On a recent visit to Chandigarh, I met a lawyer well known in Punjab for representing—often free of cost—hapless young women deserted by their NRI husbands. The discussion veered from the enormity of this problem to the next General Election and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s pitch for prime ministership. The lawyer was almost convinced of Modi’s vision and ability to lead the country because she had heard several stories in the past few years about the ‘Gujarat model of governance’.
But then, she said something spectacularly incredulous: Modi, she had heard, spends half an hour every morning on the internet solving arithmetic problems for IIT students. She said she had heard this from a senior police officer she had no reason to disbelieve. Both, it seemed from her conversation, were convinced of the BJP leader’s benign genius. While Chetan Bhagat’s achievements and ideas may have contributed to this impression of IIT students, what is amazing is how Modi’s mythology of superhuman accomplishments has penetrated the psyche of even those you’d expect would exercise a degree of scepticism when they hear something so fantastic.
Even a senior editor of The Times of India was ready to trust his sources who fed a story that was a bit too amazing. His report on Modi’s rescue of Gujaratis in Uttarakhand titled, ‘Modi’s Rambo Act, saves 15,000’ (TOI dated 23 June 2013) said, ‘Around 80 Toyota Innovas were requisitioned to ferry Gujaratis to safer places in Dehradun as were four Boeings. On Saturday, 25 luxury buses took a bunch of grateful people to Delhi. The efforts are being coordinated by two of the senior-most IAS officers of Gujarat, one currently stationed in Delhi and another in Uttarakhand.’ According to this report by Anand Soondas, the 15,000 stranded Gujaratis were ‘rescued’ in two days. This, at a time when the Indian Army was struggling to get just a few hundred people to safety every day.
Almost every day, the Indian media—and sometimes the foreign media too—is tricked or influenced by Modi’s Public Relations machinery.
And ‘machinery’ is the right word for it. It is large and consists of multiple levers, chains and cogs at several levels of operation. Its command panel rests with the CM’s office in Gandhinagar, and it has been working without a break to conjure a larger-than-life public persona for the Gujarat Chief Minister.
Before the Bharatiya Janata Party decided to throw its weight and might behind Modi’s pitch for prime ministership, this machinery was external to the party. For half a decade now, the Gujarat government has had PR and advocacy agencies, both national and international, working on contracts issued by it. Manufacturing consent across social media platforms, Modi also has teams in Bangalore and Mumbai. The BJP’s infotech cell, no less well equipped, has now geared itself to augment that apparatus. Apart from that, there are ground forces in the form of dedicated party cadres or Modi fan outfits (the likes of ‘Modifying India’ and ‘Modi for PM’ as they are called).
The Guajarat Government is in the process of finalising a new contract with a PR agency. The current contract, held by Delhi-based Mutual PR, expires in a couple of months. The government’s international contract, held worldwide by Apco, an American lobbying firm, ended in March 2013; it was estimated to be worth Rs 13 lakh a month.
A look at the ‘Request for Proposal’ document, which is confidential (available only to bidding agencies), reveals the mammoth task that managing the Gujarat CM’s public image is. The document issued by the state government says it expects the agency to hard sell ‘positive growth and developments happening in the state at regular intervals, or as and when asked to do so by the Commissionerate of Information’. The stated objectives of the exercise are: ‘to help shape favorable media opinion for Gujarat Government, both nationally as well as internationally…and… to position Gujarat as one of India’s leading states across sectors by increasing visibility and enhancing ‘top of the mind’ recall so as to make it an ideal destination among various stakeholders.’ The PR firm that wins the bid is expected to report to the state’s Commissionerate of Information and prepare ‘an effective Public Relations Strategy Plan for the Government of Gujarat with a vision for the next year’ while making ‘all arrangements necessary for the media coverage of any event when dignitaries from Gujarat, such as the Governor of Gujarat, Chief Minister or any other important dignitaries, on their visits to Delhi or any other part of the country or as and when asked to do so by the Commissionerate of Information’.
The Request document states that the hired PR firm should ‘arrange for national and international media to visit Gujarat and attend various events organized by the different departments of the Government of Gujarat’. Further, that ‘The number of media personnel for any event shall be decided by the Commissionerate after deliberation on the scale of the event. It is the Firm’s responsibility to arrange for the visits of journalists to Gujarat, any other part of the country or abroad. The expenses for the same will be reimbursed by the Commissionerate of Information on the submission of actual bills.’
