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Modi Leads the Charge for Now

10th October 2013


More than two years ago a taxi driver in Kerala told me that he would vote for Narendra Modi if he ever got an opportunity. A year later – and this was before Modi won the Gujarat state elections for the third time – a hotel doorman in Chennai said the same thing. And earlier this year a young engineer working with a technology company in Bangalore echoed similar sentiments.

In the two years since the Kerala cabbie voiced his support for Modi, the perception that the Gujarat chief minister (and yes, he continues to be in that role) is a strong administrator, decisive, incorruptible and a man who keeps his promises has only strengthened. In New Delhi, in Kolkata, in Lucknow, Bhopal, Jaipur and Mumbai, Modi looks down upon us from posters and billboards – half smiling, half mocking, challenging everybody – especially the Congress that seems to merely follow his political agenda.

Never has an Indian politician been “branded” as Modi has been. We have NaMo phones, we have NaMo tea stalls, there are already two biographies out in the book stores and a biopic is underway. We also have a NaMo kurta, and probably many other products to come as the election temperatures rise.

Pitched as Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) potential prime ministerial candidate after the 2014 elections, Modi is setting himself up against a much younger, yet non-branded, Rahul Gandhi – the scion of a political family that has either ruled or helped rule India for a very long time. A perception battle between the two – amplified by the media – is probably the most top-of-the-mind dinner table discussion these days and one that Modi seems to be winning, at least for now.

As Modi launches his political blitzkrieg, mowing miles with his first-mover advantage, it is amply clear that he is working to a sharply targeted multimedia strategy put together by a war room that is propping him as a leader who can change India. The early start bodes well as it will give Modi and his team enough time to convert the fence sitters and break away those charmed by the Congress.

The media is helping by headlining every word Modi utters and television panel discussions are only cementing his position as a man who matters. Slowly, but surely, Modi’s image of a steely leader is getting entrenched into the political and social frequency of an election that is still some months away.

On the other hand, Gandhi seems weak, indecisive, and battling his own party, as he tells people his mother was upset with his choice of words when he interrupted a party press conference to oppose a proposed ordinance allowing convicted parliamentarians to keep their seats that was cleared by the prime minister and his cabinet.

Set up against a wily politician and an orator who can transfix the crowds, Gandhi’s image of a reluctant inheritor only gets a fresh shine every time he speaks.

The battle is between a man who thinks on his feet and seemingly wants to lead this large and diverse country, and another who still doesn’t seem to have made up his mind about whether he wants the job. In the public relations battle, Modi has won the first set. He’s still got to win the match though.

The shift in perception since the days when the national media called Modi a “murderer” after the deadly 2002 religious riots in Gujarat has been slow but huge.

No longer is Modi the pariah he once was. No longer is he hated or reviled as he was. No longer is he a political embarrassment (to many) as he was. No longer is he in the headlines for the “wrong” reasons as he was. Feted by the industry, the youth seeking jobs and a middle class frustrated with the Congress government over poor governance, dynastic politics and inflation, Modi seems to have grabbed people’s imagination and emotions.

Gandhi is sincere, but he lacks the power to hold the crowds and veer them to see his point of view. That’s because while Modi is all over, Gandhi pops in and out with statements that only raise more questions. New Delhi’s political citizenry is widely convinced that the young man wants Congress to lose badly so that he could then clean up the grand old party’s corrupt, wobbly script.

I remember watching Modi make the crowds dance during his election rallies in his home state back in 2007. Thousands of people wearing the “Modi Mask” followed the slow wave of the man’s hand from left to right – hypnotized by the sheer power of his oratory and stage theatrics. It scared many a political pundit. Gandhi is no match. In fact, the entire Congress party is made of weak speakers who sound unconvincing even when they mean business.

But let’s remember that a few months is a long time in politics and a lot could happen between now and the elections due by May next year. Winning a public relations and a perception skirmish is only part of the larger battle that Modi has to fight to help the BJP return to power after a decade in the wilderness. Voters might love Modi, but they might still choose not to cast their ballot for his party.

Eventually, Modi will have to make people believe that he is not as divisive as many believe him to be if he wants the top job. That’s easier said than done. The posters and potshots are fine for now. The winner in the public relations battle between Modi and Gandhi will only be announced next year – the day the votes are counted. Until then, watch the political theatre and enjoy.

Rahul Sharma, former newspaper editor, President, Public Affairs, Genesis Burson-Marsteller and a founding member of the Public Affairs Forum of India


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