Chai pe charcha, charche twitter pe

Narendra modi made unprecedented use of PR machinery to reach out to the last man. And newspapers and channels played willing mediums. India legal’s managing editor Ramesh Menon’s book details his strategy threadbare.


The power of Modi’s marketing was not restricted to the aspirational, modern, urban elite but stretched far and wide. During the All India Congress Committee session in New Delhi on 17 January, party leader Mani Shankar Aiyar derogatorily commented that Modi could never become India’s prime minister but the party could make place for a tea stall for him at the meeting venue, taking a dig at Modi’s humble origins. In response, the BJP decided to hold informal meetings at tea shops and call them “Chai Pe Charcha”. It focused on politically crucial states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to highlight their backward-class PM candidate who once sold tea with his father. As results showed, the backward classes were emotionally drawn to Modi. The “Chai Pe Charcha” events in 4,000 locations were estimated to have reached 50 lakh people, who drank tea from paper cups that had Modi’s photo on them, listening to political discussions that showcased the BJP as an alternative.



The party’s research team found that there were about 19,000 villages in Uttar Pradesh and 11,000 in Bihar with a population of 2,000 or more and they had absolutely no media penetration of any kind, not even radio sets. These remote villages were not being targeted by any political party. For the first time since Independence, the BJP reached out to them with 650 GPS-enabled video vans that would showcase Modi and his work in Gujarat and what the BJP wanted to do if it came to power. Such video vans made 1,38,900 trips into the interiors of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

The research team also found that in many places, when asked if they would vote for the BJP, people’s answer was “No”. But when the same people were asked if they would vote for Modi if he were the candidate, the answer was invariably “Yes”. So they tweaked the campaign to make voters feel they were voting for Modi if they voted for the BJP. A new slogan was coined: “Kamal ka button dabao, Modi ko pradhan mantri banao (A vote for the lotus [the BJP’s election symbol] is a vote to make Modi the prime minister)”. The basic theme of the campaign was that every BJP candidate was fighting the election to ensure a Modi victory. The leader himself often asked people for votes in his name and not that of the local candidate he shared the dais with.

The BJP also reached out to far-flung areas using Doordarshan, All India Radio and regional media in dialects like Mythili and Bhojpuri, something the ruling Congress could have easily done but did not. It also heavily advertised in Urdu newspapers in an effort to reach out to Muslims, who were apprehensive of the rise of the BJP. It conducted customized campaigns in areas dominated by Muslims, asking them to get over their fear psychosis and elect a government that could give the community jobs, development and a better quality of life. In Kashmir, its slogan “Jannat yahan par vikas kahan? (Paradise is here but where is development?)” made an impact as BJP leaders kept asking why such a beautiful state had made no headway since independence.

At every political gathering, no matter which corner of the country it was in, Modi customized his speech to make it relevant. He sized up the audience and spoke extempore, getting immediate attention as he talked of local issues. In Chennai, Tamil Nadu, he spoke of the need for Sri Lankan Tamils to be given rights, safety and respect. In Arrah, Bihar, he said that the absence of electricity was not news but the presence of it was. In Mysore, Karnataka, he said he could make the city a tourist’s paradise like Gujarat. In Barmer, Rajasthan, he said he wanted to create a separate body to look after desert regions. In Dehradun, Uttarakhand, he asked why men from Garhwal and Kumaon regions should only be soldiers as good schools and universities could make officers out of them. In Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, he said the Ganga needed to be cleaned as the river had turned toxic in many places. Everywhere, he was lustily cheered by crowds as he managed to strike a chord.


