Modi, media and the feel-good effect
7 April 2017
India’s recently concluded general election revealed the power of corporate advertising and PR in determining the tone and content of the media discourse.
(This is an analysis from our June 2014 print quarterly, ‘Growing Media, Shrinking Spaces?’. See more from the issue here.)
As the last round of polling neared in India’s general elections, dispirited workers of the Congress party seemed to spark momentarily to life. Hopelessly devoted to the dynastic principle – and fearful of exercising any manner of liberty not granted from the quarter referred to in hushed whispers as the ‘high command’ – volunteers in the cause of extending the Congress party’s long lease on power responded with enthusiasm when the chosen standard bearer of the Nehru-Gandhi family, Rahul Gandhi, yielded some space to sister Priyanka on the campaign trail.
The rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seemed by then to be gathering an irresistible momentum towards victory, but was disinclined to take any risks. As reported in the media, the BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, eight days ahead of the final round of polling, called up trusted aide Amit Shah, who was manning his campaign office in the city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh (UP). The quick confabulation yielded an immediate assessment and action plan: Priyanka was causing unanticipated turbulence in the march to victory and her momentum had to be broken. Modi would address a mass rally and carry his aggressive rhetoric on unending decades of Congress misrule to the very bastion of the Gandhi dynasty in the UP constituency of Amethi. Though put together as a response to unanticipated contingency, it was made to look an integral part of a long settled campaign plan.
Factoring in the charter costs of the jaunty aircraft that Modi rode to his frenetic series of rallies across the country, the cost of the campaign… could end up in the range of INR 100 billion (USD 1.68 billion), …significantly higher than the money estimated to have been spent in the re-election of US President Barack Obama in 2012.
Quickness of reflex was among the distinctive features of the Modi campaign, which led to him earning a triumph on a scale that has been denied any individual or party since 1984. Another of its striking aspects was its immersive character, its ability to invite a large section of an angry and aggrieved electorate into a big tent where Modi would talk to them directly in an idiom that reflected their frustrated aspirations. The statistics of the campaign suggest nothing so much as a methodical and calculated pursuit of power: well over 400 rallies were personally addressed by Modi during a seven month span, and another 900 through three-dimensional holographic projection. In the six week period between the first and last phases of polling, Modi travelled 300,000 kilometres to address nearly 200 rallies. Meanwhile, vans fully equipped with audio-visual technology traversed the far reaches of the country conveying a message of better times to come. This was carried out in tandem with an advertising blitz that saturated every conceivable form of media – whether print, TV, radio, online and outdoor – with Modi’s image, and the assurance that he would be the one to deliver ‘growth’ and ‘development’, and restore a sense of ‘national prestige’.
It was, as a media report put it, the “maximum campaign”, which pulled in the force multiplier effects of social media in an unprecedented fashion. Actions were coordinated from two hubs in Delhi, one modestly named the ‘media cell’ and the other carrying the rather grandiose title of ‘National Digital Operations Centre’. And where the traditional media was not willingly acquiescent in amplifying the Modi message, its compliance was won through the sheer power of the BJP’s advertising budget.
Since the global financial meltdown of 2008, the Indian media has been passing through hard times. The 2009 general elections, which triggered a briefly lived surge in political advertising, came as restorative, but it did the industry little credit that just on the eve of the campaign, it had approached the government, hat in hand, for a bailout package. And then came the temporary relief from various stimulus measures introduced by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government elected in 2009. By about 2011, though the momentum was beginning to flag again, and most major companies in the news industry were beginning to bleed. The return of the great festival of democracy in 2014 was good news because of the stimulus that the Indian general elections promised to deliver to advertising expenditure, projected in a February 2014 forecast to rise by 11.6 percent in aggregate over the year, against 10 percent in 2013 and an anaemic 5.1 per cent in 2012. The most significant gains were expected to accrue to the print media, principally for daily newspapers, where advertising revenue was projected to increase by as much as 8.5 percent against an estimated 4.6 percent in 2013.
