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This article was first published 5 years ago  » News » 'Modi has rock star status'

'Modi has rock star status'

By Syed Firdaus Ashraf
April 06, 2019 11:14 IST
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'While Modi is undoubtedly the star of the show, the online sphere has found in Modi the champion to re-engineer what it means to support the right.'

Many celebrities have taken selfies with Narendra Damodardas Modi and posted it on social media.

From Bollywood to businessmen, Modi has posed with them all or has at least tweeted requesting them to join in projects ranging from the building of the nation through Swachch Bharat to something as elementary as getting the vote out.

Joyojeet Pal, associate professor at the University of Michigan, examined over 9,000 tweets from @narendramodi between February 2009 and October 2015 to research Modi's engagement with Indian public figures pre- and post-elections.

Modi started tweeting in 2009, among very few Indian leaders on a social media platform. By October 2012, he had over one million followers. At present, his account has over 46.7 million followers.

So how have his Twitter interactions with different celebrities helped Modi gain popularity, and what was the role of these celebrities in the making of the legend of Narendra Damodardas Modi?

"I am interested in the use of social media by politicians, and Modi is, in my opinion, the single most important case alongside Donald Trump. The two of them are cases for exactly the opposite reasons," Professor Pal tells's Syed Firdaus Ashraf in an e-mail interview.


You have been studying Mr Modi's digital profile. What made you undertake this study?

In the past, I had worked on a documentary on Rajinikanth; so, I had studied fandom and cult of personality in India.

Once a person becomes a star with a certain following, very little criticism of them is tolerated in open fora.

So, the fan base of stars like Amitabh Bachchan or Salman Khan, religious figures like Sri Sri, or Sadhguru, or sportspersons like Sachin Tendulkar tend to stand firmly behind their star, in ways very similar to the following around Narendra Modi, though that is much larger.

The big picture question from a cultural perspective was how the idea of fervent fan following transfers from one domain -- say, spirituality or entertainment, to another -- say, sports or politics.

My specific interest in celebrities was whether there is a gradual coalescing of social elites across domains.

In India, we have a diverse, but overlapping group of businesspersons, sportspersons, entertainers, spiritual figures who criss-cross in social scenarios -- either physically or virtually.

I wanted to see if this has spillover effects in politics. Specifically, does this social elite move towards a generally unified voice, and if so, what does that mean for voices that dissent?

Amitabh Bachchan was among those who supported Modi when he was chief minister of Gujarat. You have mentioned how celebrity endorsements helped Modi re-brand his image from hardcore Hindutva to that of a liberal leader.
Is it really as simple as that? Do you mean a simple Facebook 'Like' or retweet has the power to change perceptions?

That's a fair point, it may not change a person's perception if one has a strong pre-existing perception. But what if one does not have a pre-existing perception of the individual?

In the case of Modi, a lot of the younger, upper middle-class Indians who were consuming social media in 2013-2014 did not grow up with news coverage of the Gujarat riots as a significant element in how they perceived Modi.

So those voters themselves were arguably not influenced, nor for that matter was the outcome of the election.

But there was probably an important influence in terms of the brand image of Modi himself. No other head of a state or central government has had this kind of publicly celebrated interaction with stars -- not even politicians who emerged out of the film industry.

Modi has practically had a rock star status, and this is in large part due to his ability to present a picture that the entire social elite of India is backing his agenda. 

When Ratan Tata's Nano plant was approved within minutes in Gujarat, he publicly praised Modi, the then CM. In what way did Modi use Twitter to maximise this gain politically?

When this happened, it was important because in the past, Modi had a very negative interaction with the Confederation of Indian Industry in which several key industrialists publicly criticised Modi.

While Modi had by the Singur fiasco already built the reputation of being a very industry-friendly CM in Gujarat, the Tatas are an international brand.

At the peak of the Singur controversy itself, Modi wasn't active on Twitter, but it was newsworthy anyways since the Nano plant was all over the major newspapers.

Modi did tweet about Ratan Tata waiting on him in 2010, and the tweet was symbolically important because it suggested that the tables had turned in a sense. Now Ratan Tata waited on him.

It also highlighted the value Modi brought to his state over the loss that it carried for another state. In the 2003 CII drama, Modi was essentially critiqued for being 'bad for business' whereas this case showed exactly the opposite.