Sources in Gujarat reveal that the state government has already borne the expenses of scores of journalists, paying for their flights, travel within Gujarat and stay on assorted occasions (and multiple visits in some cases). Senior journalists are usually assured of luncheon meetings with Modi, with seating plans drawn up to boost their egos. The current Indian PR agency has so far arranged meetings between Modi and a range of newspaper and magazine editors. Starting this year, the government also has a budget allocation for taking journalists abroad on Modi’s foreign visits.
Apart from acting as facilitators, the agency’s executives are expected to prepare press releases and articles, supply information to journalists for publication and telecast. This is par for the PR course, anyone would say, but while routine PR work does involve stiff targets, here is a list of what Gujarat expects, according to its Request document:
‘The firm should also strive to achieve the targets stated below:
» Publication of at least 6 major stories from the State in a quarter based on the input provided by the State Government in national News Papers viz. HT, TOI, Indian Express, Hindu, ET, etc.
» Publication of 6 major stories in regional newspapers in a quarter again based on the input provided by the State Government
» Publication of 6 major stories in a quarter in the major vernacular Newspapers with widespread coverage viz. Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Bengali, Kannada, Oriya, Urdu, etc.
» Publication of at least one major story in national magazines viz. India Today, Frontline, Outlook, The Week, etc. based on the input provided by the State Government
» Coverage/ telecast of at least one major story every month in a major TV News Channel viz. NDTV, Times Now, CNN-IBN, AajTak, Zee News, Star News, TV Today, etc.’
PR industry insiders say that while Indian clients usually insist on assured numbers, PR firms rarely promise these in contracts. For the Gujarat government, however, most agencies are willing to make an exception. Mutual PR is said to have met its earlier targets successfully—a reflection on media gullibility if not complicity—and remains frontrunner among those vying for the latest contract.
Apart from achieving those targets, the PR agency is expected to follow the following practice: ‘Arrange for press conferences, one-to-one meets, roadshows or any other such BTL activities in consultation with the Commissionerate, or as and when instructed by the Commissionerate to do so.’
The devil is concealed in the details of objectives such as this: ‘Crisis perception management and informing the Commissionerate of Information about impending stories about Gujarat State / leadership.’ In effect, an industry insider reveals, this is where the dirty work comes in. The ‘leadership’ clearly refers to Modi. From slowly working on journalists and feeding them stories, and, in some cases, doling out advertisements to their employers, the state government does it all. ‘Crisis perception management’ essentially kicks in at times when Modi goofs up an interview with remarks like the recent one he made to Reuters about a puppy under his car’s wheel. Or when he told The Wall Street Journal in June 2012 that malnutrition among children under five was explained by middle-class girls in Gujarat being “more figure conscious than health conscious”.
The Request document clearly demands that the agency’s officials ‘monitor the presence of, and discussions about, brand Gujarat in social and political circles…This can be achieved through, among other activities, continuously monitoring and tracking all national and regional newspapers, magazines, TV channels, the inter-web, blogs and other channels of external communication at regular intervals.’
The government expects PR executives to ‘have close liaisons with correspondents, reporters, editors, photographers, think-tanks, critics, trend-setters and other such opinion leaders’.
Among the handful of agencies vying for the contract are Mutual PR and another Delhi based agency Avian Media. Executives at both agencies confirm they are bidding for it. “We are really too small to manage Mr Modi’s image,” says Kavita Datta, partner at Mutual PR, “We work for the government on creating awareness on development and social sector initiatives.” The targets set by the state government, Datta says, are not unusual: “When you are on a monthly retainership, you have to bring it down to deliverables.” Nitin Mantri, CEO of Avian Media, confirms that his firm is in the race for the account, which is expected to fetch around Rs 5 lakh per month. Of course, the contract comes with a Non Disclosure Agreement.
“The original contract [won by Mutual PR four years ago],” says another source in Delhi, “was a pink paper contract meant for hard selling Gujarat in the business papers, but sometime last year, the Commissionerate started asking the agency to focus more on political reporters and mainstream papers than on business papers. This was also the time when the focus of these stories became more [Modi] personality centric.”
