and their country transforming for the better, why do they need to be told that day in and day out? Instead of constantly telling us what you’ve done, why don’t you let people say it? It’s like telling us the weather. Don’t we know it’s summer?

The problem with the permanent campaign in a country not used to it yet, is that it may also be a sign of insecurity. If you feel the need to constantly beat your own drum, it may mean you’re not as great as you claim to be.

(First published in HuffPost India.)

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