In your study, you have also mention an interesting incident, about Deepika Padukone. How Modi tweeted to her as if he knew her.
What happens if a celebrity, in this case Deepika, chooses to not react? Does it still help the cause of re-branding oneself?

Even if a celebrity he tagged does not respond, it still helps, because it shows that Modi cares about people in different spheres than him, but people that are part of his peoples universe.

It still shows that he is willing to reach out to different people, and that he presents an embracing agenda.

This would appear to run counter to the notions of him being a rigid ideologue, since he is clearly reaching across the aisle to an English-speaking, politically liberal film star.

The only case where it would not help is if the celebrity actually rebuffed him and tweeted about it. This has not happened so far, in large part because the messages he has sent celebrities are hard to rebuff. They are not explicitly partisan.

Modi doesn't say '@deepikapadukone please vote for BJP', rather he requests her to ask people to bring out the vote. This, most people would agree, is a good cause, so it's tougher for the celebrity to say something against it.

These tweets also create an opening for a celebrity to engage with something bigger than their stardom.

A central piece of this is the moral underlining of some issues as being of national interest. So when Modi asks a celebrity to engage with Swachch Bharat or to call someone 'safaiwala' instead of 'kachrawala', one does it because one is not over-analysing these things, just simplistically saying, 'Sure, great idea!'

But then, he also makes it worth the celebrity's time because this is newsworthy. You can get a photo in the news by carrying a broom, even better, you can claim your good deed for the day.

Likewise, if you say on Twitter that you are opposed to demonetisation, clearly, you must be hoarding dirty money yourself. So the optics of this are very important.

This is not the first time you have done a study on Mr Modi. What is it about him that fascinates you?

I am interested in the use of social media by politicians, and Modi is, in my opinion, the single most important case alongside Donald Trump. The two of them are cases for exactly the opposite reasons.

Modi is most textbook political social media use, he rarely ever says anything outside of a well-scripted line. More importantly, his diversification on social media is also very interesting -- his YouTube channel has yoga videos, his LinkedIn profile presents his credentials and achievements in the same way that someone makes a resume, his Mann ki Baat archives have tips on managing stress.

All come together to present him as more than just a political leader, but as someone who is a social visionary, a guru.

But Modi exists and succeeds on social media also because of his following, and what people around him will say when he won't. In contrast, Trump just says whatever is on his mind, like a man shouting at television.

And yet he is by far the most successful person to ever take to Twitter. So if you compare the two -- while Modi aims to be Gandhi, Trump aims to be some mythical vision of a plain-speaking all-American bigot.

Mr Modi was conspicuously silent on Twitter after the recent terror attack in New Zealand when a gunman opened fire in two mosques. He, however, condemned the attack in a letter New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Do you detect a strategy here, on what incidents he will not tweet about and what incidents he will?

Yes, this is a consistent strategy which goes back from even before he took to social media in that he only addresses topics that he cares about.

In the United States, celebrities openly criticise President Trump's personality as well as politics. How do you think Indian celebrities compare in this respect? If not, why do you think they shy away from speaking their mind against Modi?

Firstly, in the US, celebrities are traditionally part of the liberal elite, and their following also tends inordinately to be liberal urban elites.

In India, while the celebs themselves tend to be part of a social-liberal elite, their following tends to be a bit more mixed.

In the US, cities (where celebs get their following) overwhelmingly vote against right-wing politicians. In India, cities are upper-class, upper caste, and this as a vote bank tends to lean right.

So this difference in the composition of who constitutes the economic base of celebrities is important. In the US, it actually benefits most celebs among their fan base to be anti-Republican.

Secondly, in India, the cult of personality and the crowd mentality surrounding a charismatic figure is a very important part of how fandom is created.

So obviously, celebrities do not want to speak against Modi, but they equally may not have wanted to speak against Jayalalithaa or Bal Thackeray.

The important point is that this cuts both ways, I would argue that even Modi cannot speak against Mahendra Singh Dhoni or Rajinikanth without a backlash.