In February, when the main political players were just beginning to gear up for battle, the BJP alone was believed to have set aside a sum of INR 4 billion (USD 67 million) for political advertising through the campaign season. As the party’s campaign unfolded though, it became abundantly clear that the initial estimate was way off the mark. By the time the last ballot was cast, the BJP was estimated to have spent, conservatively, about INR 50 billion (USD 840 million) on advertising, creating an aura of omnipresence around Modi. Factoring in the charter costs of the jaunty aircraft that Modi rode to his frenetic series of rallies across the country, the cost of the campaign – if or when it is finally totalled up – could end up in the range of INR 100 billion (USD 1.68 billion), which at current exchange rates, would be significantly higher than the money estimated to have been spent in the re-election of US President Barack Obama in 2012.
Modi’s case for leading the country was posed in a manner that promoted a presidential-style elections contest. And the reward he has obtained, in the shape of a 31 percent national vote share for the BJP, may seem a rather meagre return on the money invested. It is, as a perceptive media analyst pointed out soon after the results were in, the smallest vote share won by any party with an absolute majority on its own in parliament. The comparison may not exactly be relevant, but when the Congress in 1967 won roughly the same number of seats, its share in the popular vote was close to 41 percent. And of course, it must be added here, that when the Congress in 1984 won over three-fourths of the Lok Sabha, it had just over 49 percent of the vote.
The electoral process in India delivers strange results. Much of the battle is fought in the minds of the electorate and the mix of fear and hope that all individuals within a frail and fractured social milieu bring to their political behaviour. A share of less than a third of the popular vote can bring rewards commensurate with a much greater vote share if the party that sets itself up as the front-runner faces a divided opposition. The decibels unleashed by the Modi campaign were not just about rallying the faithful to the BJP’s saffron flag, but also about convincing the large mass of the unconverted, that opposition was futile – indeed, that they had more reason for fear from opposing the inevitable than from acquiescing in it.
There has been much talk about the unprecedented use of social media in these elections. This is at best a partial truth since the use of the social media conformed to an older template of propaganda in being insistent, single-themed and relentlessly one-way. Specific features of the social media, such as the potential richness of its user-generated content and its interactivity, were nowhere in evidence in Modi’s campaign. The lack of interactivity was also apparent in the campaign’s engagement with traditional media. For example, the only television interviews Modi granted were with worshipping acolytes or BJP partisans like Madhu Kishwar and Rajat Sharma, till the very last fortnight of the campaign, when he had the Times Now’s normally noisy and bumptious anchor Arnab Goswami interviewing him in a rare spirit of decorum.
There has been much talk about the unprecedented use of social media in these elections. This is at best a partial truth since the use of the social media conformed to an older template of propaganda in being insistent, single-themed and relentlessly one-way.
Modi’s record of achievement as Chief Minister of Gujarat was blazoned as a model that could be magically transposed to every corner of the country, bringing electricity, roads, ample water supply and prosperity to every village. It was a different matter though, that the better informed commentary found the Gujarat experience in economic growth to be little different under Modi than under several of his predecessors, and in fact to have been devoid of serious social welfare benefits. On most assessments of overall progress in growth and human development, Gujarat ranked in the middle-ranges among India’s states. Yet through the ‘maximum campaign’ this undistinguished record came to represent a model that the rest of the country could profitably emulate.
Is there an unresolved mystery in the manner that media played along with Modi’s marketing strategy? Perhaps not. Early indications were available that media, when not acquiescent, would be subtly coerced to fall in line.
In October 2013, the Kasturi family that owns The Hindu (India’s third largest English language newspaper) abruptly removed a professional editor who had been appointed just 20 months before, in what was then declared as an irreversible move towards taking the 135-year-old establishment out of family editorial control. The board of the proprietary company was deadlocked over the proposal to remove Siddharth Varadarajan from his position, and it took the casting vote of newly appointed Chairman N Ram, who had ironically led the push towards professionalisation in 2011, to carry the resolution forward. Responding to public queries afterwards, the board put out the argument that one of the factors driving the course reversal was the ostensible ‘bias’ in editorial policy against Modi, and the BJP in general. It later emerged that far from a putative ban, Varadarajan had in fact issued a memorandum to all staff, detailing the principles to be followed when placing Modi coverage in particular vantage positions of the newspaper. These were held to be completely unexceptionable, and indeed a model for how a newspaper of record should conduct itself through an intensely fought election campaign.
