APCO Worldwide, a transnational public relations company, had their most apt pupil in then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. The one thing Modi learnt was never to engage with his opponents on issues they want to talk about. He sets the agenda and a hapless opposition and media try to keep up. Demonetisation was a Modi-made disaster. Yet the disaster only served to propel Modi to greater electoral heights, and today, as he towers over a clueless opposition, even the return of 99% of the extinguished notes does not change the narrative of one man’s fight against corruption.
Modi had made an emotional pitch on demonetisation – “Give me 50 days, then punish me if I am wrong” – which was the lead story in all newspapers. Today who remembers that? Modi has moved on from “acche din” to “new India” and, like the Pied Piper, carried a mesmerised UP electorate with him. He swept the UP assembly, anointed Adityanath as chief minister and could not care less about what the opposition and media will now say.
Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had called demonetisation “an organised loot and legalised plunder”, and the venerable economist had a point. Modi, however, used demonetisation as a chance to reinvent himself as a “messiah of the poor”. The only jibe that struck home was Rahul Gandhi’s comment of a “suit boot ki sarkar” after Modi aired his Holland and Sherry Rs 10 lakh suit (with his name pinstriped on it) in his meeting with former US President Barack Obama.
The suit was auctioned off; the godmen and friends of the BJP are still present and in action; yet, with the demonetisation gamble, Modi achieved his aim.
Modi and his closest aide, Amit Shah, are a ruthless-election winning combine. They give no quarter and expect none. No niceties of politics are maintained and the BJP has been transformed into a formidable election-fighting machine, modelled from the booth level upwards on the Congress of the 1950s. Modi himself is on 24/7 campaign mode. Consider this: until the Gujarat election later this year, he will make weekly trips to the state.
A senior member of the cabinet told me, “We are quiet in cabinet but occasionally the prime minister scoffs at the media. The opposition is never discussed as they have become irrelevant”.
Modi has an utter mistrust and dislike of the media. Both he and Shah are gleeful about pulling off spectacular surprises that the media have no idea of. Yet Modi, through a senior minister, maintains tight control of what is being covered and likes to manage headlines.
Remember Modi mockingly holding forth that “hard work, not Harvard” is his core belief? So while articles will be written on the the disaster of demonetisation and social media will be awash with how the economy was torpedoed, Modi could not care less. As the Left’s Sitaram Yechury, who studied economics, and Congress’s P. Chidambaram, who served as India’s finance minister, pick holes in the figures, Modi has got away unscathed.
Modi has simply changed the agenda and the narrative. It’s the opposition’s problem that they cannot pin him down. “How do you hold a hologram to account?” says a senior Congress leader in frustration.
And, as APCO Worldwide demonstrated with the Modi hologram during his 2014 campaign, Modi is all things to all people. But the only thing Modi cares about, as do most incredibly successful politicians, is winning power and holding it.
Consider this from the polarising campaign of his first Gujarat term post the 2002 riots, when he went on a “gaurav yatra“. That’s when he used his “hum paanch hamarey pachees” jibe against Muslims, called relief camps “baby-producing machines” and took on “mian Musharraf”. Post winning and punting for a second term, he changed the story to Gujarati asmita (pride) and the Gujarat model of development.
Modi as a shape shifter was evident in his promises of “good governance” in 2014. Now, with elections coming up in two years, there is no talk of governance; instead ritual attacks are made on triple talaq. The opposition and media scramble to present facts – such as that the Reserve Bank of India has lost all its credibility as an autonomous institution post demonetisation – but facts don’t matter, Modi has already skated away.
The opposition needs to get its act together and actually play a real role in pinning down the government. But it’s up against Modi, who controls the story and then ensures he spins it the way he wants. So expect more spin as more elections are coming up. The only thing that is certain is that Modi has an gargantuan appetite for winning them. Inconvenient facts be damned.
Swati Chaturvedi is a senior journalist and author based in Delhi. She tweets at @bainjal.