Dear Mr Modi, We’re Interested in More than Your Love for Mangoes

In his ‘candid interview’ to Akshay Kumar, Modi ji managed to reveal his love for mangoes & other ‘useful’ info.

Updated29 Apr 2019, 01:05 PM IST
Opinion
6 min read

India is a richer nation today for knowing that its Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a mango lover. Indians, or those who watched his carefully constructed and faux casual conversation with Bollywood star Akshay Kumar, also know whether the prime minister prefers to use a fork for his mangoes or draws out the juicy flesh with his hands and mouth.

Whoever thought that such edifying information would be necessary for us Indians, in the middle of sweltering heat and a scorching general election, added more illuminating factoids on a range of subjects. They covered:

  1. Modi’s anger management,
  2. Modi’s penchant for humour and castor oil-warm water remedy for a nasty cold,
  3. How Modi fashioned his half-sleeved kurta,
  4. How Modi’s childhood poverty made him feel “inferior” about his clothes,
  5. How Modi’s uncle gave him a pair of white canvas shoes for which he would wait till after school to pick up chalk remnants as polish,
  6. Why Modi wears his wrist watch the way he does,
  7. Modi’s leaving home early in life as an explanation for his detachment from his family,
  8. How Modi wanted to be a sanyasi and had never dreamed of becoming PM

How Much Will Modi Milk His Rags-to-Riches Story?

There was more – about PM Modi’s “good friends” Ghulam Nabi Azad (Congress), West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who Modi claims selected kurtas for him every year, about Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina sending him sweets, and how his “friend (former US President) Obama” and he address one another as “tu tari”, and Obama is worried about how little sleep Modi gets.

Too busy to read? Listen to this instead.

This “candid and completely non-political free-wheeling conversation” recorded and released by news agency ANI, suddenly made the 2019 general election seem like a popularity contest or personality pageant.

Questions designed to draw out unknown or lesser-known aspects of a contestant’s personality, inquiries about personal preferences, casual warmth and structured informality, are typically used in such contests to suss out the person behind the formal facade. How much more do we need to know about Modi, the person?

There is no doubt that Modi hails from a modest family which struggled to make ends meet when he was a child. As a successful politician and India’s cult prime minister, he has two choices – he can milk his rags-to-riches story indefinitely, or eclipse it with his work and vision. That Modi allowed his poor-boy beginnings and chaiwalla persona to be extensively used in 2014 in political communication, told us his preference.

Political Messaging of Kumar’s ‘Candid Interview’ With Modi

After five years of being in power, when he still falls back on his difficult early days as a repetitive marker to mop public sympathy – and votes – it alerts us that Modi perhaps has little to share about his work and vision. He isn’t India’s first prime minister from a humble background; others in that genre chose not to turn their childhood poverty and travails into election campaign material.

And that’s the crux of it all. The conversation, conducted on the porch and lawns of the prime minister’s official residence 7 Lok Kalyan Marg, was not “completely non-political”, as claimed. Instead, it was political communication, specifically political messaging, at its shrewdest.

The messaging was all about the man, as if voters in the remaining phases of the election must vote for Narendra Modi because he is Narendra Modi. The purpose of the messaging was to bring out the warm, fuzzy and humane sides of Modi as if these were part of the choices on the EVMs.

The political messaging was to carefully highlight positives aspects of Modi while ignoring or downplaying the not-so-rosy or embarrassing ones:

  • Why else was the most obvious question about his marriage and abandoning Jashodaben not asked in such a “candid and non-political free-wheeling” conversation?
  • Why was the PM not asked how he felt about allowing Gujarat to burn, and thousands to die in 2002?
  • Why was he not asked about his primary response to incidents of lynching and hate crimes that have spiked since he became PM?

Surely, the prime minister would have had a first reaction, a personal response, to these ghastly events, but we are not richer in knowledge about them.

Motive of Akshay Kumar-Modi Chat? To Appeal to Voters’ Emotions & Not Cognitive Faculties

Political messaging is an international industry, whose tenets and tactics Modi relied upon, even when he was Gujarat CM. The ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ summit as a showcase of India’s top-most corporate leaders and international corporations endorsing him, was an example. So was the lavishly-mounted and well-publicised ‘Sadbhavana Mission’ in September 2011, leading into Gujarat’s assembly election a few months later. Modi’s re-election in 2012 paved the way for him to cultivate a larger profile and control in the BJP, and become the campaign chief the following year – a step away from being projected as prime minister.

Modi and his team understand the tenets and tactics of political messaging better than most of his colleagues do, and are not averse to using them. The idea behind this “candid and completely non-political free-wheeling conversation” was to send out signals about the person beyond the ‘chaiwalla’ of 2014, toy around with voter perception – to appeal to their emotions rather than cognitive faculties.

Cognitive dissonance among voters, especially in a polarised political climate with strong counterclaims made against an incumbent is real – and something political messaging has to address, studies say.

Two Important Questions Weren’t Asked: Why This, Why Now

The best way to reconcile political cognitive dissonance is for politicians to emphasise their apolitical qualities and be vague about their policy positions. “The less they (voters) know about your policies, the less strife they will feel in voting for you even if they disagree with you,” noted Matthew Blackwell, professor at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Science, in a recent paper on the art of political persuasion.

The approach seemed to have worked. Instead of raising questions about this political messaging and why a pro-Modi Bollywood star got to play journalist in an apology of an interview, large sections of the media and social media went into a tizzy.

Hashtags were created and got enormous traction. Social media saw huge traffic around this conversation. Handles of media companies put out click-bait stuff riffing off the conversation; a prominent news channel handle asked “Did you know PM is a mango lover?” as a headline.

Television channels went into their usual overdrive with clips being played on the loop, tickers and supers quoting what Modi told Akshay Kumar. The nation’s leading newspapers will, most likely, headline this in tomorrow’s editions as a ‘news event’. Journalists commended Modi’s savvy political communication skills in their online posts. Influencers remarked how he changes the media game all the time. Almost no one asked the two questions that should have been posed: why this, why now.

Make Your Opponents (Like Mamata) Look Flaky, & Throw in Some Casual Sexism

Mid-way in this election, perhaps things are not going exactly the way in which Modi and his party president Amit Shah had hoped for, and the headline managers needed to manage headlines. They did.

In every way, it was a political move including how Modi spoke of his “good friends” Mamata Banerjee who has been among the most vociferous against him. His narration of their personal bonhomie was a signal to voters that her opposition to him is flaky.

Through it all, Akshay Kumar sat and played his part – now an adulatory fan, now a cooperative interviewer – and attempted to crack a few jokes. Together, the two men managed to sound sexist about Kumar’s wife, stylist and columnist Twinkle Khanna, who has often tweeted without Modi-love. “The way she vents out her anger at me, I understand that your marital life must be very peaceful,” Modi said to Kumar. How would Modi know anything about a marriage? But they both laughed, and the stereotype of the angry, screaming and nagging wife turned even more stereotypical.

After the election results are in, Modi’s campaign strategists might hunker down and evaluate how much this “candid and completely non-political free-wheeling conversation” helped him politically.

Right now, it refreshes the memory of a remark which political theorist and Labour MP in Britain, Lord Bhikhu Parekh, had made in late 2014 at a Mumbai meeting, “Modi’s politics is the politics of spectacle”. Modi’s mango preference is now part of that spectacle too.

(Smruti Koppikar, Mumbai-based independent journalist and editor, has reported on politics, terror attacks, gender and development for nearly three decades for national publications. She tweets @smrutibombay. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Published: 24 Apr 2019, 04:04 PM IST
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