In November 2013, Open, a magazine that had been publishing for five years under the ownership of a diversified business conglomerate, the RPG Group, announced the removal of its political editor, Hartosh Singh Bal. No specific reason was given, though it emerged since, that the editor of the magazine, the award-winning novelist Manu Joseph, had for long been under pressure to sign off on the dismissal. After reportedly resisting for long, he finally gave in only to ensure a more cooperative relationship with the proprietorial family. Again, the main consideration behind the removal of a respected journalist was seen as the strong editorial posture he had taken against Modi’s claims to the prime ministership. Joseph himself quit his editorial position when a person regarded as a close confidant of the BJP leadership was appointed Bal’s successor in January 2014. Around the same time, the Chennai-based Sun TV channel removed senior news anchor Veerapandian from his prime time spot, allegedly after receiving a letter from the local head of the BJP unit withdrawing his party from any further participation in the channel’s programmes.
These were merely the more conspicuous among the triumphs that the BJP secured in the effort to radically alter the public perception of its chosen standard bearer. Part of this mission may have been achieved through authentic conversions of faith on the part of senior media personnel. The greater part though may have been a consequence of the unique alchemy that has evolved in recent times between the media on the one hand and the advertising and public relations industries on the other.
Projecting product Modi
In February 2014, media reports suggested that the BJP, already riding high among punters on the election results, was in the final stages of identifying the agency that would handle its massive advertising budget. Such a decision in the past involved just one choice. But in recent times, it has become almost universal practice for the ad agency function to be organised in two partly overlapping halves: the ‘creative’ side where content is determined, and the ‘media’ side where ad placements are decided. The client is thus called on to make two choices.
Among the agencies believed to be on the BJP shortlist to perform the creative function was McCann Erickson. And the front-runner among the media buyers was Lodestar. At first sight, it seemed like a great idea for clients seeking the best service to divide up functions between distinct enterprises. The only problem was that McCann belonged to the global advertising conglomerate Interpublic, headquartered in the US, and Lodestar was a media buying agency owned within the same chain of multinational capital.
The multinational claim to handling the business of a party that ostensibly represents the true and unsullied face of Indian nationalism did not go unchallenged. The most likely competitor for the creative function was reportedly Contract Advertising. And Group M was rumoured to be bidding strongly to acquire the media buying contract. Again, the story of a seemingly competitive free enterprise system working to ensure best value for all ran into the rather inconvenient fact that both Contract and Group M belong to the WPP group, headquartered in London.
Is there an unresolved mystery in the manner that media played along with Modi’s marketing strategy? Perhaps not. Early indications were available that media, when not acquiescent, would be subtly coerced to fall in line.
When the Congress party began casting its eyes around for a TV channel on which its young prince should first be featured, it looked at the audience ratings available and picked out Times Now. It went by audience measurement statistics available from TAM Ltd, a joint venture of AC Nielsen and Kantar. Nothing exceptionable there, except that Kantar is part of the WPP group, and Nielsen an enterprise owned by a number of private equity investors just then in rather bad public image. As the broadcast enterprise NDTV pointed out in a lawsuit seeking at least USD 810 million (INR 48 billion) in damages before the Supreme Court of New York in 2012, Nielsen was starved of funds just from servicing its investors’ debts. It was simply in no position to deliver services committed to clients and had hence been playing fast and loose with television audience statistics in return for various kinds of financial rewards. Since ad placements were determined in accordance with the viewership data it gathered, Nielsen’s questionable business practices, NDTV claimed, had caused it immense harm.
As election preparations began, the media got busy with sponsorship of opinion polls. Among the most active agencies in the early days was C-Voter (with no declared relationship with the global advertising and PR giants), which laid out an elaborate menu of options for the principal political contestants. It found in an opinion poll done as far back as May 2013 for a news channel owned by the diversified media conglomerate the India Today group, that the BJP with Modi as its declared leader could hope to win as many as 220 seats along with coalition partners, comfortably beating the Congress-led alliance. Without Modi, the BJP alliance would end up trailing their principal rivals by a narrower, though still significant margin, in terms of seats won. Under this scenario, the Congress and its friends were projected to win 209 seats.
