“Hospitality. Logicality. Technicality. Practicality. Sociality. Physicality. Legality. Regality. Geniality. Vitality. Totality. Originality. Punctuality. Spirituality. Immortality… WHO’S THE MAN? HE’s THE MAN. NaMo Namo ”
–The Namo Youth Anthem [Video]
As a purveyor of popular culture and the general state of things, one of my abiding interests lies in deconstructing extreme popularity.
What is “extremely popular?”
Here is how I look at it. When armies of strangers, with no direct stake in your well-being (your relatives , paid PR and those in it for quid pro quo do not count), spend countless hours of their mortal lives, risking Carpal Tunnel syndrome, ruptured arteries and the very sanity of their souls, verbally or virtually garroting anyone who doubts your absolute awesomeness, or make youth anthems with the words “Last Air Bender” delivered in an accent that makes Mallika Sherawat sound as authentically American as Clint Eastwood, that’s when you have made the cut of extremeness.
If after reading this paragraph, “Justin Bieber” comes to mind, then you are on the right track. He evokes extreme reactions. But to consolidate the concept further, here are some more examples of the “extremes”.
Salman Khan is one.
Shahrukh Khan is another. (As an aside, the reason why I never reviewed “Chennai Express” was because I realized that the exercise would be like trying to evaluate a holy book through the prism of rationality and science, something that can only lead to death by blasphemy. “Chennai Express” cannot be judged on the parameters of good cinema or of conventional aesthetics , because it is purely a religious experience, and hence immune to analysis. Like God speaking from behind a burning bush.)
For a few glorious years, Himesh Reshammiya made the cut of extreme popularity, when blog posts made on the original “kala dadi” from Gujarat by your humble interlocutor, used to get angry comments from people with monikers like HIMESHROCCKKKS who would type in ALL-CAPS, in case you didn’t get the message the first time.
And now Narendra Modi. If you have any doubts about the “culti-ness” of Modi, or as Prabhuji would ask “Koi shaq ya sawaal?”, I would refer you, not just to the Modi youth anthem guys, but also to the body of work by the mellifluous Rocky Mittal, the Chand Bardai of his age, whose superhit song “Dabanng Hai Modiji Thar Thar Kaanpe Virodi” is a personal favorite of mine.
If this is not a religious following, I don’t know what is.
What makes Narendra Modi so intriguing is that because he doesn’t quite fit the mould of superstardom . In India, we have a health disrespect for politicians and the proof of that is the greatest mirror of our collective mind, namely Bollywood, where politicians are almost always negative characters. There have been regional political satraps who have had almost religious followings, (like NTR and MGR) but they were moviestars before they became politicians, and their God-like popularity never spread beyond the hinterland of their movies.
Narendra Modi however was never in the glamour business. He isn’t camera-friendly in the way the members of the Gandhi family are. He does not have the calm eloquence of a Vajpayee or the physical presence of a late 80s-early 90s Advani. Nor does he instinctively command the respect we in India give to academic authority, which is what benefits Dr. Singh and Dr. Kalam and Kejriwal (he is, after all, an IIT-alum).
One could imagine Modi as a power-behind-the-throne of the Ahmed Patel type , but as a cult figure that brings in the crowds purely on his own appeal, not really so.
But there can be no doubt that he is, the single biggest political brand in India today, the kind that comes once in a generation ,with millions of passionate followers and equally passionate haters.
And so one has to ask–“Why?” The answer (or rather attempts to discover it) is important not so much because of Modi the man (not that he is not important, being as he might be the future king) but because of what it says about us, as a nation, because after all, our cult figures are nothing but mirrors to our collective souls.
When I use the word “nation” here, I might be a bit more grandiloquent than I should. I mean the urban middle class, which is where I belong and whose way of thinking I can claim to have some insight into. I have no idea as to how Modi is perceived elsewhere, in the villages for instance, or why he should be popular there and I do not even want to speculate because my experience of being Indian has little in common with those who get six hours of power daily (if at all) and have to walk miles to get potable water. (There are, after all, many Indias)
Some would of course question my basic thesis, namely that Modi is insanely popular among the Indian urban middle class. To be honest, I cannot provide real data to support my claim (and how I wish there was a Cricinfo like site for everything where Statsguru would give all answers). What I base my assertion on is largely anecdotal evidence, based on social media and interactions with people of my age group and there I have seen a large number of Modi-followers whose faith spans the spectrum from “qualified acceptance” to “knees-shaking-Oh-MY-GOD-he-looked-at-me devotion”. (He is the laaaist airbendaaahhhh). At the very least, we can agree that Modi evokes a response across urban India, and that you would be hard-pressed to fine someone with even a slight interest in politics that does not have a strong opinion of him. Which is what being a cult figure is all about.
A point in passing. Pwning social media or the hearts and minds of urban India does not necessarily imply a pathway to the throne of Delhi, since Indian elections aren’t as direct as American ones. A Modi fanboy in Calcutta, no matter how motivated, will have a choice between TMC, CPM, Congress and possibly the crazy independent from Bongo Premik Party whose agenda is to build a lover’s park where couples can make out without being bothered by the cops (in my opinion, the last being the best option available to a rational Calcutta voter). Hence the million Likes on his Facebook page or the ability of his followers to make him trend on Twitter, at will, does not necessarily translate to votes, and that will remain the Modi-team’s biggest headache from now to the elections. (In contrast, Salman and Shahrukh Khan’s social-media muscle does translate to bums in theaters, and by extension revenues in a much more direct manner, as a Shahrukh Khan fanboy in Calcutta *can* see “Chennai Express” five-times and not be forced to choose between Jeet and Dev for the evening show.)
There is a strong body of opinion that states that Modi’s popularity is but a midsummer’s night’s dream, a chimera, a smoke and mirrors trick of Modi’s evil PR agents, the evil American firm APCO, the designated bugaboo. Unless they have on their payroll Gandalf, Saruman and Dumbledore, it is highly unlikely that they and just they can be responsible for creating a Modi bubble where none exists. And if personal brand consolidation through carpet-bombing PR was so easy, one would wonder why the Congress would not have been able to do it for their candidate, Rahul Gandhi, given that they have never showed much reticence in splurging, often public money, on promoting their chosen ones. (All those double-page ads in newspapers with faces of Gandhi family members have been staple fare for decades).
This is of course not to say that Modi does not have a well-funded PR machinery working for him but to ascribe his entire popularity on their operations is about as much lazy partisan nonsense as the Modi-fan line that anyone who does not sing “Who’s the glare? Namo Namo? Who’s declared? Namo Namo” is automatically a Congress stooge, a #chormedia and #dalalmedia representative who has sizzled baby ears for breakfast.
This is again not to imply that there are not Congress stool-pigeons in the mainstream media, who in the garb of neutrality, push the party-line (not that they don’t criticize the Congress, they do, because they have to, a bit here and a bit there, to keep appearing neutral). All I am saying is that anyone who is not a fan of Narendra Modi is not automatically a Rahul Gandhi fanboy, in the same way that saying that “Ek Tha Tiger” is horrible does not imply I have a Shahrukh Khan as DP in my Twitter profile.
And I know this is all complex and confusing.
In the course of a few posts, I hope to analyze, without the blinkers of irrational hate or the pink glasses of unquestioned love, the Modi phenemonenon, the why-s and the wherefores, the narrative and the counter-narrative
I say “hope” because whether I actually follow through with this depends on what we in Jadavpur University would call “enthu”, a complex bio-chemical function that takes as input parameters like motivation, time, mood, once again time (I have books to read, books to write, and a 8 month old daughter to look after, after all).
Let’s see what happens.