Modi’s stratagem: Abuse media to use it But image make-over is a hurdle race

 By R K Misra

MEDIA is both the handmaiden and the guinea pig in the laboratory of the ambitious. Some use it to become rulers of the day. Others misuse it to lord over the times. Both nevertheless ride a tiger. Both live by the clock, ultimately devoured on their way down by the very genie that they harnessed to go up. Public adulation is a fickle phenomenon. It lasts for just that long and no more.

Late Prime Minister VP Singh in Delhi and former Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel in Gujarat remain eloquent examples. Both came to power, carried aloft a popularity wave.  Both fell by the wayside in course of time. The media was badgered for crafting their rise and fall. Did it? The poor, inevitable fall guy! Agreed news is all about todays. In fact after the advent of television it is all about this minute, or at best this hour. For the yesterdays there are the archives. But then should it remain the favourite whipping boy perennially?

Science can be harnessed to deliver both by the honest genius and the devious evil. In 2002, Gujarat was the crucible for a fascinating media experiment conducted by a then unfancied professor. Like a military commander Narendra Modi was given charge of Gujarat by a desperate Bharatiya Janata Party leadership in October 2001 with the single objective of winning back a virtually lost state under severe time constraints. He achieved the objective, setting new parameters even in victory. The procedure adopted, the strategies worked out and the results achieved should keep serious media students preoccupied for long.

For starters, he whipped the media, he walloped the media. Yet, like a nymphomaniac, it kept clamouring for more — Paying back in full measure, abuse for abuse by the simple stratagem of reporting it in obscene detail. Each abuse heightened the passion of the other. Until, both fell back exhausted. One vanquished, the other a victor! Media flat on its back, Modi grinning ear to ear. How did the commentator become the rival team? Who changed the rules of the game? It is the genius of one man. He roundly abused the media and in doing so squarely used the media. His objective was all that mattered to him. And he achieved it through the media!

 How? For a man who had never held an elected post in his life, not even that of a sarpanch until then , he achieved it through a combination of the good, the bad and the ugly. Very early in life, he had inculcated the habit of devouring newspapers end to end , day piled on weary day. The habit grew into a knowledge base that included intricacies of equations and subtleties of deadlines, personal proclivities and public profiling of the media elite and understanding of the veins and arteries of their financial fundamentals.

For him, the end always justified the means. Modi gave adequate advance warning of his desires when he told his party legislators at his very first meeting that he was here to play one day cricket. Not the patience of a dreary, five day long test for him.

 Even as he was busy testing his ACME (acquired media expertise) in planning and implementing the media strategy to gain maximum mileage out of the reconstruction programme for earthquake devastated Kutch, the big opportunity that he was waiting for presented itself on a platter.

Ironically one of the reasons for Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel's removal and replacement with Modi was the cleverly channelised perception of popular dissatisfaction over the earthquake relief and rehabilitation effort in Gujarat .

Modi took over in October 2001 and immediately went about mounting a splendidly planned, well spread, advertisingly oiled media blitz that showcased the massive work done by the government in earthquake rehabilitation and reconstruction. When local journalists aware of the facts proved less obliging, hordes of them were flown in from various parts of the country, principally Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai into Kutch to sing paeans of praise. And lo and behold in a mere two months, Kutch stood transformed! Eighty thousand houses had been Built or repaired. Wonderful 'paperwork'. The fact was that the information department of the Modi government which commissioned numerous CDs and documentaries of the stupendous work done by him , had to spend days and nights to locate a single picture of the new Chief Minister to prove that he had been around in the immediate aftermath of the calamity!

Meanwhile Modi's big opportunity came on February 27, 2002 when two coaches of the Sabarmati express were incendiarised at Godhra railway  station by a Muslims mob leading to 59 people mostly karsevaks returning from Ayodhya being burnt alive.

The state supported the Vishwa Hindu Parishad call for a statewide bandh and the government supported move to bring the mortal remains of the dead(there weren't any except some ash) by road disregarding all advice, saw pent up majority anger overflow in minority targeted, horrendous statewide communal riots. Societal fabric in Gujarat stood clearly fractured with the majority turning hostile against the minority.

The Chief Minister's statewide Gaurav Yatra fanned the divide further. With the regional press clearly going alongside and the national media including TV channels virtually stalking him through cities, towns and villages, Modi hammered into the wedge with his oratory turning it into a yawning chasm. Modi did not disappoint the media. Sonia Gandhi was 'Italy ki beti', Miya Musharaf was abused to denote the Muslims community in a clearly intended double entendre talk. The chief election commissioner's name was pronounced with an extended drawl-J-a-a-mes Michael Lyngdoh -- to rub in his Christian religious credentials to denote religious affinity with Sonia Gandhi. His Yatra speeches emphasized "hum panch, hamare paachis" and repeated "hum paanch,hamare paachis aur paachis ke chhesau pachis". The hint was to denote a threat from a rapidly multiplying religion that would overwhelm the majority. Examples from the speeches of the times could easily fill a book.

