Bollywood as Narendra Modi’s propaganda machine

It is highly deplorable that the BJP has used all available platforms to not only propagandise itself but serve a perilous mix of high-pitched nationalism and strongman branding of Prime Minister Narendra Modi
UPDATED ON APR 11, 2019 12:13 AM IST

This general election may go down in history as one that saw extensive use of popular culture, branding and marketing, image management besides huge spending on advertisements by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The party was a step ahead of the rest in adopting new modes of public outreach and platforms – its use of social media in 2014 is an example – but it has over-reached this time.

It is highly deplorable that the BJP has used all available platforms to not only propagandise itself but serve a perilous mix of high-pitched nationalism and strongman branding of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Defence actions such as surgical strikes against Pakistan, Pulwama terror attack, Balakot air strike, anti-satellite missile launch are all fair game as election propaganda – which they should not be.

The juggernaut picked up momentum in the last few weeks with the release of the trailer of “PM Narendra Modi” an eponymous movie made on the PM and stealth introduction of a television channel “Namo TV”. There’s also the television series “Modi: A Common Man’s Journey”, flash mobs, embedded publicity in television serials, tea cups in railways and bindi packets bearing Modi’s mugshot, audio cards displaying India’s military action against Pakistan with Modi’s voice urging people to vote, and so on.

The Election Commission of India seemed asleep at the wheel, content to occasionally issue a mild warning. That changed on Wednesday when the ECI stalled the release of Modi’s biopic starring Vivek Oberoi and made by Omung Kumar, both with close affiliation to the BJP, on the grounds that any material with the potential to disturb the level playing field during the election should not be displayed. The ECI’s order apparently applied also to NaMo TV too. It may be a case of too little and too late given the long rope it has given the ruling party so far.

The ECI’s partisan conduct prompted nearly 65 retired bureaucrats to complain to President Ramnath Kovind earlier this week. They bemoaned its “weak-kneed responses” to the onslaught of BJP propaganda and urged the ECI to “conduct itself in a manner where its independence, fairness, impartiality and efficiency are not questioned”. The ECI’s decision to stall the biopic has to be taken at face value but its timing – on the eve of its release and first day of polling – may have turned the film, its maker and star, PM Modi and his party into victims eliciting sympathy from voters.

Oberoi, during his promotional interviews, had the audacity to ask why the film could not be released and film stars work during elections when journalists are allowed to do their job. It would be funny if it were not such a dreadfully ill-informed question. But it isn’t only Oberoi or Omung. Bollywood’s participation in BJP’s propaganda has been extensive with actors, film makers, writers and lyricists openly backing Modi, running down his political rivals especially Congress president Rahul Gandhi, trolling anyone with independent opinions, and aligning their creative work with Modi’s agenda.

The movie “Uri: The Surgical Strike”, a dramatized retelling of the retaliation of terror strike at Uri in 2016, is an example. Its one-liner “how’s the josh” became an anthem used by Modi, his party colleagues, even defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The space between the reel and real had been erased. Well-known Bollywood personalities like Pahlaj Nihalani, Akshay Kumar, Anupam and Kirron Kher, Paresh Rawal, Prasoon Joshi (of the “aap main ek fakeeri hain” fame) are known Modi-bhakts.

But they and Oberoi see red when a range of other artistes, filmmakers, theatre personalities, writers and poets issued statements in recent weeks urging Indians to oust the BJP government. More than 230 writers, 100 artists, 800 film and theatre personalities have signed different statements so far. The pro-Modi lobby in popular culture seems to be saying: demonstrable support to Modi and/or BJP is all kosher, demonstrable opposition is not.

The polarisation which the BJP assiduously nurtured in society is reflecting in Bollywood and popular culture too. Its cynical use of the film industry as part of its propaganda machine should call for self-reflection.

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