By Jayant Pankaj
Much has been written in-depth and spoken about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personality traits. Some have called him a cult of personality, while others opined him as a man in self-love and a trick of the light; one of Modi’s early supporters even called him a narcissist. However, this article does not analyse Modi’s personality; instead, in the limelight of the critical viewpoints against him only allude to the mythification of Modi’s persona through the various central government websites.
The ‘Modi-fication’ of central government websites
The Indian government websites are important windows furnished with specific details of various ministries, departments, agencies to provide information to its users. Can these websites be used to propagate political party achievements? Since the Modi government came to power, these websites have gradually shifted from being a public source of information to an exercise in self-aggrandizement for the ruling party.
A distinct pattern emerges in the header-and-footer area of these websites. The header usually shows various achievements of the Modi government such as India’s fight against coronavirus, Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav, International Yoga Day celebration, and so on, accompanied, in each case, by a ubiquitous picture of Modi. The footer is mainly filled with various logos of initiatives such as Make in India, Transforming India, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, and so on. An arbitrary look at 53 different ministry websites revealed 52 of them to be filled with such advertisements of initiatives that are irrelevant to the purpose of those ministries where they appear.
This serves to create the impression that the Prime Minister is much more significant than any ministers allocated for the primary ministries. The ministry of defence website is the only exception where no such advertisements were found, and surprisingly defence minister Rajnath Singh’s face replaced that of Modi. Even apex offices like NITI Aayog, TRAI, Cabinet Secretariat had such advertisements on their websites. Similar advertisements adorn the state-government websites of BJP-ruled states like Manipur, Gujarat, and Uttar Pradesh. The individual identities of these federal governments seem to be overshadowed and merged into the monolith that is Narendra Modi himself. These websites are maintained by the National Informatics Centre (NIC).
In a very recent case, the Supreme Court objected to the inclusion of the Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav advertisement along with PM Modi’s image in the emails sent to the advocates by the registry of the Supreme Court. When the apex court objected, NIC had to drop this image from the footer of the emails later. Although there’s a clear demarcation between the legislature and the judiciary, such instances blur the line between these two authorities, ultimately corrupting the independent nature of the latter. Along similar lines, the Election Commission of India had to order the Centre to remove the photographs and initiatives of PM Modi as it violated the model code of conduct before several state elections in 2017 and the Lok Sabha elections of 2019.
How long the BJP propaganda would work?
The BJP government is a mastermind of propaganda, and it effectively uses its digital platforms and social media to consolidate its power and gain widespread hegemony. Its cumulative expenditure on advertisement far exceeds that of any other party. Although it is not uncommon for a political party to use virtual media to connect with the electorate, when the state apparatuses (government portals included) are used to embellish the PM’s image, it amounts to a weakening of such institutions and is unethical, to say the least. The usage of PM Modi’s image on Covid-19 vaccination certificates brought various criticism. As well as his image on petrol pump hoardings has drawn sharp criticism from the Election Commission of India. Recently, Modi’s image was even found on ads for private ventures, attracting criticism from Rajya Sabha. In 2016, after the Uri Surgical Strike, in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP put Modi’s face onseveral billboards, as if reducing the army’s success to PM Modi’s personal competence. Indeed, even Joseph Goebbels would have been put to shame were he alive today.
Such instances beget the question, does mass propaganda affect any real change?
Perhaps yes, as Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma argue in an article that the clear ideological consolidation that happened in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections were largely due to Congress’s incapability to convey the effects of its welfare schemes to the masses whereas this void was filled by Modi who placed himself as the people’s choice. No wonder the BJP’s thumping electoral success was called the ‘Modi wave’. The BJP effectively uses Modi’s face to mobilise votes while simultaneously working its propaganda machine to convince the masses of Modi’s invaluable contribution to the nation, something which the Congress couldn’t.
While the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic was ravaging the country, the official Facebook page of MyGovIndia, the government of India’s portal, put out a post on 7th October 2020, lauding PM Modi’s achievements as a Prime Minister of India. The post even went on to celebrate Modi’s longevity as Chief Minister of Gujrat, comparing it with previous Prime Ministers of India. In effect, the post was but a self-congratulatory exercise of Narendra Modi’s has held on to power for so long.
The BJP government has marketized its politics so that it treats the citizens as a targeted audience who consume ads. It has primarily shaped the ‘Modi figure’ as their brand manager. The psychologist Mark Snyder and Kenneth G. DeBono argue ‘product advertisement groups’ entice their targeted audience through different means of persuasion. In which image-oriented ads play a significant role. It usually tries to create very striking advertisements in their visual appeal for the audiences; they mainly focus on finer detail such as expression, form, and color rather than the quality of the product. It primarily focuses on the image related to the product, which the scholars have called a soft-sell approach of the market.
Similarly, even the BJP uses this soft-sell approach, and they treat Modi as a brand to allure the masses. Say, for instance, the image of Modi with folded hands with a tagline, ‘SabkaSath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas aur SabkaPrayas’ ultimately creates a mass perception of him as a trustworthy leader with certitude reliability of the people. Whereas, in another ad, where Modi is shown with a praying gesture in a tagline as 7 Years of Seva, creates an image of him as a selfless servant of a nation who has worked on behalf of the country far better than his predecessors. Even though the country is in a grave constitutional crisis, the strongman leader is portrayed as celebrating constitution day through ads. His critics are right about him when they call him a ‘narcissist’ or ‘man in self-love,’ but the BJP successfully uses all his narcissism as a form of an advertisement on a larger scale. The grave threat is that the Modi advertisements have subsumed the hate politics in society. It’s a neo-liberal phenomenon where a populist leader has been transformed into a consumer product.
BJP is an expert at tactics to connect with people for the purpose of maximizing votes, and the ‘Modi-fication’ of government portals is but a symptom of the larger political manipulation at work. There are 12,016 government website services listed, and soon these too might become nothing more than platforms to dish out pro-BJP propaganda. One is not sure when this ‘Modi-fication’ of government websites might end, but a quote by Michael Lonsdale from the movie Munich sums up the gloomy truth –“the race is not for the swift, nor the battle for the strong, but time and chance happens to them all. Fate’s hand falls suddenly, who can say when it falls.”
Jayant Pankaj is a resident of Assam. He has recently completed his master’s degree in Political Science from the University of Hyderabad. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org