All through the Yatra , the Chief Minister painted the English press and TV channels as a hate campaign directed against the five crore Gujaratis. The demonized media dutifully kept on reporting his speeches and beaming visuals. The relationship between Modi and the media was clearly nymphomaniacal. He abused  the media at every one of his Yatra meetings and continued to do so until a few months ago. The result was a steamroller majority for Modi's government in the 2002 Vidhan Sabha elections.

The Gujarat Chief Minister has worked out endless permutations and combinations of this hate-love relationship with the media which is put to use to project all opposed to him as anti-Gujarat, the media included. The simple dictum is that if you are not with me then you are against me. And it has worked so far bringing him rich dividends in elections after elections.

Aware of the fact that the reach of the print media remains limited at the best of times, and there were
few Gujarati channels till recently, the information department of the state government worked to put an alternate structure in place. Propaganda CDs showcasing the Chief Minister in particular and the good work of the government were prepared and routinely distributed to cable operators in rural areas to show twice a day, once in the afternoon and once at night. No need to coax and cajole newspaper big-wigs, a head constable was enough to take care of the local cable operator.

However as the cable business got more organized, things became a lot easier for the establishment. The  increase in Gujarati TV channels ensured that time slots could also be purchased by the government before the key news hours to telecast it's own programmes.

A strategist who both defines new tactics even as he refines the old ones, Modi has a loyal band of devoted people handling key areas both inside and outside the government. All manner of media, whether print, electronic or internet based is monitored and dealt with. Hostile media is combated, even bombarded. It is an extremely intricate and elaborate operation executed from various independent points in a manner where one hand does not know what the other is up to. All  operations converge on one point - building the persona of Modi.

However as the Gujarat Chief Minister seeks to re-align himself for a newer goal and trudges in a grey zone, his media managers including the technical arm are floundering for want of clearer guidelines.

The longest serving Chief Minister in the history of Gujarat, Modi recently completed ten years in the saddle. Starting off on a rabid anti-Muslims platform to consolidate power in 2002, he has gradually veered to a development plank over the years. However the legacy of the communal era continues to sully his political afterlife. A phalanx of cases in various courts of the country keep shoveling dirt, making the shit hit the ceiling at regular intervals. His autocratic I-me myself style of governance and aggressive political personality which specializes in making enemies out of admirers is bedeviling his existence at a time when he plans to make a foray into national politics. In this context, the three day Sadbhavana mission fast from September 17 at Ahmedabad is a media exercise gone totally haywire.

Modi desperately needs a change of image to a modern, forward thinking development oriented liberal leader to enter prime ministerial sweep stakes. As usual he hoped to kill two birds with one stone through the fast. Pre-empt his mentor L.K.Advani who had announced his anti-corruption Yatra as well as reach out to the Muslims. He lost on both counts. He upset Advani and the 'skullcap' issue where he refused to wear one offered by a Maulana sent exactly the opposite message from the heavily televised event. "Na khuda hi mila na visale sanam, na idhar ke rahe na udhar ke rahe". He further compounded problems for himself by not attending the BJP national executive meeting getting him negative publicity.

Contributing in no small measure to the mounting pile of odds, is the hostility of the mainline Gujarati dailies. Their criticism of Modi and his government is mounting by the day. The irony is that all along in the aftermath of the Godhra train carnage, past the communal riots and into the state Assembly elections that first both Modi to power on his own steam after steamrolling the Congress, the Gujarati newspapers have chosen to go along with him, even at the cost of taking on their own English brethren
and news channels.

It was this support which helped Modi up the ante, charging the media (implying English media and 'outside' news channels) with being part of the  anti-Gujarat conspiracy. He played favourites exploiting the differences to widen the chasm within the media at will, gifting with largesse from the heavily enhanced publicity blitzkrieg budgets of the government. In fact his image of a clean, aggressive, forward looking Chief Minister within Gujarat owes much to the Gujarati media .

The reporting of the abundance of court cases, the targeting of senior IPS officer Sanjeev Bhatt, the fulminations of Jagruti Pandya, the wife of former BJP home minister, Haren Pandya who was murdered in broad daylight, theLokayukta issue and the railing of the  government on the issue of cow slaughter has seen the Modi establishment face a sustained battering. Damage control efforts have been mounted by key confidantes of the Chief Minister but don't seem to have cut much ice so far. The English press in comparison has been considerably restrained.

His political problem is mirrored in the dilemma being faced by his media planners. A fanatically loyal support base of the Hindu hriday samrat is unable to come to terms with his overtures towards the minority community. And if this is reflected in reverses in the vidhan sabha elections next year, it is bound  to have a cascading effect on his plans to move to Delhi to throw his hat in the ring for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. And this is where things rest for the moment. How to turn around without spilling water from the political pot perched precariously on the head, is the million rupee question. The accompanying media strategy to aid the turnaround, is a ten million rupee one.

(The writer is a Gandhinagar-based senior journalist)

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