The Modi Wave

By positing Modi as a man from outside history, and by defying the media but staying on top of it, Modi’s image was rendered a ‘sovereignty effect’ that was supplanted upon his person. Akshaya Kumar analyses the key role played by the media in repackaging PM Narendra Modi and his image.

Now that the alleged ‘Modi wave’ has delivered staggering results, it may be an appropriate time to ask what exactly this sudden and massive convergence of masses implies. Also, which shores is this wave finally going to hit? Will there be unintended consequences? Before the results, many of us argued that there is no wave whatsoever, that it is a mere hype created by the electronic media, already deep within the clutches of the big corporations which are openly supporting the man of the moment. There is still some truth in that claim and we could stand by that very position. However, there may be a need here to acknowledge that even a logical destruction of the wave may have ended up contributing to its mythical prowess. The negation does not quite hold on its own because it is absorbed by the myth sustained by an enormous momentum. We could, alternatively, attempt to situate the wave by consolidating its various provenances and in the process, limiting it by locating its habitat.

During the heightened electoral frenzy of general elections, time acts upon the space of the nation. Political turnout of the masses at the electoral booths in relative simultaneity produces the urgency to aggregate the national political space and make a choice on its behalf. The historicity of this moment is projected upon the geography of the nation to bring it alive in entirety, render it the property of liveness.

There are two vital ways in which this act of re-configuration is performed. First, the moment of political mobilisation is narratively produced in relation to history.  As a result, parties and leaders demand that the people rise and vote for them, for a historical moment – to reverse the trajectory of injustice, misrule or socio-economic indicators – urges them to do so. Second, the media plays a crucial role in rendering liveness to the geography of the nation. Reporters and cameramen show off their mobility – atop buses and cycles or on foot – as they seek the opinions and the mood of the crevices, hinterlands, and those considered voiceless in the normal course of time. We, the people of the nation, are drawn out of our own temporalities and invited to participate in a narratively aggregated temporality of national history. Sure enough, these narratives are intensely contested, but the contestation need not result in plurality. On the contrary, if the terms of these contestations could be narrowed and converged, the disagreements launched against a certain narrative would still consolidate that narrative pitch.

Narendra Modi’s campaign consistently arranged its developmental imaginary upon the bed of Hindutva rhetoric. The developmental rhetoric too carried no substance, only a challenge to the perceived, even if contestable, decline of growth in the UPA times. The Congress found itself acutely incapable of responding to the challenge while AAP, launching itself through a tirade against political corruption across the board, was successful in producing a narrative consistency. Yet, it fell short of its desired ground because it could not scale itself along its counterparts. Even as AAP responded to Modi’s model and Congress’ silence, its claim to being a national challenger was compromised on two accounts.

First, it did not yet have the critical mass to pose a challenge to the weight of Modi’s narrative. Second, the media fatally curtailed the impact of the popular feedback received by AAP. On televisual media, which remains the regulatory authority of our popular perception, we only encountered an amputated body of AAP’s campaign. The bulk of masses that the televisual frame burst with every time we spotted Modi’s political address was absented when Kejriwal addressed the people. Gradually, this compelled Kejriwal to compromise his narrative history of the moment, and shift from targeting the political establishment to attacking the foundations of Modi’s campaign. Even if the challenge was partially successful, we were increasingly sucked into Modi’s proposition of what this moment in Indian politics meant.

The Man from outside History

Modi’s campaign was intriguing in his attempt to produce a historical narrative, which cleverly refused to narrative-ise him or his location. This allowed him to offer himself as an intervention from outside history. This was a masterstroke to the extent that the subject within history has a compromised agency. The continuities – of forces, events, rationales and time – blunt the provenance of the outsider. In order for him to act upon history, he must stand entirely outside it. In this way, he cannot be accessed from within historical time. If Kejriwal offered himself as one of us, a common man arising from within the banality of empty political time, Modi offered himself, as well as Gujarat, from outside the historical field of Indian politics. Modi did not have to intervene; his appearance itself became an intervention. We were never told how he transformed Gujarat, only that it is what India could be – should be – if he were to take over. Gujarat’s transformation into the only white-collared state was not explained as an act of laboring across time through policies and plans, but as an act of appropriate association with Modi.

