“Too much of anything could destroy you, Simon thought. Too much darkness could kill, but too much light could make you blind.” Prime Minister Modi would do well to pay heed to Cassandra Clare’s warning from her book City Of Lost Souls.
In his interview to ANI on January 1, Modi spoke about the 2019 election being about “Janata versus Gathbandhan”. He is partially right—there is Gathbandhan in Opposition but instead of Janata, the election would be only about him.
Modi seems consumed with being in the limelight in all forms of media. He has shown his ruthlessness against anyone who comes in the way of him and the camera. Ask Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who was once moved aside by Modi since he obstructed the PM’s camera view at a 2015 event.
Modi’s obsession is not just callow, it is costly. Since becoming PM, Modi spent a staggering ₹4,343 crore on advertisements through different print, electronic media and outdoor publicity. It was all about Modi.
Modi has surpassed Manmohan Singh by 35 per cent when it comes to cost of foreign trips (₹2,021 crore vs ₹1,346 crore) as revealed by the MEA. On each of these days, Modi was the headline. But then again, hardly a day passes without the PM being in the headlines. From hoardings to print and electronic media—Modi’s there, inaugurating something or abusing the Opposition. The Modi-friendly TV media ensures the promotion of pro-Modi news and the suppression of anything that is critical of him. There have also been instances of journalists who were critical of the Modi government either resigning or being fired.
The incessant bombardment of this larger-than-life Modi can also be a cause of embarrassment. Case in point is Modi’s off-guard response “Chaliye, Puducherry ko Vanakkam (Okay, hello to Puducherry)” to a pointed question from his own partyman. Note that had it not been for Narendra Modi’s own Twitter handle which tweeted the video, the Vanakkam gaffe would have gone unnoticed.
This throws up a pertinent question: is this excessive media focus becoming Modi’s nemesis? And did he create this problem himself, with his own preoccupation of being in the news 24×7? Modi’s inability to answer a friendlier question by his own party supporter merely underlines his fear of addressing any press conference. He preferred interviews like the one ANI editor Smita Prakash conducted—where he was not posed many counter-questions.
One can understand Modi’s strategy—blame the lack of development on Congress governments, harp on “60 years of no progress” and thus try to buck the anti-incumbency of his own government. This plan may have worked in the initial couple of years when Modi came to Delhi with a historic mandate. He was one of the early adopters of the Internet, as said by none other than Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Dubbed as India’s first social media prime minister, he currently has over 4.3 crore Facebook likes, and 45 million Twitter followers. Rahul Gandhi, in comparison, is nowhere.
‘Yatra tatra sarvatra’ Modi
Anti-incumbency is nothing but people’s perception of who is in the corridors of power, especially when things do not go their way. The perception is formed by the visuals they see everyday. They would therefore see in the media that, whether it’s Assembly polls or by-polls, it’s only Modi at the helm of power, all the time.
This makes Modi not just the incumbent prime minister but incumbent chief minister of BJP-governed states as well. To make problems worse, the BJP is governing more states than any other political party, despite losing Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
In 2009, during re-elections, former PM Manmohan Singh barely appeared as an incumbent for two reasons—by remaining low-key, and by ensuring that it was always about the UPA and not him, thereby avoiding a Presidential-style match versus Advani. But Vajpayee’s second run in 2004 was in complete contrast. Vajpayee’s face appeared across media as part of the “India Shining” campaign, which perhaps played a role in increasing his incumbency many-fold. The campaign told the Indian people that there was progress and a new-found sheen, for which they had Vajpayee to thank. The plan boomeranged and Vajpayee lost the re-election.
As the 2019 polls near, we’ll probably see a picture similar to that of 2014: Modi dominating the entire media section. But the huge difference between 2014 and 2019 is Modi’s inability to give an account of his 2014 poll promises or to address issues related to demonetisation, GST, the Rafale deal and farmers’ distress while being in the limelight. This could make matters worse for his anti-incumbency level.
Modi won the election in 2014 based on middle-class support and first-time young voters. But a recent survey by the Association for Democratic Reforms suggests that lack of job opportunities played a major role in the BJP’s defeat in three important state elections. This indicates that voters that were swayed by Modi’s media hype in 2014 are now unhappy with him.
The Modi flash will only serve as a reminder to voters that it’s not the Congress but Modi who has been the incumbent—busy promoting his image in the media at the cost of public money, without responding to his 2014 promises.
In 2019, perhaps Modi should think of what this media hype is doing to him. The same media focus that helped Modi win the crown could prove to be his nemesis in 2019.