Obama's India visit: Telling it like a good story

  • Barkha Dutt
  • Updated: Jan 31, 2015 02:21 IST

While scholars, pundits and journalists are still arguing over the concrete outcomes of the indisputably successful and game-changing visit by the US president, chances are that for most Indians the impact of the trip will be defined not by a prosaic post-mortem; but by the picture-perfect images honed to create a collective memory of the three days that Barack Obama spent here. The manly hug between the two leaders, the multiple symbolisms in the prime minister, once a tea vendor, pouring tea from a silver container for arguably the world's most powerful man, the intimate, buddy-buddy setting of the joint radio broadcast, the huddling under umbrellas on a rain-soaked Rajpath - if there were many Bollywood moments, so to speak, it's because both leaders are canny practitioners of a new politics that the rest of India is still catching up with.

Several parallels have been already drawn between Narendra Modi and Obama, their rise from modest family backgrounds (the grandson of a cook and a tea-seller's son, as the US president described it), their status as rank outsiders to the entrenched elitism of Delhi and Washington and their embrace of social media and technology to run their intensely personalised election campaigns. But the one similarity that has not been remarked on enough is that both men have a keen and intuitive understanding of the media moment.

Both understand the power of the image; both have a flair for showmanship. In an age of hyper-information and shrinking, cluttered attention spans, both understand that contemporary politics is defined to a large degree by communications skills. Even the studied informality, with which the prime minister repeatedly referred to the American president as 'Barack', was an audacious shift from the staid protocol-driven diplomacy of the past. It may have rankled the puritans or seemed excessive, even laboured to others, but clearly for Modi it was vocabulary derived from a more new-age political lexicon. Not just did the first-name casualness consciously underline a firm equality with the president of a country that once denied Modi a visa; it was an expression of a new political grammar that points to how Indian democracy is changing. This has precious little to do with what your ideological affiliation is and is irrespective of whether you like or oppose the BJP or approve or disapprove of the careful choreography of political moments. Love it or hate it, it is the heralding of a new communications mantra whereby fiercely individualistic leaders seek a mass audience connection to reinforce the imprint of their own personality on the larger political ecosystem.

You could call it the 'Modi'-fication of Indian politics or perhaps, more accurately, the Americanisation of our democracy. Raymond Vickery, now with the Albright Stonebridge Group and previously a member of the Clinton administration, called Narendra Modi "simultaneously the easiest and hardest kind of partner for the United States to deal with-easiest, because in some important ways he is so American in his outlook; the hardest for the very same reason". The show of strength by Modi at New York's Madison Square Garden was seen as an American-style assertion of political clout, compared by several US commentators to the atmosphere at a presidential nomination.

It's what Bernard Manin, Professor of Politics at New York University, has called "Audience Democracy" to analyse a new kind of representative government where political communication is defined by mass media and "the electorate responds to the terms that have been presented on the political stage". In his book Principles of Representative Government, Manin argues that there are three kinds of democracy - parliamentary democracy, party democracy and audience democracy, arguing that the most recent variation of image- and media-driven democracy is as legitimate a form of representative government as previous models. So, if previously political conversation took place mostly inside Parliament or between parties, now it unfolds in the public arena, in television studios, on social media or even in gossip around a digital version of an old-style water cooler.

This is not to say that only packaging and theatrics determine your political fate in the brave new world; eventually there is no escaping the judgment of performance. But there is no doubting that PM Modi has been politically ahead of the curve in his shrewd understanding of this new political idiom, wherein the voter is at all times a consumer of political content. The only other politician who has been able to acutely read the shifting sands of Indian politics is in fact Arvind Kejriwal, whose party also understands that the political message ultimately has to be told to the 'audience' like a good story. Other parties, especially the Congress, are still playing catch-up, unable to wrap their heads around the changing appetite among voters for a 'branded' leader.

A reminder of how much politics has been transformed by TV and popular culture is to be found in the archives of British politics. In 1963, the then PM Alec Douglas-Home, when asked about debating his opponent, said in an interview to BBC, "I'm not particularly attracted by televised confrontations of personality. If we aren't careful we will have what's called a Top of the Pops contest." His main challenger Harold Wilson, who had crafted his political persona for a TV audience, went on to win the election.

In an increasingly urbanised India, modern-day politics is being mediated by Twitter hashtags, popular imagination and television debate. Of course door-to-door personal contact still has no substitute, but the narrative belongs to those who script it most effectively. Modi clearly understands his own branding process; it's the reason he has successfully distanced himself - so far - from the surround-sound of controversies within his own government. Ironically it's the same factor - the mass media and an inability to fully understand its potential to both build and destroy, - that has Kiran Bedi, his chief ministerial candidate in Delhi, struggling.

(Barkha Dutt is group editor, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal)

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