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Watch this man: the arrival of a post-television PM

columns Updated: May 27, 2014 07:52 IST
N Madhavan
Narendra Modi


Think images: Modi by the Ganga, invoking a call from the mother-river and watching a colourful aarti. Modi sporting different headgear - from Western hats to tribal horns. Modi kneeling in prayer at the parliament's footsteps. Modi breaking down in a meeting of MPs. Cups of tea to drive home his humble beginnings as a tea seller. Meeting an aged mother. Clicking a Selfie of himself.

Think sounds: Of calling his young political challenger a shahzada (prince). A new slogan for every meeting. A hundred speeches--each one new.

Think catch-phrases: Har Har Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi. Ab Ki Bar Modi Sarkar.

Think foreign heads of governments and lavish dinner at the swearing-in ceremony.

Now go back to 1991, when the Gulf War happened, Rajiv Gandhi was killed and satellite TV arrived in India. Since that fateful year, India has seen five prime ministers, each of them famous for a certain understatedness of a different vintage.

PV Narasimha Rao was mocked for his perceived indecisiveness, HD Deve Gowda for his soporific postures, IK Gujral for affable vagueness and Manmohan Singh for silence. The exception, BJP's own Atal Behari Vajpayee, was an orator in the parliamentary mould and known more for his poetic humour than thunderous roars.

Narendra Damodardas Modi has soared over them all by being a singular anti-thesis of them all in communicational style. He is arguably India's first post-Independence (born 1950) PM and its first post-TV premier as well (unless one counts Indira Gandhi's Doordarshan overkill in monochromatic shrillness).

The use of sounds, images, earthy slogans, selfies, holographic 3D speeches and 4 million followers on Twitter--made his campaign straddle chai shops at one end and smartphones in the other.

This is what makes the arrival of Modi a special affair. Television-savvy, never reluctant to display his moods of mirth and anger, the new leader appeals a lot to a young generation that watched colour TV in its infancy and found it normal to wear its hearts on its sleeves.

In the process, Modi has also straddled extremes of symbolism. His talk of laptops and China-style power plants or highways contrast his invoking of mother-figures and prayers that salute tradition.

In this communicational style, there is a combination of instinct and intuition blending with a systematic party machine that spews images and sounds into a culture that consumes political messages in prime-time living room banter, torrential tweets and a zillion one-liners.

Modi campaigned not to an India that lived in the villages as much to an India that understands its leaders in digital imagery and snappy soundbytes.

The pomp that one could see at the swearing-in ceremony represents perhaps a sign of open ambition and comfort with showmanship in a culture long weaned on Gandhian austerity or its uneasy imitators.

Modi may be a right-winger in image and ideology, but perhaps his two-year run-up to enter Race Course Road resembles Mao Ze Dong's Long March in China--as a long campaign against entrenched rulers. Saffron is not quite red, but both are bright colours that represent a mass upsurge.

But the rainbow ministry that was sworn in on Monday clearly showed that Modi's saffron, with its bias for diversity, has its own 50 shades of grey.