This particular write-up is aimed at the biggest political story of our times. A political phenomenon has occurred in India over the last fifteen years which really can benefit from some unpicking.
This phenomenon has been the rise of Narendra Modi to the post of PM of India. This story has left in its wake, the usual cacophony of political, media and social activist voices doing the rounds of the political circles in Delhi, and has re-aligned India's imagination of itself and of where it fits in the world.
Amid this din of political noise, I thought it was instructive, to step back and take in the whole Modi story and see the background in which his tenure as PM is being judged.
I really think this is a necessary exercise to undertake, because it feels like India is really entering a phase of its political life, as a nation which is uncharted. India has never sailed in waters so far to the right as it is doing today.
Nearly everything that could be said about Modi has been said. He is unparalleled in modern Indian political history in terms of being a politician who has undergone the level of scrutiny that he has.
The purpose of this article is to analyze the history of the Modi story and try to trace back the steps to find out how this story was formed.
Let us do a piece of detective work and delve into the sequence of events and try to locate where and how this story started and how we got to where we are today.
How did a man that most Indians didn’t know about 15 years ago become such a colossus that he blitzkrieg-ed his way into the post of Prime Minister of the largest democracy in the world?
And while doing this, I would like to point out that I am trying to focus on the Modi story and how it evolved in the media. How has his story evolved and what role did the media play in making it became the all-encompassing political story of India ?
That’s what we are attempting to unravel here.
So how did the Modi story reach the point that it has today?
Some of the well-known reasons behind his popularity today include the actual development work done by Modi, his legendary status as an administrator without peers and his incorruptibility, the fact that he is pro-market economics and has done a huge amount of development work in Gujarat, which has been recognized by business leaders in India and outside.
Included in this list of well known (and by now well discussed) reasons for his popularity are his favorable attitude to business, investment houses and his personal drive to build good relations with the top business houses of India and a can-do attitude towards governance.
But one could ask that why it is that Modi’s political graph seems to be singularly going up, when the same group of criteria when applied to other politicians of similar genres, reveal stories of political careers which have declined rather than advanced.
If the criterion were purely economic development and vibrancy in doing business, there are some other contenders, who could legitimately ask, “Why wasn’t I picked for greatness?”
Take the case of Chandrababu Naidu from Andhra Pradesh. Here was another young politician, who was seen as business friendly, clean, sincere, and striving to improve the overall administration of Andhra Pradesh. And it is generally believed that during his tenure, he tried his best to improve the overall situation of AP. But today his political arena is limited to AP, and only a recent alliance with Modi has rejuvenated his career.
Regarding administrative capabilities, a more recent test case is Raman Singh, an excellent administrator, without any known cases of major corruption, and is generally regarded as a clean politician. His public distribution system was recognized as the best in India and his job was tougher since he had to deal with a Maoist insurgency in his state, something that Modi didn’t have to contend with. But he doesn’t have anything like the stature of Modi in the national discourse.
There are some other states in India which have done similarly well to Gujarat in the fields of agriculture, infrastructure development and health-care, namely Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. (In fact Madhya Pradesh’s agricultural growth rate is even higher than Gujarat’s). And Tamil Nadu and Kerala’s human development indexes are higher than that of Gujarat’s.
But the leaders of those states never got the attention that Modi got, because of the progress they made in their respective states.
It is rightly pointed out by many, that it is because Modi has been able to successfully market his state, is really good at image and brand management and very adept at marketing. This is indeed true, that in terms of marketing his state, he does possess an edge over others. He has marketed his state much better than many others. And that’s not meant as a disparaging remark. I believe marketing your state for investment is as important as regular governance. And if someone has a gift for it, all power to him or her.
But in order to do that, he must have had to have had the attention of the media. No marketing campaign is possible in today’s world, without the TV cameras giving you the necessary airtime to do so. In other words, Modi would have had to become famous (or infamous) to get the media attention in the first place, in order to get his marketing machine rolling or to make it a success.
So why did Modi become famous on TV from this list of Chief Ministers of India?
Well, that’s because the TV cameras were already pointing at him prior to his launch of the “development agenda” for a different reason altogether.