The true genius of the 'Pappu' campaign against Rahul Gandhi is that it made him someone you could mock, and it legitimised mocking him, effectively flattening any cult of personality from building around him.

mr Modi engages with celebrities and others on Twitter, even communicating directly to the masses. In that scenario, where does it leave the journalists?
Does such direct communication bypass the media, given his lack of interaction with the Fourth Estate?
Does social media score over traditional media for a leader's communication needs?

I believe that journalism and free democratic discourse itself is at grave risk.

Modi has already shown that politicians can stop talking to the press entirely and still go about business as usual.

His strategy is excellent for his purposes since he still gets covered in the news (and we have published an article that shows exactly how), and his electability is completely detached from the extent to which he answers the public's questions.

Now, of course, more and more politicians are taking exactly this approach, and on the flip side, more and more journalists, starved of funding for serious reporting, are building articles off what one sees on social media.

In the long run, this is very dangerous for accountability for political actors.

The who's who of Bollywood met Mr Modi recently. How do such interactions work for both sides? Who benefits more, and how?

These interactions work for both sides. For Bollywood stars, any publicity is usually good.

In fact, right now the trailer of the Modi film has led to a huge surge of jokes about Vivek Oberoi, but it is still probably still good publicity for him.

But the hagiography is also probably good for Modi, since it cements his legend for some.

Frankly, in most countries, in most situations, meeting the head of a government is a great privilege, and even in India, traditionally celebrities have met with prime ministers when they donate to the PM fund etc.

In the recent case, a group of celebs went and took a group selfie with Modi, that worked well for all of them since it is a playful picture, as opposed to say a single person going and standing next to Modi which may raise more eyebrows in an election season.

Your study focuses on the period between 2009 and 2015. How much of a role do you think social media played in boosting Mr Modi's image, furthering his prime ministerial cause?
Could the same have been achieved in the absence of social media?

No. I think that the 2014 election was won due to totally different reasons, the social media was just a longer-term investment into brand building and cultivating an urban upper class audience.

This group heavily supports Narendra Modi already, but this same group would perhaps have a slightly harder time supporting someone who has a more traditional RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) face such as Nitin Gadkari or Datta Hosabale.

There is here an element of re-branding what it means to represent Hindutva politics because Modi shows that it is not at odds with modernity, and at the same time is not at odds with popularity.

Supporters of Modi online frequently use terms like engineer, techie, professional to describe themselves, and this is an important ideological reframing.

I would argue that while Modi is undoubtedly the star of the show, the online sphere has found in Modi the champion to re-engineer what it means to support the right.

The same things that have been exceptional for re-branding the right can also be a major challenge if the status quo is challenged. 

Traditionally, the BJP has fought elections on ideology, not personality, but now the same message is coming through a conduit of a key charismatic figure.

If someday in the future, Modi or someone of his personality and appeal were to break away and make another party specifically to disavow social orthodoxy, then the party risks overnight losing that part of its constituency that is driven by this brand.

This is because the typical middle or upper middle class urban professional may support Modi and things like demonetisation, Swachch Bharat etc, but may be very queasy about things like cow-related politics.

Essentially for them, the brand is the LinkedIn Modi.

Social media has blossomed further in the last six years. If you were to consider Modi's outreach for re-election, how would your findings differ now?

The situation is different in one very important way -- in that new players have learnt how to use social media effectively.

Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav both run fairly effective social media campaigns, and all the parties now have social media being used down to their booth workers, sometimes even using apps to manage them.

The surprisingly consistent trend between 2014 and 2019 is the centrality of Modi to both campaigns. Even though there are various key players, influencers etc, they still coalesce around Modi rather than around an ideology.

In this sense, the BJP learnt what the CPI-M (Communist Party of India-Marxist) did not -- ideology is a lot weaker on social media than personality.

Even when they are attacking, it makes a lot more sense to attack individuals in the Congress, or create an imagined embodiment such as a 'bhakt' or 'libtard' rather than go after ideology.

The real mover in social media now is how it has changed booth work. Just about every booth worker now, definitely in urban constituencies, but even in many rural constituencies, is a WhatsApp aggregator.

This was not a real issue in the 2014 elections, but clearly is now.

The thing that is also consistent since 2014 is that social media is largely about blather than about platforms.

Most of the parties are just using social media to call each other names rather than to convince the public about what they stand for.

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