TOWARDS THE END OF APRIL, IN THE THICK OF A hot election season, Lutyens’ media woke up with bewilderment one day to Bollywood star Akshay Kumar’s ‘non-political/ free-wheeling’ interview with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Kumar’s lilac pants and linen shirt mingled harmoniously with the cooing peacocks and manicured lawn of 7, Lok Kalyan Marg, the background against which a relaxed Modi sat, laughing as he recalled the pranks, hopes, unmet aspirations of a poverty-defined childhood and youth. Virtually every mainstream media outlet worth its salt rushed in image managers and PR experts into studios to decode the development. New Delhi’s English media was forced to acknowledge that the attempt to present a softer, emotional side was a brilliant move.
Narendra Modi’s relationship with the self-appointed elite has been a rocky one since his ascent to the Prime Minister’s chair in mid-2014 after his highly successful stint as a three-term chief minister of Gujarat. The Akshay Kumar interview in the thick of the campaigning was as central to this context as the clever image management which projected his rounded personality, a leader who turned adversity into advantage.
Before Modi, two of Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) tallest leaders faced similar challenges with the elite. However, with both former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his deputy, LK Advani, the guiding principle was cooperation rather than confrontation: if you can’t beat them, join them. More so with Vajpayee, who is still remembered as a Prime Minister who managed to attract potential political and ideological opponents to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) under his leadership.
Despite being accepted by the Nehruvian intellectual elite, neither Vajpayee nor Advani could challenge their agenda- setting prerogative. While this may have been due to a natural proclivity to moderation in the case of Vajpayee, Advani more likely sought approval from the same people who had earlier criticised his rath yatra days. He opted for a rapprochement with the entrenched ideological clique when, on a trip to Pakistan, he decided to redefine his stance on Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The position was badly received and perceived as a concession to the same elite whose concept of secularism he had once successfully challenged.
Narendra Modi is made of sterner stuff. The deep-seated interests promoted by existing cliques in the political and intellectual spheres refused to give any quarter to the popular Gujarat chief minister when he moved to New Delhi. The elite went to the extent of suggesting that he was a political deviant who did not deserve even a hearing. For them, Modi was a rank outsider, an intruder in Lutyens’ Delhi.
The intense distrust on the part of the mainstream media was clearly evident in the reports during his stint as the chief minister when he launched his Sadbhavna Mission for social reconciliation. It was generally mocked by the media, echoing the Congress leadership which even demanded a White Paper on the event. In early 2012, a month before the tenth anniversary of the Godhra carnage in which 59 kar sevaks were killed when a coach of the Sabarmati Express train was set on fire on February 27th, 2002, triggering riots in the state. The chief minister’s fast saw very few from the minority community attending the event after some civil society groups and activists organised protest meetings.
In May 2014, Modi spelt out ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’ (development for all) as the cornerstone of his model of inclusive governance. Barely months into his Government’s taking over, his perceived model of inclusive governance came in for intense criticism from the likes of Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav while a section of the media dubbed it a hoax. Modi’s arrival on the national stage, to his advantage, coincided with a constellation of positive factors. First was the power of social media, something that BJP and Modi decided to harness to their benefit. In a country of 380 million smartphone users, social media democratised dissemination of news. News had gone retail.
The Akshay Kumar interview forced the Lutyens’ media to acknowledge that presenting a softer, emotional side of Modi was a brilliant move
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Second, the global resurgence of nationalism. The rage against the entrenched establishment was most apparent in Brexit and the triumph of Donald Trump in the US.
Third, there has been a growing disconnect between the elite and the masses. We are at a juncture where the masses have concluded that the elite alone cannot be trusted with safeguarding or promoting their interests. The confluence of these factors has resulted in the waning clout of the elite. They are no longer considered conscience-keepers and censors of public morals. The masses now have their own preferences, their own belief systems and their own validation points. The de-legitimisation of the elite was inversely proportional to the glamourisation of the populist and homegrown wisdom. The ‘soul of India’ is no more defined by the elite alone.
IN CONSONANCE WITH THE democratisation of information, the elite have gradually been relegated to the realm of irrelevance. Internationally, the much- celebrated expertise of experts was discredited— especially when they failed to predict the global financial crisis.
The process began in India decades ago with the Shah Bano agitation when the elite obstinately denied the rise of Muslim fundamentalism. A significant section of the people began doubting the view of experts on the issue and were willing to accept the position that the Shah Bano case was one of appeasement politics pursed by the then Rajiv Gandhi Government.