What was that reason? Was it the hard-Hindutva aspect of his persona?
Of course, being a Hindutva icon in India is his overall persona, both in India and outside, which is part of the political coloring of his persona, with all the bouquets and brickbats that come with it.
The Hindutva aspect of his persona definitely adds the largest part to his presence as a leader, and Hindu nationalism in any case, is a more edgy and interesting topic of discussion for the leftist-liberal chattering classes, rather than simple economic developmental data. It’s partially true that there are other states (some BJP ruled and some not), which are out-performing Gujarat in some sectors. That they don’t make any headlines is testimony to the theory that simple economic developmental data is not what has made the Modi story.
So yes, the image of being a Hindutva hero is where he pulled ahead from the rest of the crowd and got the attention of the media to begin with.
But that is not the complete answer of where this story started. There is something more to this story which makes it special.
And why do I say that?
Because you will find other Hindutva leaders in Indian politics, who have been genuine Hindutva icons, but who’s political aura has faded over the years.
L.K Advani is the most obvious example. Advani was the original hard Hindutva hero of the late 80s and 90s, but even at the peak of his popularity, he didn’t reach the level of mass hysteria which Modi has today.
So what made Modi that much more special than all the others?
Well, the general consensus is that the 2002 Gujarat riots transformed Narendra Modi from being an obscure chief minister of an Indian state into both a national (and international) hero and villain at the same time.
So obviously the 2002 Gujarat riot is the seed of the Modi story.
But let’s dig deeper into that theory.
Was it the event of the riots itself or something else about it, which made that event so unique that it gave birth to the Modi story?
If it was the event itself, then the 2002 Gujarat riots should have been so large and destructive in scale and size that it should have dwarfed anything else that came before it (something like the riots during the partition of India), thereby making Modi a uniquely divisive politician in Indian history.
But even a cursory and slightly cold-hearted glance at the facts about those riots doesn’t support that theory.
Roughly as many members of the minority community died in the 1992 – 93 Bombay riots, but no-one today remembers SudhakarRao Naik (the Congress chief minister of Maharashtra at that time).
Similarly, in the India of today, nobody knows who Satyendra Narayan Sinha was (the Congress chief minister of Bihar during the 1989 Bhagalpur riots where an even larger number of the minority community died).
It should be remembered, that both their respective administrations were, at the time, held similarly culpable by public opinion to have stood idly by, or worse, to have participated in the violence. But nobody in India today remembers who they were.
In more recent times, there have been riots in Khokrajhar in Assam, where similarly members of the minority community have been targeted, but those are already fading from public memory. And those riots have neither added to nor diminished the image of Tarun Gogoi (the Congress Chief-minister of the state at the time).
And none of these chief ministers became leaders of national prominence because of the riots.
Why is that?
Because in the first two cases mentioned above, the riots took place before the television media age and in the third case, the TV media largely treated the riots as a passing event and therefore these chief ministers have not been discussed in the media relentlessly for the last decade and more.
It is therefore, the television media’s single minded obsession with Modi since the 2002 riots and his tussles with them which really gave birth to the Modi story.
More than the riots themselves, its the pathological obsession that the so-called secular media, human rights activists, some Bollywood filmmakers, leftist social workers have had with Modi, and his battles with them, which have laid the seeds of the Modi story.
There is enough empirical evidence to suggest that this is true.
First of all, if you give so much media coverage to a politician in the 24 / 7 television age, (even if it is mostly negative), it will at least give that person huge publicity and will make him a figure who occupies a space in the consciousness of every Indian, since mass media reaches masses of people like no other medium.
Television reaches every nook and corner of India while the Internet still doesn’t. And therefore the national media operating out of Delhi has the capability of giving unprecedented publicity to an event or a person.
I would like to clarify that hereafter in this article, when I refer to the media, I would be talking about the national news media, which mostly likes to call itself secular.
This media has been relentlessly discussing Modi for one issue or another for the last thirteen years, and has thereby given Modi enormous publicity. It’s the gift that keeps giving for Narendra Modi because they simply cannot stop talking about him.
