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27 March 2015updated 27 Sep 2015 5:29am

The Modi Effect: how India elected a hologram

A New Labour spin doctor's account of a record-breaking election campaign.

By Raghu Karnad

The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India
Lance Price
Hodder & Stoughton, 342pp, £20

In his new book, Lance Price wants to show us Narendra Modi in 3D. This is not to say that he captures every angle and aspect of the Indian prime minister, only that he gives an exceptional treatment of Modi’s career as a hologram. We look in on Modi in 2012, when he is preparing for his third and final election to govern the state of Gujarat. He has the brainwave of using German-developed hologram systems to make phantom campaign visits to remote districts; on one occassion, to 53 villages simultaneously. With that Modi got himself into the Guinness Book of Records.

Two years later, during his sensational campaign to form the national government, Modi’s hologram beat its previous best and addressed a total of 1,400 rallies, many of them in “dark villages” where no resident even owned a television. “Just think about it,” one organiser tells Price. “All of rural India is talking about this guy appearing in thin air.”

The hologram is a central device in The Modi Effect, and a good one through which to examine the most image-driven, youth-savvy, shared and re-tweeted election campaign in India’s history. Modi changed the narrative of Hindu chauvinism and violence in which both he and his Bharatiya Janata Party were implicated, and won a historic majority, the first for any single party besides the Indian National Congress.

Lance Price has a good claim to the story: as a journalist, he closely observed Tony Blair’s 1997 victory, and he went on to work as a spin doctor and deputy of Alastair Campbell from 1998 to 2001. Price was granted precious interviews with Modi, and his ministers and aides, eight weeks after the swearing in. Using their accounts, he takes the reader on a quick tour of Modi’s early life, dwells longer on his tenure as chief minister of Gujarat, and then sets out in detail the course of the 2014 national campaign.

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Much was unprecedented about this election even before the votes were counted, and the logistics of the campaign spectaculars seem to interest Price the most. We learn how, in the recording studio, attendants positioned a fan to ruffle Modi’s hair in order that some part of the hologram would always be in motion. From early on, Modi also commandeered social media, and many more simulacra sprung up online. I’ve personally never related to my PM as much as when I read of him saying, “It’s a mechanical process now for me to reach out for my iPad within the first four to five minutes after I wake.” By polling day, nearly one in six of all Indian Facebook users “liked” Modi’s page. Their digital reach enabled his team to spin each day’s developments, which impressed journalists and urban opinion-makers, even if it didn’t significantly sway the outcome. The same could be said of the holograms. Which brings us to the question of what then did sway it.

“No party leader in India had ever had such an array of organisations and structures in place ready to support their bid for power,” writes Price. He provides a rigorous taxonomy of the “ecosystem” of Modi’s campaign agents: besides the party rank and file, a vast network of right-wing Hindu activists and organisers, and others relatively new to the scene, such as celebrity sadhus, admen, corporate bosses and Indians overseas. Their contribution isn’t treated with the same care as the IT whizkids, so The Modi Effect elides some major forces behind “the Modi wave”, as well as the more enduring effects of their partisan involvement.

Price is too tactful to ask very much about the sources of the funds for the BJP’s extravagant campaign, despite saying it was “undoubtedly the most expensive in India’s history”. The “360-degree campaign” aimed to project Modi and Modi alone in every constituency, make him visible wherever one turned, to which end the management of media was critical. But Price’s focus on the formal apparatus means we miss entirely the shifting plates of media ownership and editorship brought about by the election. Having seen Labour’s parley with the Murdoch press before its win in 1997, Price must have known to dig deeper into the politics of media collaboration, which do not end with the endemic problem of “paid news”.

The Modi Effect lacks a note of scepticism that would be bracing in a book about, after all, images and persuasion. It is replete with detail on publicity and tech, but risks underestimating the grittier energies also channeled by Modi, and ends up attributing to his campaign an ethical hygiene it never had. This may be as much a question of politesse as of access; Price writes with the restraint of a guest. One gets the impression that he didn’t spend much time in India before the election, and eventually wrote his account at some remove. Without a first-hand feel of events, he can offer only perfunctory comparisons between the Modi and Blair campaigns. And as much as we hear from Modi himself, we’re not always sure if we’re being shown the hologram or the man behind it.

Raghu Karnad’s “Farthest Field: an Indian Story of the Second World War” will be published by William Collins in June

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