Gujarat, akin to an avatar’s savari (Ganesh’s mooshak, for example), has become an index of the national geography, the first among the equals. It is worth mentioning the resonance this has with M. Madhava Prasad’s formulation of ‘Cine-Politics’ (Cine-politics: Film Stars and Political Existence in South India, 2014, Orient Blackswan). Prasad discusses south Indian films featuring the star’s associate performing the double function of an ally as well as a fan-figure on screen, a narrative strategy rather familiar to us particularly through Govinda films (such as Raja Babu and Dulhe Raja, where Shakti Kapoor played the fan-associate). By installing the fan on the screen, the films served a pedagogic function and reinforced the case for the star’s sovereignty. As sovereignty is surrendered to the one from outside history, not gradually but all at once, it allows the possibility of radical historical recovery, as the newly incumbent does not come from within the shared history. His enthronement promises an altogether new configuration. Modi not only offered a historical narrative of unending Congress rule, infested with corruption, appeasement and misrule, but also that of him observing from outside the fence. His story of his own rise goes from being a tea-seller to the Chief Minister of Gujarat, from a not-yet to a fully-sovereign. He is never a deputy, never a peg within the system; he suffers till his agency is still being shaped, and returns as already the incumbent.

What are the broader implications of emerging from outside history? It produces national history as a space that demands intervention. That the national occupies a minor space within the civilizational trajectory complicates things further. Borrowing from the Hindutva imaginary of a great Hindu nation occasionally captured by the enemy forces, Modi’s narrative of a proposed historical recovery situated Congress rule under the sign of interrupting the rise of a Hindu nation. This concocted history isn’t merely a way of articulating the majority community as historical victims, but also that of staying clear of this new history so that one could intervene from the outside, without having to explain where the outside comes from.

Also, this fundamental separation from the substance of historical progression is needed to project oneself as unsullied, unlike those defiled by their mere existence within history. The moral force of Modi’s descent onto the national stage, derived from a historical narrative pitched from outside history, is then a curious subject of investigation. My proposition is that the media has played a vital role in this orchestration.

Bypassing the Media in Liveness

While the media was instrumental in presenting Modi’s version of history, its critical interrogative role was acutely absent in relation to his repackaging.  Modi’s campaign could entirely control the terms on which he would be repackaged and the media was compelled to broadcast him on his own pitch. We must, first and foremost, attend to the temporal orientation of our encounter with Modi. His image and voice does not belong to our time, it never aligns itself with our time, does not inhabit it. He intervenes into our time to awaken us with his declarations. He himself continues to inhabit his own temporality, which is composed of an endless chain of addresses to the masses. In his time, space loses its specificity; in fact, it is Modi’s presence that lends integrity to the space of the nation. Geography is constructed in liveness, even as the addressees – the subjective particularities – cease to matter as individuals. They must be drawn out of their geography to inhabit the national geography whose terms are determined by Modi’s address and presence. The substance of his address may have spoken to the region and its specific political establishment, but the form of the address, consistent at large, refracted by the temporal dimension of encountering him in real-time, overwhelmed the content.

Thus, as Bihar encountered Modi, who indeed spoke to the people about Bihar, Gujarat and India, all of them lose their specificity and were only recoverable in ‘Modi-fied’ forms. His mode of address was a topological challenge to the dreary everyday mode of existence. The narrative geography of oppositions – Congress time versus Modi time, underdeveloped Bihar versus developed Gujarat, a struggling economy versus a booming one – relocated the audience, and overwhelmed their provinciality by placing them on the before-and-after map – a step away from turning it around. The Modi wave is the logic by which Modi’s presence exceeds his location, his address exceeds its substance, and his temporality remains outside and above every temporal channel he enters. Together, they make possible presence as communication and consolidate an entirely mediatized topology within which the encounter between the sovereign leader and his masses takes place.