It gave him the status of an almost mythical figure in the media, where he is everybody’s favorite villain in the secular intelligentsia.
That’s the reason why almost everyone in India came to know who Narendra Modi is (which is not true of, say, Raman Singh).
But while the media has played the main role in planting the seeds of the Modi story, there is something even more intriguing about its origin.
Which is that, while the saturation coverage of Modi by the media gave him huge publicity, it still doesn’t explain why the criticism of him by the secular media, seemed to be actually helping him.
In the wake of the events of 2002, the entire national media ranted to India with phrases like “punish this man”, “this man is a monster”, “forget being the CM of Gujarat, he doesn’t even deserve to be out of jail”, “this is an international criminal”, etc.
And where are we after 13 years?
That very person and none other went on to become the PM of India !
India collectively ended up saying, “not only do we disagree with the media, that this man doesn’t deserve to be the CM of Gujarat, we, in fact, think that he and none other than him deserves to be the PM of India !”.
That’s exactly what the events of the last thirteen years have shown us !
This is the irony and mystery which I am trying to unravel in this article.
And this is where the plot thickens and also where the real truth of the Modi story actually lies.
Traditionally the media has been known to be the conscience keeper of society, shedding light on the furtive motives of shady politicians. They are known to be the guardians of the public interest and meant to keep a check on politicians. And usually their credibility is higher than that of politicians.
The usual political trend in most democratic societies is that when a politician is subjected to a period of sustained hostility from the TV media, it decreases their popularity, or in the rarest of cases, it remains unaffected.
Nowhere in any democracy in the world, can it be said that when the national media has gone on a berating, defamatory campaign on a public figure for any scandal, that he or she came out even more popular than before, and that too, because of the defamation !
Logic would dictate that such a sustained and hostile media campaign against any politician would have brought down any public figure of any consequence and especially on such a serious event as a religious riot.
But in the case of Modi, the reverse has happened!
The media hostility towards him over the years has increased his popularity and continues to do so!
This is that unique phenomenon which has been the secret ingredient to the Modi story.
This is a first in Indian politics. This has never happened before to a politician in India. And this was no small event in Indian political history, where a leader who has been so vilified in the popular media narrative, kept growing in stature with each passing day and went onto become the leader of the country.
After all, leaders in India’s political history who have been perceived as tough, and uncompromising, when subjected to media bashing have lost some of their sheen, case in point being Indira Gandhi.
So let’s dig further to find out why this reverse phenomenon is happening in the case of Modi.
There can be only one reason for it, as illogical as it may seem. When all logical possibilities have been removed, the result, no matter how improbable, must be true.
And that reason is that when it comes to matters of secularism (as defined in India), communalism, Hindu-Muslim relations, vote-bank politics, terrorism and the ideologies that sustain it, Narendra Modi’s credibility is higher than that of India’s secular media.
That is the oracle of truth which ignited the Modi story and drives it even today!
All the areas of discussion mentioned above are the ones which have generally been used by the media to determine Modi’s acceptability. And most of the time, the media has come away with the conclusion, that he didn’t fit the bill on these issues, according to their secular standards.
But evidently the credibility of the Indian secular media is much lower than that of Narendra Modi on these topics. So each time such a discussion took place on these topics, Modi came out more popular than before and the media less credible.
This phenomenon is actually a continuation of the “Maut Ka Saudagar” episode, when a statement was made to lower his persona in the public eye. But the reverse happened. His popularity went up, and the popularity of the person making the statement went down.
Of course, it doesn’t help the media’s cause of credibility, that their general air of un-professionalism, (when discussing matters of gravity), gives the impression of them being a group of mediocre, sensationalist, publicity seeking clowns, who don’t really have an ideological position on these issues, but just want to be part of the general chaos and cacophony associated with these topics, so that they are able to say something on TV.
To put it bluntly, they just don’t seem serious enough when discussing such grave matters. They give the impression of just wanting a cheap thrill out of these serious matters. And that in turn helps anyone they are targeting for scrutiny, simply because their opponent seems more serious about the issue in comparison to them, irrespective of their position.
