How close is the Modi campaign to the Obama campaign?

  • Anirudh Bhattacharyya
  • Updated: May 22, 2014 16:20 IST

Those predicted assorted phenomena like a saffron wave and tsunami were for real, not just a storm in a teacup. As the great wash left only debris of many others in its wake, one thing that was striking was how the BJP campaign under Narendra Modi was not just Presidential in nature, as in the American manner, but, in particular, how it drew clearly from the tactics employed by the current US President, Barack Obama, who has excelled as campaigner-in-chief.

Modi and Obama are obviously pols apart, in terms of ideology. But it seems rather obvious that as with the Obama campaign, the Modi team finessed the craft of sentiment management and presentiment marketing.

The first part of that involves creating a halo of hope amid a carefully crafted narrative of gloom. Sometimes, you don’t even have to create such a tale, because those stories have already written themselves and you only need to highlight the glumness and promise change, or better days ahead. The problem, of course, is that once you’re in office after having raised expectations, small change will not buy you much public affection.

Coupled with that initial tactic is one of waging a media war wherein an impression is generated of an electoral juggernaut that brooks no resistance. In 2012, much before Mitt Romney went into mourning after his Reagan-lite Morning in America campaign bombed at the ballot box office, there were few outside the ranks of conservatives who believed Obama could lose. Of course, a lousy Republican campaign helped, but they also spent all summer and fall battling a preset perception.

What makes the symmetry between the two campaigns even more evident is how each exited its comfort zones to venture into complicated territory. The Obama team spent time and resources on traditionally Republican red states, and captured Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia in 2008 and retained the last four years later. We witnessed a similar effort in the BJP’s attempt to expand its footprint even in states like Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, where it has had as much presence as, say, Kim Kardashian’s byline in The Economist.

Each of them also positioned themselves as “outsiders”, sneering at the cozy elites of the capital. Their origin stories, backgrounds out of the ordinary, also match. And, just as the Obama campaign machinery relied on the pros but also harvested the support of enthusiastic volunteers through Obama for America, that strategy seems to have been neatly replicated in the innovative Mission 272 initiative. It’s that amateur spirit that can empower a ground game, which brings other rivals down to earth.

Finally, certainly, there’s the online facet of the exercise, especially leveraging social media to skewer opponents. In 2012, each minor Romney misstatement (Binders full of women et al) turned into Twitter hashtags. Something similar surged through social media in India this election. The intent, in each case, was to show their opponents stank, thereby leaving a stench fouler than that left in the wake of the recent explosion in a Swedish warehouse containing 1,000 cans of surstromming, considered the world’s smelliest fish.

The huge difference between the duo is that Obama operated in a simpler environment, the bipolar polity of the United States, whereas Modi has had to contend with multiple foes and the challenge of micro-demographic messaging that can make or mar marginal seats. But his campaign overcame the heavy whether of doomsaying prophets to deliver a startling mandate.

If the Prime Minister-designate does accept Obama’s invitation to Washington, they make have electoral high notes to share. Or even how to use executive orders for governance, as Obama has often done when faced with a stubborn Congress.

The electoral scenario has shifted with the arrival of an Americanised style of battling for ballots. But as with Pizza Hut’s biryani with a taste of pizza, this too has been served up with its own desi flavour.

Follow on Twitter @anirudhb

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