Open Essay

The Modi Defect

Lance Price is an author and political commentator. He is a former BBC journalist and later adviser to Tony Blair. He has published four books including Where Power Lies and The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India
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The author of The Modi Effect is disappointed by Prime Minister Modi. Why?

Across the world, political campaigning has become big business. Thousands of people are employed, vast budgets are spent on advertising, promotion and logistics, and the ‘product’ is as carefully packaged as any merchandise. Most campaigns require big, wealthy investors to help pay for all this.

Sometimes, as in the current presidential race in America, there are attempts to do things differently, but they are exceptions to the rule. Donald Trump on the Republican side pays out of his own pocket, while the Democrat Bernie Sanders relies on millions of small donors. But even they cannot avoid becoming a ‘brand’ and having their USPs paraded in front of consumers who must ultimately decide which to select.

Many of those consumers, who the campaigns hope to convert into actual voters on polling day, switch off completely. They may not be interested, they may decide none of the offerings is sufficiently attractive, or they may find the whole process tawdry and demeaning. Those who do engage are faced with a dilemma. Do they dare get enthused and engaged when the evidence of history suggests that the more a political candidate offers inspiration, hope and the promise of a radically different future, the more likely he or she is to disappoint those expectations if they win?

The gap between uplifting campaign promises and doleful delivery seems to be widening. The technology of modern elections, from tweets to sound-bites made for TV, serves to over- simplify the candidates’ messages while the problems they face in office become ever more complex.

The much quoted observation from the former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, suggested that ‘You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose’. Cuomo was, of course, a politician, although he never ran for the White House. More cynical observers detect neither poetry nor prose, but something rather less elegant and more discordant.

For the music generation, it’s more like the difference between a pop chart hit and a difficult studio album. You might say that on the campaign trail you get the jauntiness of Yellow Submarine and then find yourself listening to The White Album. Or to be slightly more contemporary, you vote for the Starman ‘waiting in the sky’ and he makes you sit through a long, hard album like Low. Forgive me if you’re not a fan of The Beatles or David Bowie. The point is that what sounds simple and appealing on an election platform may prove to be a lot more difficult to listen to in the months and years to come.

It would help if politicians could be more honest about what they do, but with an election to fight, there is always the temptation to do whatever it takes to win and then worry about the consequences afterwards. Inevitably, that encourages disappointment and breeds cynicism about all political promises. Some clever leaders do try to rein in expectations, but in all the razzamatazz of the election trail their efforts generally get lost.

The British prime minister I worked for, Tony Blair, secured a landslide win in his first general election in 1997 despite putting forward a very modest policy platform. But the media and the public got so carried away by all the talk of a ‘new dawn’ that they forgot how cautious his promises were. Barack Obama similarly tried to inject some realism in his first general election with his slogan offering ‘change we can believe in’, in other words quite consciously not promising the earth. Yet both Blair and Obama looked and sounded so different from the tired, discredited men they replaced that expectations were raised sky high no matter how much they tried to lower them.

If you want an election campaign in which expectations were deliberately raised, then of course you need look no further than the one fought by Narendra Modi. In India’s General Election of 2014, Modi took a lot of lessons from the campaign war books of Blair’s Labour party and Obama’s Democrats. In the updated paperback edition of my book, The Modi Effect, I reveal that a British Indian Labour supporter, Manoj Ladwa, was sent by the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Modi to shake up the party’s communications strategy. Ladwa used his experience of Blair’s successful media campaigns to turn Modi’s into a genuinely 24-hour operation. Working alongside Vijay Chauthaiwale, Ladwa installed himself in what became known as ‘Room 39’ of the BJP’s Ashoka Road headquarters and used his authority as a known trustee of Modi’s to make big changes to how the party communications team worked.

And yet, while Modi was ready to learn from the professionalism of Western campaigns, his message to the Indian people was wholly homegrown. Downplaying expectations was one strategy he chose not to try to adapt to his own purposes. ‘Good days are coming’ or ‘Achche din aane waale hain’, may have sounded a relatively modest offering, but the specifics of the promises contained in the BJP manifesto—from ‘every family will have a pucca house of its own’ to ‘state of the art technology’ for every railway station—were extremely ambitious. The document made no apology for its boldness. ‘The time of knee jerk reactions and incremental change has gone,’ it said. ‘What we need is a quantum leap and a total change.’

I called my book The Modi Effect because I wanted to single out those factors that Modi himself brought to the campaign, that nobody else could have done. I argued that it was precisely this Modi ‘effect’ that took the BJP over the threshold of 272 seats to be able to govern alone. Even without Modi the BJP would have been on course to be the largest party. Only with Modi did it go the extra mile and secure its first ever majority.