Universities, meanwhile, became enclaves of select certitudes, only contributing to the process of insulated knowledge. Unsurprisingly, anyone whose sole source of information was from the academia in such centres of learning was left astounded by the sudden unravelling of the Soviet Union as an economy and a polity in 1990s. The jolt on the news was bigger here. Unlike in the West, few in India even paid attention to what was going on in the Soviet Union and what the end of a bipolar world would mean globally.
In a world where information was yet to be democratised through technology, knowledge was insular and often selectively imbibed through intellectual echo chambers that reinforced one’s own belief systems. In 1989, CPM leader Sitaram Yechury made a visit to Romania and upon his return wrote in the party paper, People’s Democracy, paeans on the Communist government of Nicolae Ceausescu. Within weeks, however, Ceausescu was removed in a violent uprising.
The media’s distrust was evident during Modi’s launch of Sadbhavna Mission for social harmony
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In the West, the academic elite maintained a tradition of at least acknowledging the emergence of a new phenomenon. In India, the elite in most spheres chose to be in denial. This reaction was in conflict with what ordinary people witnessed on the ground. Take, for instance, the issue of communalism. Subaltern history places a premium on ground-level reportage based on local narratives and anecdotes. This was considered a superior approach. When it came to communalism, there has virtually been a stampede among the very experts who subscribed heavily to subaltern history to junk the approach and blame the problem on the majority. Consequently, people have firmly rejected top-down knowledge dispensation by experts and the mainstream media.
Modi came to New Delhi in 2014 against this backdrop of technologically-powered democratisation of news and information as well as rising aspirations. He came carrying his personal and political baggage that reflected much of the mofussil India, proudly wearing the pride and confidence of the small town, the local and the vernacular.
Modi was quite unlike Vajpayee and Advani and saw no need whatsoever to appease or mollify the elite to gain entry to its highest centre of power. Having already won battles against the elite in his home state Gujarat, Modi was unfazed by being called arrogant.
In spite of a hostile mainstream media, he was supremely adept at using the media and its influence to expand his audience. In the last five years of his stint, he has adroitly controlled the narrative, confident that as long as he remains popular and fetches eyeballs, mainstream media and TV channels would have little option but to give him the space and the play. His Diwali interactions with the media in New Delhi, for instance, were aimed at reaching out to the foot soldiers, aware that selfies would pop up instantly on social media such as Facebook and Twitter, irrespective of their public position of acute disdain for the man. That served him two ways. One, to bond with the reporters and develop a constituency of friendly personnel that would not be biased in reportage. Two, to send a direct message to the higher elite in the profession that he would not take bias lying down.
Over the years, Modi has also become the most powerful controller of media outlets in the country, cocking a snook at the biggest conglomerates. Aside from NaMo TV, there are hundreds of NaMo Twitter handles, Facebook pages and YouTube channels. Over time, this would allow him complete control over both the medium and the message.
George Bush, during his term as US president, launched a somewhat similar attack on the East Coast biggies in the media, by studiously ignoring them but selectively reaching out to the Christian Science Monitor and the Arizona Gazette . Unlike Bush, Modi has made no attempts at selectively ignoring media, perhaps on the calculation that a move of the kind could only provide undeserved legitimacy to elite media.
Indeed, few politicians have an understanding of news management and control as he does. Modi has now perfected the art of managing news in adverse political situations and generating parallel headlines. Take demonetisation. If the mainstream media were sole purveyors of all news on notebandi, Modi would have been routed. However, he managed to turn the story around by focusing on the fact that there were no major protests or riots following this bold move for which he had already laid the ground with his ‘No Pain No Gain’ addresses to the public, reinforcing his personal integrity. Demonetisation was not even an issue in the 2019 elections.
In the US, when Donald Trump’s political opponents began comparing the number of people who attended his inauguration event with the numbers who attended that of his predecessor Barack Obama, the president’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway, came up with ‘alternative facts’ that diverted the focus from the issue at hand. Modi, similarly, came up with his alternative facts (although critics may dub them ‘shifting goalposts’) on notebandi and the public lapped that up. Fortuitous circumstances have also allowed him, in recent times, to turn what could have been a negative narrative on the Pulwama tragedy into a triumphant one with the Balakot air strikes.
The people he has reached out to, lives he has transformed, have a different perception of the man. That perception could well starkly differ from the image the elite had so far chosen to put out by arrogating to themselves the sole right to interpret India and the right to communicate on behalf of its people.
The deep division between the projected image of Modi by the elite and the actual experience of him by the masses is working to the advantage of the man. The results show that the elite had shut their eyes tight once again to what is unravelling on the ground.