The 180° metamorphosis of Narendra Modi‘s image—from the monster of 2002 to the messiah of 2014—was largely achieved through the undisguised cooption of mainstream media using standard mercantile methods.
As advertising rupees flowed in like a Narmada in spate, courtesy the Gujarat government, media promoters and proprietors knew which side of the khakra needed to be buttered by editors and anchors to keep the cash registers tinkling.
Slowly but surely, critics turned into cheer leaders turned into chamchas.
The shine and sheen thus achieved was then amplified many times over using social media to create the national mirage called “Gujarat Model”.
However, the squandering of public money for personal purposes, a practice which Modi has institutionalised as PM sans any accountability, by weakening the Right to Information (RTI), is no longer a BJP speciality.
From Samajwadi Party in UP (Akhilesh Yadav), to Janata Dal United in Bihar (Nitish Kumar), to TRS in Telangana (K. Chandrashekar Rao), virtually every leader, big or small, has realised that money can buy editorial empathy, silence, even co-operation.
Which can then be monetised at the ballot box.
In Delhi, the Congress may rant against such profligacy. But in Karnataka, the only large state ruled by it, the Siddaramaiah government is now draining taxpayers’ money as if the Cauvery might run dry without it.
As the state veers into election mode, Bangalore’s unbearably unreadable newspapers get acres of government advertising each week, all of them extolling the miracles Siddaramaiah and his colleagues have worked on the ground.
I cut out the 39 advertisements from just three newspapers (one Kannada and two English belonging to rival media houses) from Sunday to Sunday last week, and it was more than sufficient to cover my balcony which measures 120 square feet.
The smallest ad is a quarter-page in broadsheet size; the big ones are all full page.
Only four of the 39 advertisements were of public interest, most of them mere ego massagers and image boosters with the tagline “Delivered as Promised”, to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the Congress government.
Thanks to the Supreme Court judgement, all the ads featured the visage of Siddaramaiah, but, since he is a Congressman with a deeper understanding of team work, some innovative new ways were found to sneak in the faces of his colleagues.
So, the forest minister Ramanath Rai features alongside Siddaramaiah in a forest department ad; transport minister B. Ramalinga Reddy in a transport deparement ad; PWD minister H.C. Mahadevappa in an ad on roads; and so on.
In a time of “drought”, the water resources ministry of M.B. Patil (a Lingayat aspirant for the state Congress chief’s post before the Dalit incumbent, G. Parameshwara, was retained) took out a six-page English supplement with 27 pictures of himself, and an even longer Kannada supplement.
Thanks again to the SC guidelines on whose face can adorn advertisements, it now requires the mugshot of Siddaramaiah to convince you to go on a weekend trip to Nandi Hills or a kayaking expedition in Dandeli, or to go to a football match in Bangalore.
Undoubtedly, Karnataka under the Congress is one of India’s better performing states—and infinitely more peaceful and progressive than BJP-ruled ones—and Siddaramaiah and his team deserve every credit for it.
But how many advertisements does a government need to push out to convince the people that it was responsible for this happy state of affairs?
And for how long?
And how often?
And in how many places?
On the other hand, imagine what the net value of Narendra Modi’s three years in office would be without the ads, the slogans, the mottos, the speeches, the campaigns, the Man ki Baat, without WhatsApp…
Then again, if the Congress does it so unabashedly, with what face can it question and counter the BJP?
*not counting TV commercials and outdoor hoardings