Mainstream, VOL. 52, No. 21, May 17, 2014
Converging Brand into Charisma: The Making and Rise of Narendra Modi
Monday 19 May 2014
by Navneet Sharma, Pradeep Nair, Harikrishnan B.
The question whether Modi, the BJP’s PM nominee, is a charismatic leader or is a mere brand of politics has to be always analysed from a vantage point, this vantage point may shift from the implications of the poll results that will be announced on May 16, 2014. However, this question shall be pertinent whether in the Indian context and the rise in the speed of human and information circulation, a pan-national ‘charisma’ could be evolved and made functional and translated into votes or a brand hard-sell of a politico could transform itself into a charismatic vote-garner.
Political branding is a word abuzz and a practice flourishing, especially with this edition of the general elections in India. Branding, a concept with its origins in marketing, is extensively used for campaign by major political fronts during the canvassing of their candidates. However, investigating into the concept of branding and its nature, it can be concluded that political branding produces ‘images’ and ‘associations’ which may be easily mistaken for cultural, political or social authority. In this article while distinguishing ‘brand’ from the ‘charisma’, we would be exploring whether the only PM candidate in the fray—Narendra Modi is a brand which has been over-sold at the electoral counter or has in reality evolved into a charismatic mass leader of India.
A brand is often an association given to a product to suggest certain intangible benefits for the customer. While a product offers some core benefits, the brand offers a set of benefits which is often associated with the psychological relationship of a customer and the brand or for fulfilling some intangible needs falsely cons-tructed in the consumers’ mind. So when a consumer plans to buy a blazer, s/he looks not just for the product blazer, but for some specific brand, because apart from fulfilling his or her need for a blazer, it helps to get mapped either as a ‘complete man’ or the ‘modern diva’. These ‘associations’ help the customer to perceive herself/himself as an incarnate-icon reproduced as eulogised by that brand.
It can be inferred that a brand seeks to convert existing consumers of a product into the customers of the specific brand. Here Brand Modi and the people vouching for Brand Modi kind of politics and nation-building are the consumers of Indian democracy. However, this brand (Brand Modi) does not resonate well with the consumption of ‘democracy’ given the ‘authoritarian’ streaks of behaviour present in Modi’s personality and politics that he never fails to hail. The intangible benefits or psycho-logical representation always depends on how consumers perceive specific brands. However, most of these perceptions are influenced by advertisements which are carefully constructed to trigger specific associations in the mind of consumers.
Often very elaborate campaigns across media platforms using different advertising forms, and brand building measures used by marketers to develop and strengthen the brand images in the minds of consumers. This process, which is known as branding, is also used in political campaigning. As a part of the branding process, whatever the brand does will be integrated or aligned in such a way that it reflects or strengthens its unique brand image. Obviously, this makes a Brand Modi customer to consume the brand while enjoying its carefully crafted intangible benefits of psychological association along with being nationalist, industry-friendly, anti-corruption, non-biased or anti-appease-ment. But given the context of the multi-hued, socio-politico and cultural idea of India and Indian democracy, this stance sounds ‘anti-democratic’.
Whereas, for Weber a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men, is charisma, Modi’s claim to that certain quality seems to be emer-ging from overt nationalism and Hinduism. How the ‘quality’ is in question would be ultimately judged from an ethical, aesthetic, or poll result viewpoint and would give us a different definition of a ‘charismatic’ leader which Modi now himself boasts of. However, this charisma in the absence of that leader for any reason can lead to the authorities’ power dissolution. This could compel us to ask a question whether in any exigency with the absence of Modi as the leader there would be a sympathetic wave or vote for the BJP. Because the authority of charisma is centralised around one leader and there should be prior arrange-ments to account for his/her absence. The Indian context has transferred ‘charisma’ from the mother to the reluctant son politician as a matter of succession in 1984.
The search for a new charismatic leader takes place on the basis of the ‘qualities’ which will fit him or her for the position of authority. The ‘authoritarian’ approach of Modi inches him closure to the position of premiership. But the BJP seems wary to anoint someone as Modi’s deputy. However, during canvassing for Arun Jaitley in the Amritsar parliamentary consti-tuency, he (Jaitley) was hailed as the Deputy Prime Minister which makes us again skeptical of the charisma of Modi because even at the peak of their waves, Morarji Desai, Gulzari Lal Nanda or even Lal Krishna Advani never canvassed their deputy prime ministership. The canvassing for deputy prime ministership by Jaitley only ascertains Brand Modi along with Jaitley that would simultaneously appeal to sober, suave, urbane, soft-speaking English-knowing and continuously growing middle class vote-bank.
The idea of political branding was present earlier too. However, often it was termed as political image. But, the respectability, or people’s perception of an image of a politician earlier was not as carefully crafted as a brand. More-over, different politicians in a party can have their own image which sustains despite the campaigning strategy. For instance, several successful Chief Ministers in States ruled by the BJP have strong political images in their States. Vasundhara Raje, Manohar Parrikar, Raman Singh and Shivraj Singh Chouhan obviously have irrefutable influence in their States with their political images which are not as inten-tionally crafted for them to aspire for prime minstership. However, as existing successful brands, they were often used by associated brands or a new brand to make market gains, Brand Modi has also used these successful political images of these statesmen for its own enhancement.