[caption id="attachment_3778" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]MIRZAPUR, MAY 9 (UNI):- BJP Supporters wear the mask of Narendra Modi during his an election campaign rally in Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh on Friday . UNI PHOTO-89U MIRZAPUR, MAY 9 (UNI):- BJP Supporters wear the mask of Narendra Modi during his an election campaign rally in Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh on Friday . UNI PHOTO-89U[/caption]


As he crisscrossed India, Modi rejuvenated the party that had got demoralized over the ten years it had spent out of power. He instilled a sense of direction into leaders and workers as he sold the dream of a better future. His energy and aggressiveness made him look like a decisive leader in a hurry, catching the imagination of an impatient electorate. “It is amazing how much energy he has,” says Ajay Singh, who was part of the BJP war room, adding that Modi slept for hardly four hours a day. “We worked 24x7 since January, often going to bed in the early hours of the morning, but it was such fun,” says Ajay Jasra, a corporate communication specialist in the BJP war room. Modi was turned into a brand and deliberately advertised as one. The multiple campaigns surrounding him were high-decibel, relentless and expensive and outshone the Congress’s, which seemed tired in comparison. Ajay Maken, who was in charge of the Congress campaign, admitted to the media that the BJP had outdone his party, while Jairam Ramesh, a former minister, said that the BJP had spent Rs. 5,000 crore on showcasing Modi... Ajay Singh points out, “Tactically, we kept money aside for the last two weeks to create a shock-and-awe  campaign as we saw that the Congress had given up. We unleashed a campaign in Modi’s voice, which said, ‘Aapka diya gaya vote seedhe mujhe milega (Every vote you cast will directly come to me),’ to create a feeling that Modi was contesting all the BJP seats...”

A media hungry for TRPs and eyeballs latched onto the Modi campaign, further advancing his cause. The Hindu’s rural affairs editor P Sainath observed: “That building of a cult around Narendra Modi was a propaganda triumph. But it worked because we are India’s most media-saturated electorate ever... Never before have the media participated in an Indian election to the extent and in the manner they did this time. For weeks, any speech by Modi in any distant district ran live on several channels.”

He added that some major corporate houses with big media holdings formed “cells” to help advance the Modi campaign. A study by the CMS Media Lab, part of the Centre for Media Studies, New Delhi, found that he hogged over a third of prime time news telecast on five major channels. And that was between 1 March and 30 April. From 1 to 11 May, Modi’s time crossed the 50 percent mark—over six times what Rahul Gandhi got and ten times the share of Kejriwal. Moreover, quite a bit of Kejriwal’s coverage was negative, which was not the case with Modi.

With a strong momentum in his favour, Modi gave his campaign a final push in the last lap of the election by taking the fight to the enemy camp and holding a rally in Amethi, the constituency of his principal opponent Rahul Gandhi, in support of BJP candidate Smriti Irani. “This is my younger sister Smriti Irani. I chose her for Amethi, but not to create fresh problems for the mother and son (Sonia Gandhi and Rahul),” he said on his rival’s turf. He went on to describe Amethi as one of India’s most backward districts because of “forty wasted years” and “three wasted generations”. The rally Gandhi held in Modi’s constituency of Varanasi just days later seemed like an inadequate response and only reinforced the impression that the Congress vice-president had been on the defensive throughout the election. His sister Priyanka entered the fray to bat for him but it was too late in the day, and her invocation of her martyred father betrayed the feeling that the Congress was running out of options and resorting to old emotive appeals.

As the bitterly fought election drew to a close, Modi was all over. Commenting on the unprecedented scale of Modi’s outreach, Kunal Pradhan and Uday Mahurkar of India Today wrote in an article titled Maximum Campaign: “Wherever you are in India, whatever your politics, and whomever you did or didn’t vote for, the spectre of Modi hangs over the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. So relentless has been his campaign, so dramatic his delivery, and so ubiquitous his development message, that he has converted a complex parliamentary system into a presidential-style referendum on himself. Over the last nine months, Modi has travelled 3,00,000 km, or seven times the Earth’s equatorial circumference. He has attended 5,187 events, addressed 477 rallies in twenty-five states while sleeping barely five hours a night, and harnessed the Internet and mobile telephony to connect with an estimated 230 million people, or one in every four voters. That’s more people than the population of Brazil and three times the combined annual traffic of the Delhi and Mumbai airports.” Long before the results of the election were out, the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

