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Narendra Modi: The Grand Illusion?

Narendra Modi: The Grand Illusion?
Ahmedabad There may be general consensus that the election in Gujarat is a no contest but the jury is still out on whether to credit Narendra Modi's performance as Chief Minister or credit his massive and expensive propaganda machine, which his critics say has vastly inflated his rather limited successes.

The Modi PR machine never sleeps, but in election time, goes into overdrive.

There are his surreal, and much publicised 3D speeches, 29 Vikas Raths equipped with projectors, and 10 LED Raths, each with a 110" screen, which roam interior villages.

His personal website has been given a spanking new election upgrade. As has his other social media platforms: Twitter, Facebook page and Youtube channel.

The frequency of advertisements on TV, print and online have multiplied. And he also has his own TV channel: NaMo Gujarat, which was launched just before the elections.

But who runs this for Mr Modi, and who pays for it? As with most things related to Mr Modi, the answers are not easy to come by. The Modi spin machine appears to use a mix of official, quasi-official and private players, with fragmented responsibilities, a structure that allows for grey areas of accounting and accountability.  

One such hub is run in a corporate tower in Ahmedabad at the offices of Maulik Bhagat, who runs a software and media firm. Mr Bhagat is only 27 years old, but his father is a BJP party headquarter fixture. Also part of this firm is Modi confidante Parindu Bhagat. He's a new, but integral part of the Modi spin team, creating the concept for a series of popular 'kabbadi' ads, meant to highlight the leaderless state of the Gujarat Congress.

Mr Bhagat says he is also coordinating the chief minister's mammoth online and social media campaign.

But at the BJP headquarters, Rajeeka Kacheeria, who heads the party's IT cell, seems to suggest that she is coordinating a similar effort.

The confusion over who runs Mr Modi's online operations extends to questions about the costs as well. Mr Bhagat admits that while social media is low cost, running websites and producing ads and buying ad space comes at a cost. He says he doesn't have any idea of budgets.

There is equal secrecy about the other big expense: the 3D projections.  

The opposition claims they were quoted figures of Rs 5-6 crore per projection. If that were true, by the end of the election Mr Modi would have spent Rs 20 crore on the 3D visuals alone.

But Mr Mani Shankar, the director of the projections says that his lips are sealed and he cannot talk about the deal.

The same opaqueness surrounds the running of NaMo TV. All that is visible is its content: a mix of speeches, talk shows and promotional features on the government.

NaMo TV and the 3D projections are run by Parag Shah, an ex-member of the chief minister's office. Mr Shah refused to come on camera.

But then details of government spending have always been hard to come by. The publicity department of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, which Mr Modi controls, in its annual budget for 2011-12 has set aside Rs 1 crore for hiring a PR firm in Delhi to showcase the Gujarat growth story. But expenses of different campaigns are spread out amongst different ministries, making it impossible to pinpoint ownership or a complete figure.

RTI activists like Trupti Shah and Rohit Prajapati describe how they were repeatedly stonewalled when they tried to get details of spending on some of Mr Modi's pet schemes. Their RTI application was also about the government's claim of providing employment to 65,000 people during the Swami Vivekananda Employment Week.

She said in reality the figure was much less. They were also not provided with details on the travelling expenditure of the chief minister and other ministers.

As an apparent bid to show transparency in election fundraising, Mr Modi launched Dhan Sangrah scheme early this year. Controversially this set targets for party officials and ministers to raise Rs 500 crore from the public.

The party refused to comment on how much they raised, but reports suggested that the scheme had to be abandoned after rising allegations that it was a form of indirect extortion.

Gujarat Congress spokesperson Ami Yagnik says that since the voters do 'matdaan', one cannot ask them for 'dhan-daan' for the party.

To this Jainarayan Vyas, spokesperson for the Gujarat government, said that the targets were not for individuals but for party units. He admits that while he managed to meet his targets, many fell short.

In their defence, Mr Modi's team claims the publicity machine is low-cost, because it is propelled by adoring volunteers. Like an army of online followers who spread his word and take on his critics.