C-Voter remained an active player on the scene in the months that followed. In July 2013, around the time that Modi secured his party’s approval as head of a crucial internal oversight body, C-Voter turned in a forecast that put both the BJP and the Congress alliances in the doldrums: neither of them was projected to win a sufficient number to put them in sight of a parliamentary majority. The vacuum left by this deadlock between the two principal combatants, remained unfilled in this projection. In subsequent exercises done for the same media clients and others, C-Voter turned in results that showed the BJP inching steadily ahead of its main rival, while still giving the motley grouping categorised as ‘others’ a determinant voice in the emergent parliamentary arithmetic of 2014.
In February 2014, or just when the real preparations for the elections were beginning, C-Voter was caught in a sting operation, promising tailor-made results for any media client. Despite ethical dilemmas, the sting carried out by the News Express TV channel had sufficient credibility to raise serious questions about the political agendas that C-Voter sought to serve. It led summarily to the India Today group, possibly among several other media entities, departing the league of C-Voter patrons.
Though relatively more quiescent – at least in relation to the frenetic pace set by C-Voter – two agencies that are integrally connected to the global network of advertising and PR agencies were beginning to pitch in with their own predictions on the election outcome. Nielsen stepped up in May 2013, forecasting under the conditions that existed then – without testing for various leadership contingencies involving Modi and his rivals – that the BJP and friends would beat the Congress alliance by a clear margin, but still fall seriously short of a parliamentary majority. Nielsen shifted its estimates noticeably towards the BJP, though by relatively small magnitudes, in the following two rounds of surveying done for the same client in January and February 2014.
Hansa Research, which is part of the US-based Omnicom group and thus Nielsen’s rival in the world of global ad-PR conglomerates, had its own forecasts underway, again for at least two different media clients. In a July 2013 forecast made for The Week, a news magazine published from the southern state of Kerala, Hansa Research forecast a three way break-up of the seats, with the BJP being marginally ahead of the Congress though well short of a majority. It foresaw a large residual portion where regional parties and the undefined ‘others’ would be determinant players. In a poll for the broadcaster NDTV in March 2014, Hansa shifted the numerical advantage distinctly towards the BJP and its allies, putting it just over 40 seats short of a majority, but giving a mélange of regional and unaligned parties a large say in the future parliament. The following month though, Hansa’s poll uncovered a slender majority for the BJP and its allies, though one rendered more potent by the diminution of the Congress tally to just over a hundred.
Nielsen was, meanwhile, providing a variety of other election-related services of a far less disinterested character. Media reports in February indicated that it had been engaged by the Congress party in a major exercise to assess public perceptions of a number of prospective candidates. The ruling party seemingly had two candidates in mind for every seat and required an expert research-based input on how good a chance each stood, a task it had chosen to entrust to Nielsen. In what seemed a deliberate policy of ambiguity, the Congress general secretary directing the entire operation and a Nielsen spokesperson chose not to confirm the tie-up, but to talk around it.
Around the same time, the men who would propel the BJP ad campaign announced themselves, though with an abundance of discretion. Companies seemed unwilling to put themselves on the line, choosing instead to be known by their leadership tiers. Thus, it was not Madison Media, India’s largest surviving independent ad agency, that was named in media reporting as the entity directing the Modi image makeover, but its head Sam Balsara. Similarly, it was not the McCann Erickson of the worldwide Interpublic conglomerate that was mentioned, but its head for India, Prasoon Joshi. Similarly, Piyush Pandey of the WPP-owned PR outfit Ogilvy & Mather was pulled in as a contributor to the smart selling proposition.
Aside from the competition in forecasting the outcome, an Indian election campaign is also a busy time for media reporting of all the action. A new trend emerged in the campaign season just concluded: ‘pre-packaged’ coverage, where the political parties deliver the entire finished product to any television channel that may be interested. In other words, reporters and other staff from the channel would have no reason to stir out of their offices or studios. They could, if inclined, scatter their own comments or editorial observations through the body of the pre-packaged material obtained from the political parties. This new practice was reported by the Economic Times, based in Delhi, early in February. The reporter concerned contacted all major news channels, but mostly failed to gain any kind of engaged response, including from Times Now, a channel owned within the same group. The only response came from the Hindi news channel India TV, well-known for its colourful content and where ghosts and supernatural beings feature as prominently as mere mortals, which explained that the issue underlying the new practice was just the plain logistics of deploying reporters and technical staff in multiple venues to cover several ongoing events. Security constraints could limit the number of news crews permitted to the venue of a political meeting, explained Rajat Sharma, editor-in-chief and chairman of India TV. The common sense option of creating a video news pool, from which all channels could draw, had not taken off because of a lack of cooperative spirit in an intensely competitive world. And the policy of making full disclosure of material that political parties directly fed into news channels has not gained traction. That was a more remote ethical issue, as the India TV chief explained, one which news channels had not had the time or inclination to think through.
