Mathew Idiculla studied law at Christ College and is currently a fellow at the Law, Governance and Development Initiative at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. His research interests are in the field of constitutionalism, Indian democracy, public policy and urban governance. Despite being a newbie in academics, he likes to act like a policy wonk and political pundit. Coming soon on a TV news panel near you.
Now Showing: Modi In 3D!
In the 1952 Republican National Convention at Chicago, former president Herbert Hoover while supporting the candidacy of Dwight Eisenhower for presidency, used a technology that has since become a US politics regular – the teleprompter. However, everything did not go well on the teleprompter’s debut in politics. When the ex-president strayed off the script and started ad-libbing, the teleprompter stopped rolling. Hoover panicked. “This damned thing – I could do better without it!”, he muttered.
Originally created for TV soap operas, the teleprompter has been extensively used by all major political campaigns in America since Eisenhower’s presidency and has also become indispensable in every TV newsroom. But the use of the teleprompter has not been without controversy. Barack Obama was recently criticised by his opponents for being too dependent on the device. Rick Santorum, one of the many Republican hopefuls for presidency, said that it should be illegal for presidential candidates to read off a teleprompter as he would be merely “reading someone else’s words”.
Teleprompters have still not found their way into the rough-and-tumble of Indian politics and made their debut in Parliament only when Obama chose to address our legislators. While Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi still read written speeches (invariably prepared by their staff), our better political orators (whether it is Vajpayee, Modi or Jaitley) are adept at delivering extempore speeches. Still, the style of engagement in Indian politics remains quite detached, with the leader standing on a platform as high as a multi-storeyed building, proselytising to the masses who are seated (perhaps out of fear of oncoming slippers) dozens of feet away from the platform.
Now Narendra Modi seeks to completely change the rules of the game with his new technological indulgence – 3D image projections of himself using holographic technology. On Sunday evening, the holographic projection of Modi addressed rallies in four cities – Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat and Rajkot – simultaneously. Modi claims that (which is so far uncontested) it is the first time any political leader has addressed people using this technology. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t without its share of technical glitches with the audio going off a couple of times in the 40-minute long speech. (Watch the speech and its content summary at his website)
The use of 3D holographic projections in election campaigns is a watershed in the history of technology in politics. So the question is whether it will change the face of political campaigns in India forever. Can Modi’s latest technological innovation be a trendsetter like Hoover’s use of the teleprompter? Given the costs associated with the technology and nature of the medium, it is quite unlikely. Nevertheless, the political relevance of Modi’s 3D event cannot be ignored.
The cost incurred for holding the event in four places using this technology, according to newspaper reports, varies from Rs 1.4 crore to Rs 216 crore. Congress has already said that it would ask the Election Commission to conduct a probe on the source of funding for holding the event.
In a country which is still tackling widespread poverty, it is morally reprehensible to see colossal amounts of money spent on electoral campaigns, especially on 3D holographic technology. However, it is also disingenuous to oppose this in isolation while political parties continue to spend larger sums of money for elections in a completely non-transparent manner. Still, it is fair to ask whether Modi gains an unfair advantage by using such a medium and makes the electoral playing field a bit too uneven.
Beyond the costs, the electronic projection of Modi in 3D is something that is easy to be mocked at. There is something unsettling and dishonest about the 3D image of a person addressing a large rally. This discomfort may be because it brings back memories of ludicrous characters in the make-believe worlds of sci-fi cinema in 80’s Hollywood. By embracing such a technology, Modi has handed his opponents a whip to lash him. Modi’s latest avatar can be easily dismissed as an abysmal, comical gimmick of a narcissistic man. However, this is not necessarily how Gujarat’s aam aadmi sees it. Since Modi often appeals to the Gujarati asmita, many would see the latest technology as a proud, celebratory moment for Gujarat and Modi.
At one level, Modi’s 3D stunt is part of the larger campaign for the Gujarat assembly elections which are only a few weeks away. But for it to have any significant impact on the polls, Modi-3D needs to move out of the comforts of Ahmedabad and Surat and enter smaller towns and villages where the chief minister would normally not campaign.
But in looking at Modi-3D purely in terms of electoral benefit, we might be missing the woods for the trees. Modi doesn’t need an electronic version of himself to win Gujarat. By all poll predications, he’s already got that in the bag. Such exercises are however useful for Modi to pitch for something bigger at the national level. Hence Modi-3D came out not only in the four different venues, but was also telecast live on Modi TV on his website. This is coming only a few months after Modi’s much publicised Google+ Hangout event. With the BJP president in a perpetual state of controversy, through his unique outreach tools, Modi appears as the only BJP leader prepared for the long haul.
Whatever one’s position on Modi’s politics is, it is hard to deny that he has come with a very innovative mode of political engagement. 3D-projections may not be to everyone’s tastes and they certainly aren’t the most effective or cost-efficient mode of communication. Still, it surely is a bold move that pushes the boundaries of political engagement in India. It also acts like a link between the two different ways Modi engages with the public – one on the field through Sadhbhavana Mission, Vivekanada Yatra etc. and the other, online through Twitter, Modi TV, Google + Hangout etc.
Ultimately, through various on-field and on-line initiatives, Brand Modi is becoming stronger. Modi is perhaps only second to Aamir Khan at marketing himself. Though detractors will dismiss Modi’s initiatives as wasteful PR exercise, political campaigns are ultimately about selling a story to the voters and he seems to be doing that well. Modi’s recent initiatives including Modi-3D, reaffirms the image of a vikas purush and hi-tech Hindutvawadi. Despite the awkwardness of 3D holographic projections, it suits the image of Modi unlike any other politician. Instead of Modi, let’s assume it’s a 3D version of Manmohan Singh who comes to address the people at various gatherings. 3D Manmohan would walk up to the stage and…. I leave the rest to your imagination.
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