But even keeping aside the issue of un-professionalism, the Indian media is not considered un-biased and balanced when discussing the topics mentioned above. They are perceived by a very large section of their audience as having opinions coloured by bias, when discussing topics related to secularism, communalism, etc.
And because they have such low credibility on these issues, when they tried to paint Modi as being too “communal” to be an Indian leader, they failed. And Modi emerged more popular.
Not because the audience differed with the opinion of the media and thought that Modi is in fact secular. But because they didn’t believe that being secular in the way the media would like him to be, is actually the right thing to do, for Modi or any other leader, who wants to lead India.
The media itself was not seen as having the right prescription on secularism.
That’s the reason for the occurrence of this reverse phenomenon.
To put it bluntly, the media itself is not seen as being “secular” enough.
And certainly not enough to label Modi as communal.
Therefore the true cause of the birth of the Modi story in national politics is due to the media focus on him combined with the low credibility of the media when it comes to discussing secularism.
Now, there is a second part to this story, where Modi has used this unhealthy obsession that the media has with him to his own advantage, and capitalized on it.
So far, we have discovered how the seed of the Modi story was sown.
In the next part of this article, we will de-code how this seed was raised into a mighty oak.
The seed becomes a mighty oak.
At some point in the 2002 – 2003 timeframe, Modi decided to fight back against the media campaign, by pointing their spotlight back on the media itself. By doing so, Modi made the media itself a part of his own story.
Now this could be termed as an extremely risky move by any politician, since the traditional wisdom for politicians has always been to avoid enmity with the media. And certainly not to take them on, since they retain the power to defame you.
But Modi decided to go against conventional logic and did exactly the opposite.
By pointing the media spotlight back on the media itself, he exposed the hypocrisy and double standards that a lot of news organizations have when it comes to the topic of secularism. During this phase, Modi effectively made full use of the media’s portrayal of him as a demon, by taking on those who claimed to speak for secularism.
Think back to the early public debates in 2003-2004, when Modi took on liberal media personalities and publicly berated “5-star activists as being terrorist sympathizers”. And the stout defense of his police forces in the Ishrat Jahan case. He proudly stood in opposition to the media and made sure that in the public eye, he and the media remained enemies forever.
This move did two important things.
Firstly it deepened the fight between him and the media. By accepting the media as his enemy in this manner, he made sure that he remains in their spotlight forever. And that he himself remains the story which the media can never resist covering.
And secondly, in the minds of the viewers watching this fight, it made the media a willing participant in the Modi story so that the Indian media was no longer seen as a neutral observer of Modi, but was seen as actively having entered the political bull ring, and therefore subject to the same scrutiny that it applies to politicians regularly.
He was counting on the mediocrity of the media to provide him a ton of free publicity.
By making enemies with the media, Modi made sure it always became Modi vs the media, and when only these 2 protagonists were in the ring, Modi was always more credible.
Using the bowler's pace
Having made sure that the media never got tired of him, Modi's gambler's eye lit up on an idea which changed the course of India's political history.
He executed a deft move, which turned out to be the master-stroke. Modi craftily used this spotlight on himself towards an additional advantage, changing the discussion about him from communalism to development and good governance.
This was a superb political move on his part since he knew that everything about him will make news. And he chose to use the glare on him to highlight his developmental and governance achievements, many of which are real and not just hype and do deserve credit.
Combining the traditional business friendly environment of Gujarat with new investments in transport, infrastructure, agriculture, tourism and healthcare, he created a slew of developmental talking points, which, when combined with an army of administrators who were driven to make this policy stick, gave him the image of a tough, no-nonsense person who can get things done.
But all of it has been done in the glare of the media. If you notice, all the big investment meets about Gujarat have kept Narendra Modi at the center-stage. Having understood the media’s obsession with him, Modi continued to put himself at the center of any major economic or developmental story, so that both he and the economic development get inextricably linked in the media narrative.
And therefore, it can be credibly argued, that none of the major news-making economic events, (e.g. the Vibrant Gujarat Investor Summits, the Sabarmati Riverfront project, the 24/7 rural electrification program, the canal solar power projects, etc.), would have received any media coverage, were it not for the fact that Narendra Modi, personally, was at the center of all these events.