Ms Rajeeka says that about four to five thousand people are involved in retweeting Mr Modi's tweets and spreading his word. She says that his online followers are genuine.

And yet, soon after Mr Modi's spin machine declared that he crossed a million followers on Twitter, the hype was somewhat deflated by a piece of news which said almost 40% of his followers were fake. Ms Rajeeka claims this is a deliberate conspiracy to defame Mr Modi.

So are claims of Ms Modi's vast support base as exaggerated as his achievements? The Congress' rather feeble counter narrative to the Modi success narrative is ads that make a parody of a popular folk song and describe the Gujarat CM as a 'phenku' or exaggerator.

A greater worry for the BJP is the powerful Gujarati press, which seems to have done a U-turn on Mr Modi.

In a rare interview, Shreyans Shah, editor of Gujarat Samachar, the state's largest selling daily, says that he 'would give (Modi) all compliments for his marketing ability. He is an excellent marketing manager and marketing man and he can sell a fridge in the North Pole'.

We asked Jainarayan Vyas about the anomalies in the claims being made by the Gujarat chief minister's spin machine. For instance Planning Commission figures show that Gujarat comes sixth in Agriculture, fifth in literacy rate and 10th in sex ratio.

Mr Vyas says that while it's true that some states maybe growing faster than Gujarat, this could be because they operate from a lower base. Selling Mr Modi to Gujarat is one thing but how did the Modi PR machine sell him to the world?

The origins of the Modi PR hardsell began in the immediate aftermath of the 2002 riots. The ad firm Grey Worldwide, which had come up with the concept of Vibrant Gujarat for the tourism department, was given a wider and more ambitious brief - to convert Vibrant Gujarat into an investor summit.

In the words of a PR professional, it was to create "happy, happening images of Gujarat". Since 2003, the five editions of Vibrant Gujarat claimed to have brought in pledges of 800 billion dollars, which some claim is unrealistic.

Former Hindu journalist Nina Vyas says the 'Vibrant Gujarat' website claims they had over 800 billion dollars of MoU totally. For the same period of 10 years, the Reserve Bank says that Gujarat got only seven billion dollars. So, where is 800 billion dollars and where is seven billion dollars? And you can see the absurdity of the figure because the whole of China for the same period received a total of 600 billion dollars in foreign direct investment (FDI). I mean it's an utter web of lies.

When it is pointed out that Gujarat trails at number 5 as an FDI destination, Mr Vyas says it is unfair to only go by FDI figures and that other sectors have flourished, citing the example of auto majors Maruti and Tata.

But the summits may have served their intended purpose. Manoj Ladwa , a UK-based lawyer and a Whitehall insider, is believed to have  laid much of the groundwork that led to the UK's U-turn on Mr Modi.

He spoke of how anti-Modi voices in the UK, like 'Curry King' Lord Gulam Noon and Lord Meghnad Desai, changed their mind about the Gujarat chief minister.

Some reports suggested that the change of heart maybe because of lobbying by firms like APCO Worldwide, the PR firm which replaced Grey in 2009.  

APCO refused to respond to specific questions on lobbying and instead claimed: "Our mandate is limited to positioning Gujarat as an investment destination of choice and the Vibrant Gujarat Summit as a global business and knowledge hub."

Mr Manoj says it is not lobbying but the Vibrant Gujarat success story which brought this turnaround. He says that the starting point was in fact the statement made by the British High Commissioner after meeting Mr Modi, where he said that engagement with Mr Modi would happen if it was in their national self-interest, which would primarily mean business interest.

But when asked to name big investors that have set up shop after 10 years of hardsell, he says it's 'not about the big ticket but what's happening on the ground with smaller players across different sectors'.

With victory in sight, any exercise to  point out loopholes in Mr Modi's claims might be academic. But is using a political PR blitz to paper over a controversial past and win elections good for the health of Indian democracy?

(With inputs from Niha Masih)
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