But in the present scenario, the political branding exercise in the Indian general elections project a single leader as the brand of the politics that the party/front stands for. Scholars suggest that brands usually have three major characteristics—trust-building, emotional narratives and multi-channel orientation. In trust-building, the organisation tries to raise consumer expectations regarding the benefits of the brand, and then satisfy them to create trust. Emotional narratives add underlying advan-tages to the brand to differentiate it from rival brands. Multichannel orientation assures that the attempts to reach out to the fragmented audience produce a coherent image and suggest all similar associations and connotations. Any keen observer of the BJP campaign or Modi advertisements can visualise how a Brand Modi has snubbed the rival brand and tried to construct an emotional bond with the people through the already existing devout following of the pro-nationalist and anti-corruption agenda.
Plato in his famous work ‘The Republic’ answers the question regarding what the term ‘Justice’ really means as the nature of leadership in an ideal state. The state of India may not be an ideal Democratic Republic but the appre-hension of the one-fourth of the population (minorities, majority Muslims) into the emerging and evolving nature of the national leader Modi cannot be ignored, as it stands bereft of any aspiration for ‘Justice’ from Modi. A platonic question arises: can the ‘philosopher-king’ be a charismatic mass leader or at the best can be the statesman? Charismatic leaders are the ones who possess the ‘art and skill of ruling’ whereas the other leaders supposedly are the second best ‘rule by law’. Laws may be the ‘necessary imperfect’ but are to be followed even in different and difficult circumstances as Rajdharma which the emerging charismatic leader has flouted according to the stalwart statesman of his own party only by mishandling the Godhra and post-Godhra riots in 2002.
By examining the psychological associations Brand Modi carries along, it can be seen that it is closely attached to a different idea of Justice —a product which is expected from a demo-cratically elected government. The idea or product of Justice, as enshrined in the Constitution of this country, is very different from the kind of Justice associated with Brand Modi. While the Constitution stands to ensure Justice even to minorities to retain their cultural, religious and social identity, the kind of Justice associated with Brand Modi is subverted from this actual idea to incline towards the idea of the majoritarian Hindu vote-bank. Thus an average middle class urbane Brand Modi customer identifies with the Justice of the ‘secular’ state which does not provide for any subsidy for any religious pilgrimage for a minority religion and promotes ‘meritocracy’ by positive affirmation for the marginalised through economic-based reservation rather than the caste one.
Weber has used ‘charisma’ to characterise self-appointed leaders followed by people who are in distress and who need to follow the leader because they believe him or her to be extraordinarily or divinely conferred or qualified. Self-appointed Modi has himself said that he has been selected by God and the mother Ganges to cleanse the ‘mess’ and ‘chaos’ created by the misrule of UPA I and II. This self-styling is the charismatic leader’s “mission”. This is to assert that his action is his destiny and the role of a follower is to acknowledge this destiny and become a ‘genuine’ follower.
Ketan Palshikar in his article ‘Charismatic Leadership’ has given a six-step procedure in the emergence of a charismatic leadership through Identification, Activity Arousal, Commitment, Disenchantment, Depersonalisation, and Alie-nation. Modi is still to go by the last three phases of Disenchantment, Depersonalisation, and Alienation before claiming to be a charis-matic leader. It seems the ‘honeymoon’ of Modi with the cow-belt people of this country has just begun. The history of charismatic leaders in India of Gandhi—whether Mahatma or the Madam (Indira!)—has gone through the aforementioned six-phase evolution into a charismatic leader. Charismatic leaders have always resorted to truth-manipulation and have shown the totalitarian aspects of leadership which are more than evident in Modi’s personality, campaign and speeches. This very process of truth-manipulation has come out in public when Modi blurted out that Taxila is in Bihar and Bhagat Singh was jailed in Andaman and Nicobar Islands(!) Though these may be extreme cases, manipulating, concealing or distorting truths are an integral part of sustaining the charisma. This problem arises because of the difficulty of ‘stability’ in a charis-matic leadership. This probably has made the Modi sympathisers to hanker for 272+ or yeh dil mangemore—300.
It makes us wonder about the socio-political implications of political brands converging into charisma through hard-selling. Though political branding may bring back some interest to the voters, who are often confused or turn cynical about conventional ways of lacklustre campai-gning which is evident in the surge of the percentage of people queuing up to vote in 2014. Such trends can easily turn into ‘pure manipulation of the public’, severely damaging the fundamental democratic discourse. Such branding trends will also suppress dissent not only within the party but also outside, killing diversity and multiplicity of voices, options and opinions. This may initiate a different level of political debate, discourse and action where economics and its concepts become the light-house for political activism and participation. This would propel money power more to displace the dynamic ethico-cultural fabric of Indian democracy which sustains and rejuvenates itself in every election which is fought on the issues of Bijli, Sadakaur Pani rather than the breadth of the leader’s chest.
Navneet Sharma, Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor, Department of Teachers Education, School of Education, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. Pradeep Nair, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor and Head, Department of Mass Communication and Electronic Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. Harikrishnan B. is presently working as an Assistant Professor, Department of Journalism and Creative Writing, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala.