In the time of Covid, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s main pitch to the people has been about the economy: Atmanirbhar Bharat, or self-reliant India, has been his slogan for nearly a year now.
Some view this slogan as hollow economic nationalism; others fear or support import substitution and protectionism, hoping the government’s policy measures will mean a boost for manufacturing. As the coronavirus disrupted supply chains and the world’s factory, China, took to military aggression against India, perhaps ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ was the only choice for us.
It is the political success of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ that has not been commented on. Many wonder why Narendra Modi remains popular despite an economic recession, coming as it does as a high-point of non-stop economic decline since the 2016 demonetisation. The answer you’ll usually get is Hindutva, propaganda, media control, weak opposition, and so on. Yet a big part of the answer is also a political campaign undertaken by Narendra Modi and the BJP, namely ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’.
As Covid and the lockdown wrecked the economy, the obvious question the voter would ask is, what is Modi doing about the economy? Where’s the money? How do we buy roti? When are we getting our jobs and growth back? The media and the masses were still struggling to understand Covid when Modi did a pre-emptive ‘surgical strike’ on the economy question with ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’.
In the latest India Today ‘Mood of the Nation’ survey, 46 per cent of respondents said ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ was a “very good initiative”. That’s roughly equal to the vote-share (44 per cent) of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
With ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’, Narendra Modi used his strongest political asset, nationalism, to give an answer to his biggest weak point, the economy. It is surprising that he took a while getting to the point of outright nationalism on economics given that the world has been swept by this current since at least 2016, when Donald Trump disrupted the globalisation consensus.
Vision Se Vision Tak
Whether or not it is a clever slogan, whether or not it will yield any economic dividend, the success of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ has to be understood in terms of a ‘drug’ addiction called Vision. A form of supplying hope, Vision is the opium of the masses. Keep giving people a Vision and they’ll think you’re taking them to some place better. The train is moving. The journey may be long and arduous. Delhi is still far. But we’ll get there.
Narendra Modi’s political journey could be described as ‘Vision Se Vision Tak’, from one vision to another. He began by promising ‘Achhe Din’ or the good days. After the failure of demonetisation, he moved on to ‘New India 2022’. A lot of other slogans in between, on This India or That India, were duly discarded.
In regular surveys like the ‘Mood of the Nation’, Modi’s lowest ratings are seen around January 2019. This was when farm distress had just taken away the BJP’s bastions of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. No, it wasn’t just Balakot but a number of defensive measures such as putting cash into the bank accounts of farmers that helped Modi reach a high point in the Lok Sabha election that followed.
Immediately thereafter, he pre-emptively began to make people forget his 2022 promises by coining a new slogan, $5-Trillion Economy by 2024. (Not very atmanirbhar to define India in US dollar terms, from the vantage point of 2021.)
Five Trillion was never going to be possible, thankfully Covid gave us the excuse to forget all about it. That’s when we got ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’.
You can mock all you want at this vision-peddling, but it works wonderfully in politics. There was once a man who was so good at selling Vision that he is remembered and looked up to in popular culture even today, many years after his death: A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.
Vision board your life
Talk show host Oprah Winfrey has been selling the idea of a “vision board” to Americans for many years now. She wants everyone to “vision board” their lives. Write on a board the things you want to accomplish this year. The idea is that writing your vision will help you visualise it and make it feel real.
Campaigning for Barack Obama in 2008, his wife Michelle tried to make voters actually believe an upstart Black Senator could be President. She said at a rally, “I want you to leave here and envision Barack Obama taking the oath of office.” Oprah Winfrey, who was present at this rally, came home and pinned two pictures on a board: one of Barack Obama, and one of a gown she thought she’d wear at Obama’s inauguration.
The implication of the power of vision and visualisation is obvious for the opposition. If the opposition has to succeed against the BJP, it must give voters an alternative vision, a better one, but also be able to visualise that vision and have a succinct slogan. When Indira Gandhi said ‘Garibi Hatao’, she was selling a Vision. In 2004, the Congress party asked voters, “Aam Aadmi ko kya mila?” Or “What did the common man get?” That clearly articulated an alternate economic vision to ‘India Shining’.
Any alternate economic vision by the opposition today will have to be about naukri (jobs), rozgar (income), and unemployment. In survey after survey since demonetisation, it has emerged as the top concern in the Modi era. We saw recently how Tejashwi Yadav managed to create some hype in the Bihar assembly election simply by promising 10 lakh jobs.
Rahul Gandhi’s 2019 slogan “Chowkidar Chor Hai” was no Vision, apart from targeting the wrong issue (corruption). But he and his party did give a visionary slogan: “Ab Hoga NYAY”, promising a minimum basic income support scheme. They launched the slogan just before the election. They should learn from that failure and understand that one must have a slogan for every year, every season, and not just one month before the general election.
This seems so obvious, and yet the opposition is unable to do it. Or maybe they do talk about it all day and we don’t get to hear it. They need to speak in slogans, create a vision board. If they don’t like the thought of learning political communication from Narendra Modi, they could look at Oprah Winfrey and the Obamas, perhaps?
The author is a contributing editor. Views are personal.