'Howdy, Modi', a Coming-Of-Age Event in Indian Politics

Modi's PR campaigns have successfully turned the Indian prime minister into a commodity for the masses to consume. 

New Delhi: In the 2002 documentary The Century of the Self, British filmmaker Adam Curtis showed how American public relations expert Edward Bernays used his uncle Sigmund Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis to manipulate mass democracies at the beginning of the 20th century.

In one example, he depicted how Bernays used a visual of women smoking cigarettes as a feminist assertion. Bernays was then working as a lobbyist for big tobacco companies. The visual took off, and suddenly there was a surge of advertisements which equated a woman smoking with freedom. Cigarette sales went up exponentially.

Curtis said, “Bernays showed American corporations for the first time how they could make people want things they didn’t need by linking mass-produced goods to their unconscious desires. Out of this would come a new political idea of how to control the masses by satisfying people’s inner selfish desires that would make them happy.” 

Also read: At Houston Rally, Modi, Trump Talk Terror, Economy, and Bat for Each Other Politically

He said that it was the start of the all-consuming self which has come to dominate the world today – a world where people are treated by the powerful as nothing more than “happiness machines”.    

Later, Bernays went on to become the point person for both the Woodrow Wilson government and several other corporations during the interwar period. He successfully used his ideas of mass persuasion to create Wilson’s perception as the “liberator” of the people. 

Bernays was determined to manage and alter the way masses in American industrial society thought and acted. At the heart of his ideas was his desire to turn everything and anything into a commodity.  

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Howdy, Modi’ event at Houston on Sunday was, in many ways, a culmination of the ideas that Bernays mastered. 

The mega event was televised in such a way that people sitting across the world barely registered the thousands protesting Modi’s US visit even though protestors thronged the streets outside the NRG stadium as Modi and US president Donald Trump addressed more than 50,000 Indian-Americans. 

Protestors at the ‘Howdy, Modi’ rally in Houston, Texas on September 22. Photo: Alliance for Justice and Accountability

The protestors held placards that condemned the virulent spread of Hindutva – an ideology espoused by the BJP and the Sangh parivar –and decried the increasing violence against minorities in India under Modi’s regime. Yet, one only saw Modi’s meetings with a group of Sikhs and Bohra Muslims in stage-managed events prior to his ‘Howdy, Modi’ address.

Back in India, a majority of Sikhs in India have been agitating against the Modi government’s decision to dilute Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. Similarly, the largest resistance to his government has come from minorities. The representation of Muslims in the Indian parliament is at a historic low since Modi’s party, the BJP – which decisively won two successive elections – used its anti-Muslim politics to deny them electoral tickets. 

A bundle of contradictions

Modi’s speech at the event itself was a bundle of contradictions.

He boasted about India’s linguistic and social diversity in front of the non-resident Indian-Americans. But just two weeks ago, Union home minister in his cabinet Amit Shah had proposed that Hindi be pushed in a scheme of ‘one nation, one language’. He later retracted his statement amid protests. 

Also read: Indian-American Coalition Protests ‘Bigoted and Oppressive’ Modi, Trump in Houston

The prime minister then took pride in the fact that India was one of the largest secular, liberal democracies in the US. But at home, he and his colleagues have ardently advanced the idea of a ‘Hindu Rashtra‘  an India exclusively for the Hindus. His partymen have demanded time and again that Muslims and other minorities be driven out of India. Modi has also done nothing to stem the cycle of anti-Muslim violence perpetrated by the Hindu right groups over the past few years. 

Similarly, he spoke of how by bidding “farewell” to Article 370, he opened the way for development of Kashmir and Kashmiris. However, Kashmir has been in a state of lockdown for the last 50 days. The clampdown has been such that, let alone Kashmiris residing out of the state, even those who stay in the Valley have not been able to communicate with loved ones. Political leaders from Kashmir, even those who have historically supported the Indian state, have been placed under house arrest.  

The prime minister’s claims about the Indian economy were also off-the-mark by many miles. Modi referred to how the Indian economy is growing at a much faster rate with his government’s impetus on digital governance and with steps like the recent corporate tax cuts.

In reality, however, the unemployment rate at 6.1% in India is the highest it has been in 45 years. Similarly, the last quarter’s GDP growth rate at 5% in India is at its lowest in the last six years. India has fallen from being the second-fastest growing economy a few years ago to the seventh position in global GDP ranking.  

Reaching new heights and lows

Modi’s appearances at stage-managed events are not new.

But ‘Howdy, Modi’ was orchestrated at a different level altogether. Opposition leaders in India have pointed out the enormity of the expenses of Modi’s visit to the US. 

Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the primary opposition party, the Indian National Congress, tweeted to take a dig at the Modi government’s closeness with big corporates. He said that the event may have been come at the cost of the losses (Rs 1.4 lakh crore) the government will have to incur because of its recent decision to slash the corporate tax rate drastically.

In comparison to the scale of the mega staged event, Modi is yet to have addressed a single open press conference in more than five years since he first came to power in 2014. 

Despite this, he has managed to control the optics through and through.

If Indian television channels are to be believed, Modi’s US visit was also supposedly a slap on Pakistan – which Modi projects as an enemy state – which he did for the umpteenth time in his Houston speech.  Prominent television channel Aaj Tak even attempted to whip up hate sentiments. The ticker on the channel read: “Modi-Trump Saath Chalein, Pakistan Kyon Jalein? (Modi and Trump walk together, much to Pakistan’s envy).”

Modi’s extensive public-relations campaign operates on shaky, but convenient ideological grounds. He can be shown as the messiah of liberal democracy while also being depicted as a hard-hitting warlord – depending on the political needs of the time and space. 

Also read: The What, Why and How of ‘Howdy, Modi’

“Good governance”, a term Modi often uses, is now limited to the government taking up only CSR-like initiatives like building toilets for the poor or providing cooking gas to the marginalised. Overlooking the fact that the government has barely designed ways to address rampant poverty and poor human development indices afflicting Indian society and economy has become acceptable. 

Through this concerted PR campaign, a solid reflection of which one saw at the Houston event, the masses are made to forget not only Modi’s own controversial record but also any and all immediate concerns.  These concerns are projected as inferior to Modi’s carefully-cultivated image of being a statesman – a decisive leader who can’t be questioned or criticised. 

In a way, the corporate-sponsored ‘Howdy, Modi’ was a coming-of-age event in Indian politics.

Desire over needs

In his film, Curtis showed Paul Mazur, a Lehman Brothers executive in 1927, as saying, “We must shift America from a needs-to-a-desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

Is loving Modi now a desire?

The NRI crowd at the NRG stadium definitely thought so even though the Indian economy itself is going through a particularly rough patch.

It is a victory of rhetoric over facts. 

In a way, the corporate-sponsored “Howdy, Modi” is a coming-of-age event for Indian politics. Photo: PTI

As it stands, Modi is not merely a politician or an elected representative anymore. His PR campaigns have successfully turned the Indian prime minister into a commodity for the masses to consume. 

Indians world over are now being made to believe by Modi’s sophisticated PR machinery that minorities must be shown their place, that locking down Kashmiris in their own land is the right thing to do, and ridiculing the opposition is legitimate.

And that Modi is the only man to lead them from the front.