Earlier this week, BJP and Congress spokespersons each accused the other side of "faking it" in the recent #Feku vs #ModiStormsFICCI Twitter war: Your guys are all paid flunkeys, while our supporters are genuine, passionate citizens who truly believe in the cause. The absurd premise of this mutual accusation game was that a 'paid' or 'unpaid' social media campaign is somehow shameful or 'wrong.'
Primetime politics is a public relations war fought on multiple fronts, from the dais in a dusty village to the air-conditioned TV studio to the viral battlefields of social media. This is an objective fact not a moral judgement. It's just how the political game is played these days. It is what it is, as George Bush once famously said. And the #Feku hashtag revealed a lumbering Congress belatedly jumping in to the online fray to take on its hitherto uncontested champion, Narendra Modi.
Modi is a master of public relations, and its greatest innovator in Indian politics. This makes him a modern 21st century politician, not necessarily a sinister one. Yet Rana Ayyub's Tehelka profile f Modi's PR apparatus repeatedly takes on an ominous undertone as she describes "an almost obsessive campaign that Modi has used, unprecedented in the history of independent India."
The 5-page cover story offers an up-close look at the operations of Modi's messaging machine. One example is his speech to the India Today conclave:
The speech was covered by most journalists on the social media. Criticism of Modi was dealt with by an army of Twitter handles, most with anonymous identities. Then there were journalists, unabashedly pro-Modi, and their websites and handles, which culled out the significant parts of his speech and tweeted them. From Kanchan Gupta, who runs news website Niti Central, to Tarun Vijay, who tweeted about the desire of a certain editor of a ‘secular’ magazine to pose with Modi. The tweet received more than a 1,000 retweets, mostly from anonymous handles otherwise busy hurling abuses at all those who attempted to correct Modi’s exaggerated GDP figures. The cameras too did their job, by zooming in on people in the audience who mattered the most. The image of beaming feminist and activist Madhu Kishwar, the new poster woman of the Modi fan club, was played time and again by the channels.
What we witness over and again is the workings of a NaMo echo chamber made up of different elements that span the information landscape, including the twitterati, journalists, bloggers, official and unofficial pro-Modi groups, and the party apparatus. Each may exist independently of Modi, but this is the first candidate to actively tap into, coordinate and amplify their efforts. The result is a multiplier effect. Everywhere we look, we see a larger-than-life Modi backed by vast armies of supporters, creating the desired sense of political dominance and inevitability:
From his Sadbhavna fast two years ago, when an RTI application revealed the state government had spent money on providing free skullcaps, to news being viralled on the Internet about former Congress member Asifa Khan joining the BJP, to Irfan Pathan campaigning for him or inviting Modi for his brother Yusuf’s wedding, there is no news his PR agency does not publicise. If at all in trouble, whether it is over the CAG indictment for undue favours, or the diluting of the Lokayukta, the Modi fanboys on social media come to the rescue by using Hindutva to counter the charges. From the likes of Subramanian Swamy, who Modi counts as one of his strongest admirers, to a section of supporters in the media and a battery of intellectuals, there is nothing that Modi runs short of.
Welcome to political warfare in the Age of Information. Modi's campaign is "unprecedented" because he is first Indian politician to spearhead a thoroughly modern political campaign, the kind that is now routine in the United States. for decades, the Republicans dominated the electoral landscape because of a tightly disciplined messaging machine which encompassed TV news channels and papers, radio talk shows, online bloggers, wealthy financiers, a battery of think-tanks, local grassroots organisations like churches and clubs to dominate the national discourse.
The liberals bitterly complained about media manipulation, manufactured consent, and Republican lies, all to no avail. Barack Obama is the first Democrat who stopped complaining and started doing. He won by creating his very own PR machine, equally nimble, wily and aggressive, and a powerful grassroots organisation that pulled together liberal networks and constituencies, even as he created new ones. This is how the electoral game is played today in the United States. Its strategies were first employed by Modi's NRI supporters, who helped convert their candidate, who has since embraced the imported model with gusto and to great success.
The #Feku campaign was the belated acknowledgement of a new media reality thrust upon a lumbering Congress by the rise of Narendra Modi. The BJP party and Modi's rivals within it too are playing catch-up. It is Modi not the party that is driving this new style of campaigning.
The real downside to this new brand of politicking — as Americans have found out — is that it transforms facts into ideological opinion. Everything is up for debate, including reality itself. Soon the public is divided into two polarised camps who can't even agree on what is true — which makes policy debates moot. Political arguments over solutions are only possible when the both sides agree on the facts, be it statistics on poverty, land use, malnutrition, development indicators, sexual violence etc. Political contests then become about image not substance. It's all about who can better market his version of the truth. And no one is well-served by politics reduced to perception. Not democracy or its citizens.
While Modi may be changing the way we fight elections, but come 2014, the parties will still have to win the gaddi the old-fashioned way: wooing allies, making caste and sectarian calculations, trading political favours, hustling for seats, one dusty constituency at a time. In other words, wrestling with unwieldy, diverse, chaotic reality of India. We're still far, far away from being a nation whose elections are decided by who wins on Twitter or the primetime news. And that may not be such a bad thing.
Read the Tehelka profile 'Modi's Operandi" on its website.
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Updated Date: Apr 11, 2013 13:31:02 IST