It was more crucial than Chai Pe Charcha or 3D hologram rallies.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the world’s tallest statue in Gujarat today, it’s deja vu, reminding us of the Modi campaign in 2013-14.
The laying of the foundation stone for the world’s tallest statue on 31 October 2013 seemed like a simple idea. Narendra Modi is not the first BJP-RSS figure to appropriate Sardar Patel, a Congress leader. He isn’t the first politician building a statue. The only new bit in Modi’s announcement was that it was going to be the world’s tallest statue, in keeping with Modi’s attempt to create a larger than life persona of himself, the superman who can make India zoom ahead of the rest of the world.
Yet, there was a lot more to it. ‘Statue of Unity’ was arguably the most critical campaign in making Narendra Modi the Prime Minister of India in 2014.
How India became Gujarat
Sitting in Delhi, commentators said Modi won’t become Prime Minister because India wasn’t Gujarat. They were right. While Modi had a pan-India appeal, he was still a Gujarat leader, not a national leader. He was officially declared the prime ministerial candidate only in September 2013, and in a matter of months went on to become the first Prime Minister with a single-party majority in 30 years.
The ‘Loha campaign’ is how India Modi-fied into Gujarat.
Conceptualised by Modi’s then-campaign strategist Prashant Kishor, and overseen by his Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG), the campaign’s main objective was to make Narendra Modi a household name in rural India.
Internal surveys had shown that awareness about brand Modi in rural India was relatively less than in urban India. Many had heard of him but couldn’t recognise his photograph, a problem in mounting a presidential campaign. Rural India also had to be made aware of the ‘Gujarat model’ of governance – thinking big, executing and delivering, making things happen, and the use of technology. The idea that Modi was an exceptional leader had to be implanted in their heads.
“It was the starter before the meal. It was the base on which the larger Modi campaign came about later,” says a member of the Indian Political Action Committee, who was with the CAG then and oversaw the campaign’s execution in Uttar Pradesh. The hype around Modi that was later created with ‘Chai Pe Charcha’ or 3D hologram rallies found resonance because the Loha campaign had already created awareness about Modi in remote corners of the country.
Statue wahin banayenge
In conceptualising the campaign, Kishor was inspired by the Ram Janmabhoomi movement of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, which catapulted the BJP on to the national stage. Growing up in Bihar, Kishor had seen how the movement for a Ram temple in Ayodhya involved taking a brick, inscribing “Shri Ram” on it, worshipping it, making it sacred, and taking it around the village in a procession. That is partly how a groundswell was created around the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.
Kishor adapted this idea to create a groundswell for Modi, except this time it was not a communal campaign. Bar-coded boxes were sent to most of India’s 2.5 lakh gram panchayats. BJP workers and local leaders would arrange in advance a day for the programme to take place between 15 December 2013 and mid-February 2014.
Anywhere between 50 and 200 people would gather around in the village and were explained the concept. ‘The Gujarat government was making the world’s tallest statue, and was giving the honour to Sardar Patel, the man who united India, thanks to whom you don’t need a visa to go to Hyderabad…’ The village sarpanch or any elderly person in the village was asked to donate a piece of iron farming instrument used by them. Mostly, they gave away their sickles and spades. They were told this iron would be melded into the statue.
Apart from this, they were given a plastic bottle to put some soil in it. The sarpanch was asked to send in their photograph to an address, though they often put the photo in the box. This photo would be displayed in the museum around the statue, they were told, and the soil would come together into a ‘Wall of Unity’. Generations to come will see your name and face, and remember that you contributed to this historical cause.
The whole act was carried out like a ritual. As BJP workers exchanged images of the event on WhatsApp, the ceremony evolved into something almost religious. People would spread out cow dung on the floor of the village square, then keep the box on it, decorate it with flowers and sometimes a tika, and worship the piece of iron before putting it in the box.
The sarpanch (or any village elder) was also asked to sign a cloth which carried the “Suraaj petition”; Suraaj means good governance. This petition asked Indians to follow the principles and ideals of Sardar Patel in delivering good governance. The cloth petitions, they were told, would be stitched into the world’s largest cloth, because Modi doesn’t think small.
A Modi campaign with no Modi in it
Ironically, there was very little of Modi in the whole exercise. Modi did send letters to 2 lakh sarpanchs, and the BJP workers would tell villagers that this was a project of the Gujarat government, which is led by Narendra Modi. That’s about all. In a 3-minute video ad for the Loha campaign, Modi is seen for just a few seconds.
The Suraaj petition was not addressed to Modi (or anyone in particular). The messaging was all about Sardar Patel. This was a deliberate strategy to make the whole exercise appear non-political. It didn’t involve the BJP asking for votes, although it was clear that the workers and activists were from the BJP.
These village events didn’t scream “Modi! Modi!” because the aim was to draw in people who weren’t necessarily inclined towards Modi, the BJP or the RSS. The Modi messaging was indirect. The exercise itself made people realise Modi was a man of big ideas, big vision, large-scale execution, and use of technology. Of particular curiosity, the BJP workers found, was the bar-code.