At the Vibrant Gujarat summit earlier this year, a list of 20 journalists was drawn for a luncheon meeting with Modi. On this list was Madhu Kishwar, editor of Manushi and a fellow at the Delhi-based Centre for Study of Developing Societies, who has turned from being a critic to an advocate of Modi. Internal communication accessed by Open shows that the agency was wooing Kishwar, something she firmly denies. She says that she is writing a book on Modi: “I am going to include a chapter, I think, on the myth and reality of Modi’s PR. There is no PR. I have written angry letters to the CM’s office asking for information for which I have been waiting several weeks now. They are so overburdened.”
With Kishwar claiming she is oblivious to the machinery at work, the Gujarat government nevertheless gave her special attention because she was seen as one of the lone voices emerging from the ‘the Left liberal space’ favourable to Modi’s policies with ‘captive column space available to her in The Hindu, DNA and Manushi…’
Modi’s team in Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar is led by his trusted aide K Kailashnathan, a 1979 batch Gujarat cadre IAS officer who was appointed chief principal secretary to the CM a day after he retired on 31 May. Earlier, before he was appointed additional chief secretary (a post he held till retirement) to Modi, he had been Commissioner of Industries and CEO of the Gujarat Maritime Board. He was the official in charge at the time that Gujarat privatised its ports.
In May, the charge of information and broadcasting was given to GC Murmu, a 1985 batch officer who had handled sensitive legal cases—including those related to encounter deaths—and forms a part of his core team. As home secretary of the state in 2004, Murmu was accused of ‘tutoring and coercing witnesses’ who appeared before the Nanavati-Shah Commission that probed the 2002 riots.
In Ahmedabad, the CMO coordinates PR efforts with the social media team in Bangalore put together by Rajesh Jain and BG Mahesh, who have gathered a bunch of over 100 techies in that city. Both Modi and the BJP, reveals a party source, see social media as a game changer for the polls of 2014. Both Mahesh and Jain, contacted by Open, decline comment. “I don’t speak about it to the media at all,” says Jain, who is based in Mumbai. “I can’t comment on any of it,” says Mahesh, “Someone from Mr Modi’s office will contact you.”
Jain is also the founder of NitiDigital, a company that owns the website Niti Central, known for its Modi tomtoms. In June last year, on his own blog he put up a post titled, ‘BJP’s project 275 for 2014’. In this, he argued that the BJP would need a wave election and should focus on 350 winnable seats. ‘The last wave election was in 1984,’ Jain wrote. He seems to have more confidence in the BJP’s vote-catching abilities than the party itself.
As Open goes to press, Modi’s Facebook page has over 2.3 million ‘likes’ while his Twitter followers exceed 1.9 million—no Indian politician has a higher count.
A proportion of those are fake followers, who include bots. There exist sites that sift real followers from fakes, but there is no uniformity in their statistics. What is beyond dispute though is that among Modi’s social media fans, there are millions of fakes.
The response of the BJP to this fact is predictable. “These figures are all rubbish,” says Arvind Gupta, head of the party’s infotech cell. Modi’s close aide Amit Shah has been appointed in-charge of the party’s social media campaign, which means Gupta is effectively going to take orders from Modi on the campaign. He adds that different algorithms throw up different results. But he does concede “you can’t know how many of these followers are voters”.
The BJP’s social media strategy, which now converges on Modi’s own after his appointment as its Campaign Committee chief, appears to rely on the fact that between the 2009 and 2014 elections, India has added close to 100 million new voters. In the previous General Election, the estimate of first-time voters stood at 60 million.
Among the most vulnerable to the elaborate PR machinery are members of the BJP itself. Their fascination with Modi has been evident ever since his elevation within the party. Spokespersons and leaders now defend Modi with the same aggression and ferocity that the Congress reserves for its first family.
Meenakshi Lekhi, spokesperson of the BJP, says that Congress attacks on Modi have increased after his elevation in the party, but the BJP has a plan to counter the Congress. This counter plan will surely focus on Modi.
Dissent within the BJP is at a new low as well. Thespian Amir Raza Hussain is the latest victim of the party’s new game; he was forced to resign as vice-president of the BJP’s Delhi unit after he praised LK Advani over Modi in a TV discussion.
Such a personality cult is not new to the BJP, but never before has the party fallen in line so meekly behind one man.
Note: The article was modified after it was published