This is as skillful a manipulation of the media narrative as I have ever seen in Indian politics, using the media’s obsession about him to his own advantage.
In cricketing parlance, it would be called “using the bowler’s pace to score a boundary behind the wicket”. It is essentially using the force of the thing coming at you and redirecting it to your benefit and to the detriment of your opponent.
The Vibrant Gujarat Global Investor Summits (which started in 2003), played a key role in this “use the media attention for the reversal of image” strategy. These mega events were started purely as a counter to the national and international tirade against Gujarat.
They were meant to show-case the narrative that contrary to what the leftists all over the world were saying, Gujarat remained a vibrant investment destination. Seeing that his state was being defamed all over the world by Bollywood movies and liberals from all over India, Modi countered by making the case, through these summits, that Gujarat remained a safe and decent place to do business. These events developed a momentum of their own, and became major talking points for international investors, who for their own reasons gave these events the excellent press that Modi was looking for.
Investment started to pour in, (especially from Japan), and Gujarat’s business profile became its own story in the media. Single, one-off wins like getting Nano out of Shingur and into Sanand, added to the overall momentum of the story, that Modi is galvanizing Gujarat.
Seeing this strategy work (praise from Ratan Tata and other bigwigs being proof), Modi continued to charge down this route, hiring image building firms to further bolster the image of himself as a can-do, business-friendly, efficient, result-oriented leader who meant business and wasn’t all talk.
This is when the narrative of the “Gujarat model”, which is essentially the “Japanese model” of development started to take hold. Rapid urbanization, linked to cheap manufacturing of goods, and pouring all the tax revenue gained from this growth into building urban and rural infrastructure at a fast pace, brushing aside red tape and bureaucracy.
And it has worked wonders for him, leaving behind a trail of achievements and turning him into a developmental icon for most Indians.
Once again, during this entire period, the media was constantly criticizing him for not having “social vision”, or being too “corporate friendly”, or even “trying to change his image from communalism to development” or being a “non-inclusive leader”. They tried their best to convince Indians, that this guy is not the right guy to trust and everything he is doing is just for effect.
But since they had already lost credibility in the eyes of most Indians by that time, all this criticism ended up doing is provide more uninterrupted free publicity to Modi.
And this is why he was able to market his state so well to the world. Since the media obsession of him, was deftly used by him to get his own message out to the world.
This is the time-frame when the Modi that we know today: the business friendly, capitalist, growth oriented icon of speedy and efficient development came into being.
Another thing which happened around this time contributed significantly to the growth of the Modi story. When the secular brigade launched its tirade on Modi in the media, center-right voters in India and outside, looked for an opposing right wing TV channel, to correct the balance in the narrative.
Finding none of any significance, these right wingers took their fight online with a vengeance, since they saw the internet as the only vehicle to counter the mainstream media narrative.
This online tsunami of support for Modi, today called “Internet Hindus”, had a force-multiplier effect on the Modi story, turning a growing story into a wave. And this online army continues to fight for Modi today in the online space, wherever possible.
This is the time when the Modi story gathered momentum across the country in a positive light and started to resemble a wave.
So by about the 2005 – 2006 timeframe, the Modi wave was born, and by the time the 2008 Lok-Sabha elections took place, the Modi wave was well and truly a new political force in India.
The BJP gave L K Advani a crack at the PM’s post in 2009, for hierarchical reasons, but one can remember even today, that back in 2009 itself, there were voices within the BJP to project Modi as their PM candidate. He had already arrived by then.
The UPA-II tenure of non-stop corruption, price rise, insipid leadership from Manmohan Singh, and a crisis of leadership at the top of the Congress party, with no credible leader at the top, just added more and more fuel into the Modi fire. But the fire had already been built by the time their tenure started. The Congress just made it stronger by pouring more fuel into it through their mal-governance.
So that by the time the 2014 elections took place, the result was a foregone conclusion, with only the exact number of seats the BJP would win being the point of contention.