Liveness within media collapses the wall that separates us – the audience – from the substance of liveness. In this way, it annihilates the media by occupying it. Liveness is presence in real-time, an alignment that dismantles the mediation that is central to media-time – the flow that otherwise brings together the media content and the media audiences. In this way, liveness makes direct alignment possible. The live content, even if impossible to access without mediation, continues to remain outside the media. By rendering himself in liveness, addressing massive crowds on the other side of screen, Modi made himself available to us, but not to the media itself. His absence within the newsroom, and his ironical omnipresence in each of the discussions held in those very newsrooms, accentuated this effect. The experts and the media spoke about him, his intentions, his past, his policies and his vision, but he refused to speak to them; he would only speak to us, defying them, exceeding them and reaching us directly, unsullied by their petty criticisms.

This must also alert us to the curious practice of empty rhetoric against the opposition. The rhetorical too is a way of responding from the outside. It deploys new metaphorical vocabulary to an already existing social critique of the opposition. As a result, the critique offered entertains because its pre-existing orientation is reinforced performatively; but in the process, nothing gets added to the substance of the debate. By making repeated references, the vocabulary of Modi’s address stabilized itself and rendered a topological consistency to his relationship with the masses.

The above dynamic worked on two prominent levels: anticipation and delivery. Entirely on the basis of his media campaign, Modi generated an affective economy built around terms like shehzada, referring to Rahul Gandhi. Those listening to his live speeches, whether or not through televisual media, were trained to anticipate references to Gandhi, Gujarat and vikas. As he delivered on that anticipation, he fulfilled an existing demand. He submitted to the collective will and therefore hailed his audience. What distinguished this act of hailing his audience was the omnipresence of cameras around him. Television news, that covered every utterance of Modi feverishly, was forced to submit to his inaccessibility. His speeches, addressed to the mass of primary audience, were broadcast live to the secondary, that is the televisual audience. Yet, he remained unavailable for political interrogation by the star-anchors. By building an affective economy around shared anticipation and delivery to his electorate-at-large, he defied the televisual media and forced them to submit to his will – that of addressing his subjects. The effect was that of defiance, performative flourish, direct access, and an absolute mockery of the interrogative apparatus.

Taken together, their cumulative effect could be called the ‘sovereignty effect’, which, even if produced elsewhere, could then be projected upon the national stage[i]. The few interviews Modi gave in the fortnight before the last polling phase, instead of disproving my point, reinforce it. To begin with, he not only approached the relatively marginal journalists and channels, but more importantly, went into the room loaded with the sovereignty effect gathered from his media campaign. In fact, the terms of these interviews were drawn in such a way that the interview was conducted not by an interrogator, but a fan who quizzed the man so that he, and by extension the audience at large too, could get closer to the monarch. The fans who clapped madly during the India TV interview were only the most extreme variant of this. The very presence of fans in the interview room suggests a breach, or a takeover, perhaps a coup even, by the masses who follow their leader. Routinely, Modi also allowed their voice to answer the questions, thereby making the argument that it is the people – who are already on his side – who shall answer all the critics and naysayers. The idea of direct access was carefully blended here within a format meant for rational interrogation. On the contrary, in the ABP News interview, on Ghoshnapatra – a show with a usual studio audience – the interview was conducted without them for the first time. Left with nothing but speculation to make sense of this reversal, I could hazard the guess that in the absence of fans, potentially hostile interrogators had to be done away with.

Things took another shift with the Times Now interview, however. Not only is Arnab Goswami often seen as the lion of English newsmedia, Modi’s interview with him stayed away from controversies and was perhaps the most credible of his public appearances for interrogation. Goswami was neither too soft on Modi, nor did he try to become his fan. However, the timing of the interview, barely a week before the election results, meant that Modi went into the studio not as ‘the candidate’ so much as ‘the incumbent’. The sovereignty effect, earlier a property of his campaign, had by then become a fact, courtesy numerous surveys and media commentaries. Interestingly, the effect was supplanted upon the media itself, which carried its significant burden with distinct unease. Notably, while Modi did answer the mostly benign questions posed to him, he snubbed Goswami, his channel and the media at large, repeatedly, to great effect. This was Modi’s ultimate act of defiance on camera. He surprised his detractors by allowing Goswami to interview him, but also used the opportunity to put the media in its place by accusing them of being petty, incompetent and maliciously driven.