A new trend emerged in the campaign season just concluded: ‘pre-packaged’ coverage, where the political parties deliver the entire finished product to any television channel that may be interested. In other words, reporters and other staff from the channel would have no reason to stir out of their offices or studios.
Early in this century, the newspaper industry was torn by a phony war between those who ardently believed in foreign capital as the only remedy for its ills, and others who took a stand on what seemed high nationalist principle, demanding that ‘alien’ interests be kept out of this vital sector where the national political discourse was carried out. It seemed to matter very little then, that the TV news genre, which was clearly assuming the agenda-setting functions that the print media seemed anxious to surrender, had been invaded by foreign capital, perhaps irreversibly. While the newspaper industry was engaged in these skirmishes over foreign direct investment, a major operational manoeuvre was executed on its flanks, leading in effect to its complete encirclement by foreign interests. Being narrowly focused on the issue of ownership, the newspaper lobby failed to recognise the signals from a policy move initiated in 2001 with little public debate or discussion, when the doors were opened up for 100 percent foreign investment in ad agencies and market research firms.
At a time when over 65 percent of total newspaper industry revenue came from advertising – and ad placement decisions depended crucially on the results that market research firms turned in – these policy decisions passed without even a cursory examination in terms of longer-term implications. Since then, as media industry fortunes plummeted, ad agencies found greater opportunities to influence editorial agendas. With ratings agencies that guide ad spending being integral parts of the same global chain of capital, the potential impact on media agendas and indeed, on the political discourse, was obvious. In its usual self-serving manner though, the media industry chose not to engage with that question, instead fighting a fairly phoney and inconsequential battle over protecting narrow proprietary interests.
The consequences were mitigated, in part, because India drew a lucky number in the global casino in 2003; that is, when the tide of speculative capital unleashed from the capital of the global economy, began washing up on the country’s shores. There is no agreed proposition on why India became the chosen destination for Wall Street’s dollar billions that year. But after having rampaged through East and Southeast Asia, Latin America and the post-socialist economies of Eastern Europe, it seemed that India’s turn was likely to come at some stage. Certainly, ever since 1991, India had been readying for just that moment when it would win out against lesser rivals in the global beauty contest for attracting the largest capital inflows. And when that moment arrived rather belatedly, judgments were disoriented and unhinged.
Within five years, the sheen had begun to come off what was touted as India’s growth miracle, puncturing the blustery self-confidence of a newly empowered middle class. Elite circles then began resounding with the call for policy clarity. Only some manner of authoritarian direction, it seemed, could weed out all distracting claims from the great unwashed in a vast and clamorous democracy, returning the country to the pathway towards growth and great power status.
In these circumstances, among a host of political actors who could potentially have been contenders for the leadership of a diverse democracy, the choice fell upon one who least reflected its pluralities and complexities. Far from being a disqualifying factor, the record of intolerant speech and actions that Modi, as a thrice-elected chief minister of Gujarat had as his claim to fame, became testimonial for his unique claim to the position.
Modi’s anointment as a potential prime minister began within the chambers of commerce that he had courted with special ardour. The annual ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ conclaves organised by a global heavyweight in the PR business became the occasion for much fictitious capital being committed to investment in the state, creating the miasmic illusion that Modi could work the wonder of injecting new life into a stagnant economy. When the chambers of commerce show the way, it is only natural that the media should follow. Institutional memories within the media stood in the way. Several among the professionals who led the media had rather graphic memories of the horrors of Gujarat in 2002. And it just did not seem right to bury these in the newly minted corporate lust for decisive political leadership.
