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31 December, 2013

An unlikely Indian Obama

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Gujarat Chief Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, whom some political opponents uncharitably derided for his humble origin as a tea seller, recently asked, “If Barack Obama could sell ice cream, what’s wrong if I sold tea?”

Modi may not fit the intelligent citizen’s idea of an Indian Obama but he is meticulously copying the first black US president’s successful campaigns in his pursuit of the country’s top post. His main handicap is that he has been faciling allegations of facilitating the Gujarat riots of 2002, by asking the police to give Hindus time to wreak vengeance on Muslims for killing Hindutva volunteers by torching a rail coach.

Taking a leaf out of the Obama campaign designed by Chris Hughes, a member of the Facebook founding team, Modi has mobilised a cyber force with the help of marketing experts for propaganda purposes. The My.BarackObama website which Hughes developed had attracted millions of volunteers who formed more than 35,000 community groups. These groups made a valuable contribution to Obama’s victory by holding about 200,000 events in their localities and making millions upon millions of phone calls to people in their neighbourhood. MyBO products flooded the market.

Obama’s detractors expanded MyBO into Mind Your Own Business but could not limit the impact of the campaign. Narendra Modi’s publicists have found an abbreviation NaMo, which, being close to a word of Hindu prayer, syncs with his Hindutva politics. They are now promoting the brand nationally. NaMo tea stalls have come up in some places and an online NaMo store is offering clothes, stationery and even smartphones with that brand name.

Modi also plans to use Google Hangouts, as Obama did.

As soon as the BJP picked Modi as its prime ministerial face, at the instance of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindutva power house, the party’s largest partner in the National Democratic Alliance, the Janata Dal (United), pulled out citing his alleged complicity in the Gujarat violence. This led to speculation that even if the BJP emerges as the largest single party in the new Lok Sabha, as forecast by pollsters, it may find it to difficult to attract enough outside support to chalk up a majority for a Modi-led government.

There have been suggestions that in such a situation the party will have to ditch Modi and plump for someone more acceptable to other parties like old warhorse Lal Kishen Advani or the younger Sushama Swaraj or Arun Jaitley.

Aware of this prospect, Modi has conceived a project, code-named India272+, with the goal of securing for the BJP more than 272 seats in the 573-member Lok Sabha so that it can form the government on its own. Considering that no party could get an absolute majority in the house in seven successive elections, this is an overambitious enterprise.

Modelled after the Hughes scheme, the India272+ online platform aggregates news and political content of relevance to the Modi campaign on a daily basis to help propagandists with ideas and solutions. It will also serve as a digital platform for grassroot-level effort with the audacious goal of winning every booth. As with the Obama campaign, the ultimate prize for the volunteers is one-to-one communication with the candidate.

An advertising expert was recently quoted as saying, “Brand Modi is a promise and as long as it delivers it will succeed. Even if the sales of NaMo merchandise are not very encouraging, it is the best way to get mileage for the party and create a buzz especially among the youth.”

Those who volunteered before December 25 were given time till today (December 31) to demonstrate their propagandist capabilities by making a visible contribution through interventions in Facebook, Twitter and other spaces. Final selection will depend upon an evaluation of their performance during this period.

Social media made a significant contribution to the Aam Admi Party’s remarkable performance in the Delhi state assembly elections. The AAP is now drawing up plans to replicate the Delhi experience in selected urban constituencies across the country in the parliamentary elections.

The Congress as well as several smaller parties are said to be exploring ways to catch up with the BJP and the AAP in cyber space.

The increased intervention by political parties has been spurred by a study report which claimed that social media could have a big impact in 160 of the 543 parliamentary constituencies. But, then, it also said social media will have low or no impact in as many as 316 constituencies. Obama did not face a digital divide of this size.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 31, 2013.

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