But when the results were finally out, the outcome surpassed everyone’s expectations. On the morning of 16 May 2014, all doubts about a hung parliament were laid to rest as the BJP seemed set to win a clear majority. In the event, the party bagged 282 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha, ten more than needed to form a government on its own. It was the first time since 1984 that a single party had managed to win a simple majo-rity... The Congress was reduced to its worst ever tally of forty-four. No party secured the minimum of fifty-five seats needed for its leader to be officially recognized as the leader of the Opposition. Modi himself handsomely won both the seats he contested—Vadodara by a margin of 5,70,128 votes and Varanasi by 3,36,854 votes. In Amethi, Gandhi managed to win, but only by 1,07,903 votes, down from a margin of 3.70 lakh in 2009.

Cartographers painted India’s map saffron as the BJP won all seats in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Delhi. In Madhya Pradesh, it won twenty-seven of the twenty-nine seats, while in Chhattisgarh it won ten of eleven. With alliance partners, it won a whopping seventy-three of the eighty seats in Uttar Pradesh, forty-two of the forty-eight in Maharashtra and thirty-one of forty in Bihar. The Congress, on the other hand, could in no state cross the double-digit mark. In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP’s performance was stellar as two of the seven seats it ceded went to Sonia and Rahul Gandhi and the winners in the other five were all family members of Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose Samajwadi Party was in power in the state. Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, founded on caste lines with the backward classes as its backbone, was washed out without a single seat...

The only states without any BJP presence were Kerala, Sikkim, Manipur and Mizoram, while the only regional leaders who survived Modi’s onslaught were Jayalalithaa, whose party won thirty-seven of thirty-nine seats in Tamil Nadu; Mamata Banerjee, whose Trina-mool Congress got thirty-four of forty-two seats in West Bengal and Naveen Patnaik, whose Biju Janata Dal secured twenty of the twenty-one seats in Odisha. They had all been hostile to Modi in the run-up to the polls, ostensibly in the hope that they would be able to play kingmaker in the event of no alliance emerging victorious, but Modi no more had need for their handsome tallies.

But, for its euphoric win, the BJP had the first-past-the-post system of elections to thank, pointed Sainath. Its vote share had been 31 per cent, the lowest for a majority government at the Centre. The difference between the vote shares of the Congress and the BJP was just of twelve percentage points but it translated into a 500 per cent difference in seats.

In Tamil Nadu, the DMK got 23.6 per cent of the votes but bagged zero seats. The BJP-led five-party alliance got 18.6 per cent but won two seats. In West Bengal, the Left Front got nearly 30 per cent of the votes and just two seats. The Congress got less than 10 per cent but took four. The Trinamool Congress got 40 per cent of the votes but 80 per cent of the seats.

On 16 May 2014, India’s electoral arithmetic showed that a prime minister, who had been in the making for years, decades perhaps, had finally arrived to take charge with a firm mandate. But the quirks of that arithmetic also revealed that he had arrived with a burden of dissension, fears and anxieties which may never cease bearing down on him from time to time.[metaslider id=3782]

Truth and Fiction

The line between the credible and the  incredible is thin and on one too many  occasions Modi found himself overstretched. Interestingly, ‘crisis perception management’ was one of the key duties of Modi’s PR agents. In a feature article in Open magazine in July 2013, journalist Jatin Gandhi wrote that the Gujarat government was then in the process of finalizing a new contract with a PR agency, as the current one, held by Delhi-based Mutual PR, was to expire in a few months. 