The Modi Wave

The idea of the Modi wave is about a man on top of his times, with a mass appeal that defies expectations and explanations, remains in excess of all its precedents. The wave is of our time, but it is a time that refuses to inhabit the terrain of historicity. To that extent, the time in which Modi embeds himself is beyond historical continuity; it is a time that mocks at history and all its individual or institutional arbiters. The wave may have been a creation of the media, but it defied the media even as it compelled them into submission. Through a remarkable challenge posed to time, place and history, Modi’s campaign was able to redefine certain boundaries and allow him the creative distance to launch his urgent intervention.

However, let us not lose sight of what this wave hid even as it situated us within a new history and a transformed geography. If the electronic media allows us to switch across spaces without any acknowledgement of the material constraints that divide them, narrative flourish, as on television, too deploys a flatness to time that is misleading at best. The overall effect is that of a shrinkage that creates an illusion, which could be called a digital narration of the existing universe. The unevenness of historical and geographical particularities, the profoundly varied trajectories taken by communities, regions and landscapes to inhabit their own time and space, can be brutally compromised by such digital narration that moves across screens with a flick of the thumb. To locate the Modi wave in the midst of this mediatized misappropriation of our universe is not to singularly hold the Chief minister of Gujarat responsible for it all, but to discuss how his campaign deployed an existing media climate to indulge in an expensive enterprise. But all said and done, on the stakes is the nation itself. The Modi campaign, in trying to unify India under one narrative, shrunk a national space far more diverse and complex, aggregated by multiple histories and topological inconsistencies. Yet, the claims he made upon the nation flourished in the media because it became an enterprise adept at turning the forest of paradoxes into a set of indicators – a costly simplification offered on a glossy touch-screen.


Are we actually in the midst of fascist mobilisation? This is not an easy question to answer. I am in agreement with Aditya Nigam (Fascism, Indian Edition, Outlook 25th April) that certain terms of mobilization, as we witness them, are indeed of fascist orientation. But that neither means, as Nigam says, that we are about to repeat European history, nor that fascism contains the entire magnitude of the problem. What makes this election remarkable is that it may be the first where the electorate has been entirely overwhlemed by the media coverage. Even when furious campaigns such as ‘India Shining’ were run without success earlier, the capital investment and the types of screen space occupied remained well below the corresponding numbers of 2014 campaign.

An advertorial screen does not merely inform, request, offer or command, it also ratifies the claims made by another screen. Additionally, in a media saturated world, it is not enough to install the face of the campaign all around; much more important is to occupy every screen that exists, to force it to surrender its autonomy. The Modi campaign ticked all these boxes. It occupied screens, it installed new ones, and it crossed all possible thresholds to let us know that the encounter between any screen and us was not an isolated one. When the multiplicity of media ratifies and consolidates the facticity of one-another, our encounter with any screen is a mere reminder of what we already know: there is a Modi wave. This convergence was instructive in how the diversity of platforms and brands, instead of leading to a plurality of ideas, submitted to the shared interest of capitalisation. Even as the screens all around us endlessly assaulted us with more scandalous ‘dialoguebaazi’ on him, we were trapped within a polygon of screens with Modi’s image on every surface.

I am reminded of Karan Thapar’s question in his unforgettable half-interview where Thapar asked Modi shrewdly, “Do you have an image problem?” Modi may not have completed the interview but he took Thapar seriously. He resolved the image problem, but it has delivered him a whopping mandate. The results of this election have alerted us to the potential of the media. In future elections, we are highly likely to witness not only a more contested and strategic appropriation of media, but also a convergence of methods, leadership and rhetoric. Media, now onwards, may be the primary site of political contestation and it is no good sign for democracy. The centralization of politics will also be reflected by the size of media playing a determining role. Therefore, the unholy alliance between corporate capital and political power will be brokered by the media, and availed by media-friendly personalities and pitches.

[i] I am thankful for this idea to M. Madhava Prasad, who enlightened me with a mention of the ‘sovereignty effect’ in an email conversation.

Akshaya Kumar is a doctoral candidate at the University of Glasgow. He is studying the vernacularisation of Indian media and writes on a variety of subjects related to the media.

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