Modi magic: Politics as pop culture

Key to this magic is the carefully conjured up, zealously guarded aura of the Indian PM
Modi magic: Politics as pop culture

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures during a public rally in Jammu in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir on Feb. 3. (Photo by Rakesh Bakshi/AFP)

No one will dispute that India has never seen an election campaigner like Narendra Modi. It is doubtful, though, if the genre of his potency, the genius of his mass appeal, has been understood in perspective. Perhaps it is time we did.

Let’s begin by taking note of the most obvious aspect of Modi’s campaign speeches: the pulsating energy stemming entirely from vehemence of attack. He exalted targeted hostility to scintillating public entertainment. Caught in its hype, it was overlooked that the spirit that animated it was sadistic. It is widely agreed that satire and sarcasm are permeated by sadism or enjoying the process of inflicting pain on others.

The strategy of laughter involves forging oneness of sentiment with the audience. To laugh together is to be in a state of improvised agreement. The point of agreement is that the one attacked is a common enemy and deserves to be degraded. This agreement is rarely based on factual merits. A crowd, once induced to be hostile toward the target, is hugely delighted to see him or her made mincemeat in public. The cruder the attack, the keener the entertainment-value.

The Modi brand of election magic is understood best as a pop culture phenomenon. Modi is Michael Jackson on the electioneering stage. The broad features of the pop culture are well known and do not have to be listed. It serves our purpose to consider selectively a few typical points of convergence between pop culture and the Modi magic.  

Pop culture, unlike its classic counterpart, is premised on low public taste. It is instructive to see how it works. In any form of classical art, all constituent parts gel together organically within an overall sense of form which develops organically. The theatre of pop culture, in contrast, thrives by providing a collage of powerful, planned, formulaic stimulants to the audience. These ingredients are included at random with no concern for their thematic or structural integrity. The singular purpose in deploying them is to titillate the audience. The more powerful the impact, the greater the box office collection. The crowds tapping and gyrating to a Michael Jackson or Madonna number are responding to a pastiche of effects, which are pre-set and anticipated. It is enjoyment unburdened by the need to understand. Modi’s audiences are in a similar situation.  

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Pop culture depends heavily on hype and advertisement. Taken on merit, the individual ingredients of pop culture — from music to literature — are, on the whole, mediocre. Pop culture appeals generally to the lowest common denominator. As Gustav le Bon argues in The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895), a crowd enjoys appeals to its emotions but hates being intellectually taxed. The primary appeal of pop culture is to emotions. It indulges the audience. This is achieved by being predictable and repetitive, as in the case of industrial advertisements. The consumers know the substance of the advertisement to be misleading but still go along with it! The plight of Modi’s captive audiences is perhaps more defenseless. They have no way to know the truth. They gladly acquiesce in their being led to anywhere the speaker pleases.  

The domain of popular culture is illumined by icons. The crowd has a psychological need to exalt them to divinity. Sachin Tendulkar, for instance, is not just a brilliant cricketer; he is the god of cricket. Rajanikant is the god of the silver screen. Modi shines over them all as the god of India’s destiny. So, any criticism of his words or deeds is deemed and resented as heretical and sacrilegious.

Politics, envisaged and practiced in pop style, approximates itself to the industry, a domain of brutal competition in which corporate pre-eminence is secure only with the elimination of competitors. Hence the vision of a Congress-mukt Bharat, for a starter. The almighty puissance of a corporate Gulliver can be resisted, if at all, only by the combined mite ("might" is too presumptuous a word in connection with opposition parties) of a hundred Lilliputians. Hence the Mahagatbandhan, which provokes Gulliver’s indignation and dismissive contempt. The flip-side of this reconfiguration of politics is that citizens become consumers — mere manipulated objects, and not decision-making or freely choosing subjects. With that, the "sovereign will of the people," the core democratic dogma, becomes a vague, hypothetical sentiment on the ground.

Key to the Modi magic is the carefully conjured up, zealously guarded Modi aura. This is sustained in two ways. First, the unfettered power to act as one wishes, as in the case of demonetization. God alone enjoys the right to act arbitrarily and peremptorily. Those in a position to act likewise gather unto themselves a divine aura even around their frame of mortality. The second strategy is inaccessibility. Modi has the distinction, for all his unmatched prowess for articulation, of being the PM who least faced the media. Media interaction is substituted with the one-way traffic of the monthly Man Ki Baat. The paradox of the pop podium is that the rank and file identify themselves most fervently with those who are most inaccessible to them. As the old proverb has it: ‘Familiarity breeds contempt.’

But aura, which belongs to the pre-democratic or feudal-aristocratic era, has its problem too. It is brittle and transient. That is precisely where, sadly for Modi, the Rafale matter has hit him. And the bad news for Modi is that Rahul has sensed the chink in his armor.

In asserting the BJP’s right to rule for the next 50 years, Amit Shah is confusing categories. He is mixing up arbitrarily the transient success of pop culture based on advertising tricks and popular appeals, with the durability of classical art, which is rooted in the depth. It is a posturing contrary to the logic of history. Time will prove if history will adjust its patterns to oblige individuals who stride like colossuses under the cunning proscenium of its contrarian stage.

Reverend Valson Thampu belongs to the Protestant Church of South India. He was an English professor and principal at New Delhi's St. Stephen's College.

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