The government’s international contract, held worldwide by Apco, ended in March 2013. Gandhi accessed the “Request for Proposal” document. The devil, he noted, was concealed in the detail of objectives such as: ‘Crisis perception management and informing the Commissionerate of Information about impending stories about Gujarat State / leadership’.“The ‘leadership’ clearly refers to Modi,” Gandhi wrote.“‘Crisis perception management’ essentially kicks in at times when Modi goofs up.” But the  goof-ups are often too difficult to be explained away by smart PR lexicon. Like his remark in an interview to Reuters, comparing Muslim victims of the 2002 riots to a puppy dying under his car’s wheel. Or the one made to the Wall Street Journal in June 2012 that malnutrition among children under five was explained by middle class girls in Gujarat being “more figure conscious than health conscious”.


In March 2013, the National Indian American Public Policy Institute based in Chicago arranged a trip of three US Congress members, Aaron Schock, Cynthia Lummis and Cathy Rodgers, to Gujarat. But Modi’s PR factory made it seem to the media like the Obama administration had sent them. The national media soon smelt a rat, investigated and found that it was a purely private visit and did not have the concurrence of the US government in any way. Incidentally, it was this very institute which worked with a group called Overseas Friends of BJP to get Modi an invite from the Wharton School in the US to address its students that same month. But the invite was suddenly withdrawn as the institute thought it best not to get into any controversy since the US had denied a visa to the leader for more than a decade in sight of the post-Godhra riots.


Arguably the biggest faux pas involving Modi took place in June 2013, with a story in The Times of India claiming that he had rescued 15,000 Gujaratis from the killer floods in Uttarakhand—using eighty Toyota Innovas, four Boeings and twenty-five luxury buses—even though the army wasn’t able to rescue more than a few hundred. This incident in particular proved to be great fodder for the Congress, which derisively gave him nicknames such as Rambo and feku (liar).


Then there were his series of gaffes in which he jumbled up historical facts, at times those pertaining to his own party’s ancestry. Describing Syama Prasad Mookerjee as a “proud son of Gujarat” at an event in November 2013, he credited him with setting up the radical “India House in London under the very noses of the English.” “He was considered the guru of Indian revolutionaries,” he said. “He died in 1930, but before he did so, he expressed the wish that his ashes be kept carefully so they could be returned to a free India.”


Mookerjee, however, was born in Kolkata, not Gujarat; died in 1953, not 1930; passed away in India; and was cremated in West Bengal. Modi’s reference was in fact to Shyamaji Krishna Verma, a Sanskrit scholar and nationalist born in Gujarat’s Mandvi city on 4 October 1857.

Mookerjee served as minister for industry and supply in Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet. He quit the Congress and founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh—the BJP’s ancestor—in 1951. He was jailed in 1953 while protesting against restrictions on the entry of Indian nationals into Jammu and Kashmir and died in prison. Moreover, this foot-in-mouth incident happened just days after Modi had said the ancient university of Takshashila was in Bihar whereas it was in what is now Pakistan.


As Modi made tall claims, the Congress war room realized the need to puncture them with solid research. At 9 Pandit Pant Marg in central Delhi, the residence of Deepender Singh Hooda—who was  a Congress MP from Rohtak in Haryana in the Lok Sabha that concluded in 2014 and headed the party’s social media initiative—researchers constantly went through reams of information to counter his claims. Hooda led the counter-Modi strategy on social media and also gave inputs to leaders...

Sandeep Dikshit, then the Congress MP from East Delhi, doubled up as the party spokesperson and the head of its research team. At his Pandara Park residence in central Delhi, a team of five meticulously documented every figure and piece of economic data used by Modi and ran fact checks. If they were wrong, they were shared with the teams of Hooda and Ajay Maken, Congress MP from the New Delhi constituency and head of the party’s communication cell. The facts were passed on to those appearing on TV debates and released on social media.

Book Cover..

  Ramesh Menon 




MODI DEMYSTIFIED    The Making of a  Prime Minister

   By Ramesh Menon HarperCollins Publishers India

   Pages: 263 Price: Rs. 499



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