The BJP workers exploited the opportunity to tell the villagers the bar-code could inform the headquarters in Gandhinagar about the exact location of the box. That’s how the bosses in Gandhinagar check if the box actually arrived in the village. “People were taken in by the idea that the Gujarat government was making such clever use of technology, thus adding to the idea that the Gujarat model of governance was the most advanced one,” says a CAG professional who oversaw the project.
If the BJP workers had tried preaching the villagers that Modi is a great politician who can deliver good governance, it would have been like any such appeal. All politicians and parties say we are the best. The Loha campaign – and many other Modi campaigns – used indirect means of making people see Modi as a superman.
The campaign used behavioural psychology to make people buy into Brand Modi without explicitly saying so. That is how the Loha campaign became a “silent weapon”.
By making people donate their farming instrument and the village soil, it created an emotional connect. Using Sardar Patel’s agitation for farmers as the excuse, the Loha campaign was a way for Modi to reach out to farmers.
If you can make people give something to a cause, they feel invested in it. Behavioural economists call it “commitment device” or “pre-commitment”. Once you have worshipped a piece of iron and given it to a Modi-led cause, how will you not buy into the Modi myth? We see the same strategy at work in Modi’s call for micro-donations on the NaMo app.
CAG professionals who witnessed some of the village events found the audience overwhelmed mainly by the thought that they were going to be a part of history. The thought that anyone will be able to go to the museum next to the statue and see the name of their village and the sarpanch’s photo circa 2014 filled them with pride. Add to that a healthy sprinkling of nationalism.
How to win election without anyone knowing
Of India’s 2.5 lakh gram panchayats, the Loha campaign boxes came from 1.69 lakh. In many places the BJP didn’t have enough workers to carry it out, or the political environment was too hostile. In Mainpuri in west Uttar Pradesh, part of the Yadav belt, many sarpanchs just didn’t let the activity happen.
Yet, carrying out such an exercise in 1.69 lakh gram panchayats in a matter of eight weeks is a mammoth exercise. So huge was this exercise that the Gujarat government had created an altogether new organisation for it, the Sardar Vallabhai Patel Rashtriya Ekta Trust (SVPRET). Responsible for building the statue, this trust also funded the Loha campaign.
The Loha campaign has remained the most under-reported effort from Modi’s 2014 campaign because it wasn’t publicised much. This was due to various reasons. First, they wanted to avoid the potential controversy over the Gujarat government funding a campaign executed on the ground by the BJP workers. Second, Modi wanted to create a groundswell of support before he would begin creating a hype. And last, high-pitched publicity would have made it come across all the more as a BJP campaign, not a non-partisan one.
Proof of how important this campaign was for Modi’s success lies in how much time and effort he, the BJP and the CAG put into it. Modi flagged off 1,000 trucks for the ‘iron tool collection’ drive in Gujarat on 28 December 2013.
Before this, the BJP formed committees at the national, state and district levels to carry out the Loha campaign. All members from across India – 5,000 of them – were called to Gandhinagar and given presentations and training in executing the Loha campaign. The centralised nature of the campaign was not only to ensure consistency of branding and messaging, but also to make the BJP rank and file buy into the larger-than-life Modi image, and prepare them for a very different kind of election, one which was more about Modi than the BJP.
Modi’s own political action committee, CAG, spent many months planning and executing the campaign, coordinating between the SVPERT and the BJP, and overseeing its execution in all the states.
Uniting an already-united India
Unity, unity, unity. Modi made this word a major part of his campaign. By collecting iron from villages across India, Modi said he was uniting India. But Sardar Patel had already done so. What did Modi mean when he kept using the word unity?
Apart from “Statue of Unity”, there was “Run for Unity,” a national running event that broke two Guinness records: one for the largest number of people who ran on a single day (55 lakh) and the largest number of parallels (700). Then, there was “Write for Unity,” an essay contest where students across India were asked to write about Sardar Patel.
This emphasis on national ‘unity’ was Modi’s way of branching himself out from being a regional satrap in Gujarat to a national leader. It is difficult to remember a time when Modi was just the leader of Gujarat, but these are the ways he quickly made himself a national mass leader. The slogan “Ek Bharat, Shrestha Bharat” (one India, great India) has the same purpose. He also used the idea of unity to appropriate the Nehruvian ‘Unity in Diversity’ concept, thus suggesting he’s the paternalistic guardian uniting a diverse India.
With “Run for Unity”, Modi has successfully made 31 October more about Sardar Patel (“Rashtriya Ekta Divas” or national unity day) than about Indira Gandhi’s death anniversary.
Patel was called the iron man of India, a title later appropriated by L.K. Advani. Narendra Modi literally used iron to snatch the title for himself in 2014, boosting his “56-inch chest” image.
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