Being narrowly focused on the issue of ownership, the newspaper lobby failed to recognise the signals from a policy move initiated in 2001 with little public debate or discussion, when the doors were opened up for 100 percent foreign investment in ad agencies and market research firms.
Demographic realities, though, could not be denied. The 2014 general elections brought into the arena an entire generation born after the Ayodhya atrocity of 1992, who were no more than pre-adolescents at the time of the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat. Whatever the strata they were born into, impatience was their hallmark. And the please-all style of the fumbling Congress-led coalition government did not seem up to the task of meeting the burgeoning aspirations of the new demographic strata. From September 2011, when Modi sent out a tweet pronouncing that “God is great” to mark his supposed exoneration by the Supreme Court in a petition calling for prosecution of those responsible for the 2002 pogrom, the media found a way of putting its scruples behind and celebrating the arrival of ‘the promised one’. Every move he made since then was assured of saturation coverage in the country’s noisy media space, where agreement on news priorities was otherwise rare.
From then on, every vacant space in the news agenda on a slow day was filled with feverish speculation, driven by aggressive anchor persons, about when the BJP would make that decisive leap and name Modi as its designated prime ministerial candidate. Far from setting an agenda for the public discourse, the media seemed intent on forcing its agenda on the party and the public. In normal circumstances, the boast of a state chief minister that he would attract greater attention on the national observance of Independence Day than the prime minister’s customary address from Delhi’s Red Fort, would have been dismissed as an upstart’s delusion. Modi in August 2013 succeeded in securing a free pass for this effrontery. To add to this privilege, he also obtained live coverage for a vitriolic speech delivered from a remote corner of Gujarat that challenged every propriety of the democratic order India has sought to construct since independence.
Modi’s victory is a symptom of the rapid colonisation of India’s democratic spaces by business lobbies. The mantra of development that has brought him to power is a thin mask for the relentless pursuit of corporate profit, which in the myopic system of national income accounting basically translates into an illusion of growth. The euphoria will last as long as the corporate balance sheets remain in the black. It will dissipate even more rapidly when the business barons underline their moment of triumph by boycotting the civic responsibilities – such as paying fair taxes – that would make the rights guaranteed the Indian people a reality. The 10-year-long reign of the Congress-led UPA coalition may have been a sorry period in terms of probity. But it instituted a regime of rights and entitlements for a larger section of the Indian people that the elite rebellion spearheaded by Modi seeks to reverse.
Questions are being raised in some quarters about the funding of the ‘maximum campaign’ and the role of moneyed interests in India’s political system. The idea of the general elections being determined in the stock market may be exaggerated, but it is hard to deny the correspondence between successive upward movements in the Bombay Stock Exchange’s Sensitive Share Price Index (Sensex) and Modi’s rise in political prominence. Particular stages in Modi’s political advancement, for example when he was named head of the BJP central election board or later as the party’s prime ministerial candidate, directly coincided with significant gains in the Sensex.
Four days before the official vote count, when news channels released exit poll numbers predicting a Modi victory, the Sensex jumped 400 points. Among those who would undoubtedly have viewed the event with great satisfaction, were Modi’s corporate backers such as Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani (whose company imprint was clearly visible on the airplane Modi used for campaign-related travel). Ambani, the head of Reliance group and the richest person in India, added nearly USD 1 billion (INR 59.3 billion) to his wealth, and Adani’s wealth increased by USD 600 million (INR 35.6 billion) as early vote counting started. Since Modi was named prime ministerial candidate last September, Ambani’s wealth has increased by USD 6 billion (INR 356.1 billion), while Adani is said to have tripled his personal net worth, gaining USD 4.1 billion (INR 243.3 billion).
Modi’s corporate supporters are, once the triumphalism has receded, likely to call in the multiple IOUs incurred by him as he rode to victory. How the new prime minister and the ruling coalition requite these obligations while seeking to deliver on campaign promises of a better deal for all will likely emerge, going forward, as a crucial question. The diversity and pluralism inherent in India’s political and economic situation may prove to be too difficult to address through the simplistic remedies offered by Modi during a campaign onslaught that has temporarily disoriented a fragmented opposition.
~Sukumar Muralidharan is a senior journalist and political commentator based in New Delhi.