So concluding in reverse, Modi’s image as an economic miracle worker, who will work tirelessly for the development of India, brought him to power.
But the construction of that image was made possible only by non-stop media coverage of him as a person for a different reason.
And that reason was secularism or lack of it in him, in the wake of 2002 riots.
And since the media’s credibility on secularism was lower than that of Modi’s, it ended up giving him enormous publicity and the genie was born.
Narendra Modi admitted to as much after he became PM. That were it not for the initial media war launched on him in the wake of 2002, he would not be PM today.
So it all boils down to the media’s low credibility on secularism, doesn’t it?
So why does the media suffer from such low credibility when it comes to secularism? That’s a topic for a different day. And this particular question is so deep and intriguing that I promise to write a separate piece, devoted to shedding light on just that question.
But that is the nub of the issue regarding Modi’s emergence in the national political space.
While at it, let me answer another question, tangentially related to this topic.
Which is that, since he has become PM, why is Modi keeping the media at arm’s length? And why is he not trying to make peace and friends with the media now, having achieved his aim of becoming PM?
Well, the answer to that question is that his tangles with the media on the issues of minority rights, Hindutva, terrorism, etc. have created a persona of Modi, which is seen in opposition to the secular media. And because the media has such low credibility on these issues, these clashes with the secular sections of the intelligentsia have always helped Modi gain political momentum.
Every time an incident happens when the national or international media tries to confront Modi on his secular credentials, it helps Modi’s popularity, because the credibility of the so called “secular” side is always lower than that of Modi’s.
Most Indians don’t believe anymore that the media is an honest and dispassionate arbiter on anything associated with Modi.
This is because the media has largely been unable to maintain the professional distance and neutrality, when it comes to discussing Modi’s secular credentials, which was absolutely imperative for it to maintain its credibility.
And because it has been biased in its coverage of Modi, the Indian media has become part of the Modi story.
An acceptance of Modi’s position by India is therefore, by inference, also a rejection of the media.
And therefore the constituency, which voted for Modi doesn’t just contain those who agree with Modi. It also contained those who reject the media and want to vote against the media’s prescription for India.
There is a growing demographic of center right voters in India, who support Modi, because he is seen as being totally against the secular media, and because they feel that their vote is a protest vote against the secularism prescribed by the media and Modi best represents the person, who they feel can carry that message.
This is a growing constituency of voters and for these people, it is as important to vote against people like Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai, Karan Thapar, Teesta Setalvad, Mani Shankar Aiyar, etc., as it is to vote for Modi.
In other words, a large part of their support for Modi is actually coming out of their dislike for the media!
Because at the end of the day, this demographic doesn’t believe that these secularists really have right prescription for India’s future. And they do believe that Modi does.
You saw a member of that constituency physically engage Rajdeep outside Madison Square Garden in New York.
Narendra Modi knows this, which is why he continues to project an image of himself, in opposition to the media.
Which is why, even though he is now a national leader, he is not trying to “secularize” himself, and not trying to become more soft and cuddly in his public persona. Because he knows that that’s what the media wants him to become. And he knows that a substantial base of his support doesn’t want him to be influenced by the media.
This is the reason why, for example, he never really apologizes for 2002 and never will. This is the reason behind his refusal to give TV interviews after becoming prime minister. And why he doesn’t want to become friends with the current media tribe.
Because he knows that the moment he does so, he would have become the kind of politician that the media wants him to become. And he would automatically lose his popularity by doing do, since his popularity is deriving from his posture of opposition to the secular media.
The media often accuses Modi of being a polarizing politician. What they don’t realize is that since the media itself is part of the Modi story, they themselves were the polarizers, who created the Modi story.
Think back to the time in Feb 2002 when these reporters were running around the streets of Ahmedabad with their TV cameras trying to get footage of the riots in the hope of “nailing” the CM of that state and condemning him in the public eye.
Well, that person today is one of the tallest leaders in the world, not just India.
The real polarizing politician in India, who created the divide in Indian society between pro-Modi and anti-Modi people, was the secular Indian media.
And Narendra DamodarDas Modi became the beneficiary.