For the paperback, I make the con- tention that many of the factors that made up the Modi ‘effect’ during the campaign have become counter-pro- ductive now that he is actually the Prime Minister of India. I go so far as to suggest that what was the ‘Modi effect’ has become a ‘Modi defect’, contributing not to resounding victory but equally thunderous defeat, first in Delhi and then in Bihar.

The expectations battle is a good example of this. By deliberately raising them so high, Modi generated enthusiasm on an unprecedented scale and gave the people hope that ‘total change’ was indeed on the cards. Once inside Race Course Road, he could have acted quickly to temper those hopes with reality. Like so many other politicians before him, he could have said that it was only now, once he had seen the books, that it had become apparent just how much of a mess the outgoing Government had left behind.

He had enough goodwill in the bank to be able to recalibrate his message and put renewed stress on the enormity of the challenges faced by the nation, coupled with his determination to—in his own words—‘work 25 hours a day’ to tackle them. Instead he stuck with the mantra of the campaign that whatever the problem, however great or small, the solution was Modi. When that proposition was tested in Delhi, it failed spectacularly. Others, in this case Arvind Kejriwal and AAP, were seen by voters to have more practical solutions to the everyday problems of the city’s inhabitants. Soaring rhetoric and mass rallies, which had been so effective just a few months earlier in the General Election, failed to work their magic against the more prosaic offerings from AAP.

Although I never visited Bihar during the elections there, from the outside it appeared to me that once again the techniques that had served Modi so well previously were now a handicap. Criss-crossing the state, just as he had criss-crossed India, did little to persuade voters that he understood the problems of people who couldn’t afford to drive a car, let alone fly in an aeroplane or helicopter.

Even his mastery of social media, which he dominated in 2014, was undermined in 2015. The defection of Prashant Kishor and his colleagues from the Citizens for Accountable Governance organisation gave new edge to the JD-U campaign. It didn’t win the election for Nitish Kumar but it did help give the impression that Modi and the BJP were too reliant on old techniques in new circumstances.

In the General Election, Modi had been able to harness the talents of people like Kishor as well as his long-standing friend and confidant, Amit Shah. After the election, he was forced to choose between them, probably against his will, and he opted for Shah whose success in Uttar Pradesh had made him the more indispensable of the two. Modi likes to rely on the advice of a tightly-knit group of trusted supporters who operate like a vanguard of the new-style politics he has brought to the BJP. Older hands like Arun Shourie, who criticises him publicly, and LK Advani, who is usually more circumspect, must now feel vindicated in their calls for a more collegiate style of leadership.

Shourie has been particularly damning of Modi’s failure as Prime Minister to speak out on some fundamental issues, most notably the perception of growing religious intolerance. He told Karan Thapar, “The Prime Minister is not a section officer in the department of homeopathy. He’s not the head of a department of government. He’s the Prime Minister. He has to show the country the moral path.” Modi told me during the interviews for my book, that “My silence is my strength”. But as I have argued previously in Open, silence can be as much a sign of weakness as of strength.

His determination to retain complete control over what he says and does not say was perhaps the clearest example of what constituted the Modi ‘effect’. He told the media that he wasn’t going to dance to their tune. They could report what he said at his rallies or in his many tweets, but that was it. His reluctance to make himself available for interviews until the very end of the campaign helped him keep control of the message and dominate the political agenda day after day after day. It worked for Modi the candidate. It is a weakness in Modi the Prime Minister—part of the ‘Modi defect’.

As I argue in the paperback, his preference for one-way communication is neither in the interests of good government, nor of Modi himself. He should make himself much more readily available to journalists and be willing to answer their questions. Journalists, to be any good at their jobs, have to voice the concerns of their readers, viewers and listeners. A prime minister, to be good at his job, should engage with those questions or risk appearing out of touch and aloof.

Narendra Modi is far from alone in making the mistake of trying to use the same methods in government that worked so well for him in opposition. Tony Blair did exactly the same thing and came to regret it deeply. The techniques of media manipulation and image management that helped propel Blair into 10 Downing Street, led to the use of ‘spin’ on an unprecedented scale for a British prime minister. It was hugely damaging for his own reputation and for public trust in politics more widely. I described what happened on a daily basis in my earlier book, The Spin Doctor’s Diary, which, incidentally, Manoj Ladwa gifted to Modi when he was planning his bid for the prime ministership.

To talk of the ‘Modi defect’ is not to denigrate retrospectively the extraordinary campaign he fought. I stand by my observation in the first edition of The Modi Effect that it was ‘a master- class in modern electoral politics’. It is rather to make the point that the transition from campaigning to governing is difficult, and while the temptation to stick with what feels like a winning formula is a strong one, it is better resisted. As Modi has already discovered to his cost, in politics as in war, one victory, however decisive, is no guarantee of another to come.

(An updated edition of Lance Price's book, The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India (Hachette India) will be published on 1 April)