There was an almighty kerfuffle last week when it transpired that the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) had replaced Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s iconic picture with the charkha on its diary and calendar with a photograph of Prime Minister Narendra Modi seated in a similar posture and working a modern version of the charkha.
It has to be said that the picture was different from its famous prototype – both the man and the machine looked infinitely chunkier than the gaunt father of the nation spinning khadi on his equally gaunt charkha.
But Modi’s political opponents were quick to pounce on it as yet another attempt on the part of the Prime Minister to appropriate national heroes and their legacies. How can Modi insinuate himself into the hallowed iconography of the father of the nation, they cried, while BJP supporters did their own bit of spinning and tried to portray it as a move to make khadi popular.
PMO’s Belated Indignation
Modi was a “youth icon” they insisted, and hence, a picture of him working the charkha was a great advertisement for khadi. “You can never replace a father,” BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra said on television talk shows. But Modi is the true articulator of Gandhi’s philosophy and his “darshan,” Patra insisted.
After the controversy raged for almost a week, on Monday, the PMO suddenly decided to weigh in on it. Media reports said that according to the PMO, the KVIC had used Modi’s photograph without its sanction and that it had sought an explanation from the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises on this.
The PMO’s belated indignation is strange, to say the least. After all, this is not the first time that Modi’s benign visage has been used to promote a product.
In September 2016, newspaper and television advertisements announcing the launch of Reliance Industries’ Jio telecom network carried a picture of Modi. Again, on 9 November, the day after Modi announced the currency ban, ads for mobile wallet Paytm – which gained hugely from demonetisation, by the way – also sported the Prime Minister’s picture. Both advertisements drew flak as they sought to associate the respective products with Modi – as though they enjoyed the PM’s endorsement.
But now the PMO seems to be saying that it pretty much stands by helplessly as sundry entities – both public and private – go ahead and use the Prime Minister’s picture without permission to push their products. As Reliance Jio did. As Paytm did. Because, don’t you know, they merely want to pay homage to the PM.
Prime Minister as Brand Ambassador
The PMO did well to clarify that it did not grant permission to KVIC, Reliance Jio et al, to use Modi’s photograph in its promotional material and ad campaigns. Which, of course, makes the use of these pictures illegal under the Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act, 1950.
Interestingly, though, even as it dissociates itself from the effort to make Modi the face of a telecom network or a handloom product, the government has been lustily projecting the idea of the Prime Minister as a “brand ambassador” for this or that thing.
Last year, the Ministry of Tourism decided to make Narendra Modi the face of its “Incredible India” campaign, ditching actor Aamir Khan – who had been associated with it for years. Amitabh Bachchan’s name had been doing the rounds for a while, but eventually, it was Modi who pipped all other celebrities to the post. Evidently, if India is incredible, Modi must be the man to drive home the message.
Brand Modi is Here to Stay
In the wake of the KVIC controversy, Haryana minister Anil Vij said that Modi was a “bigger brand name” than Gandhiji. Vij also said that the latter’s face should be scrubbed from currency notes as well as that too had been devalued owing to its association with the father of the nation.
KVIC’s chairman VK Saxena summed up the logic of replacing Gandhiji with Modiji on its diary and calendar with this: “During the last 10 years, the growth rate of khadi sale was around 2-7 percent. But, after the Prime Minister’s appeal, it has gone up to 34 percent in 2015-16.”
Saxena, an appointee of the NDA government, also said that the PM’s image was “relevant to the core values of the KVIC”. Simply put, Modi was good for khadi.
Clearly, the firepower of “brand Modi” is here to stay. Forget election posters and DAVP ads announcing the government’s schemes. In the coming days, don’t be too surprised if the face smiles back at you from every piece of communication around. “Brand Modi” could be used to launch products from soaps and cereals to Modi jackets and monogrammed suits.
All without the knowledge and permission of the PMO, of course.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi. She can be reached@ShumaRaha. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)