It is difficult to understand the avalanche of criticism from usual quarters around Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘apolitical’ interview by Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar. The Congress called a news conference to react to it. Its president Rahul Gandhi posted a ‘shayari’ on Twitter, taking a dig at Modi. His sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, referred to the prime minister as ‘chief publicity minister’. Liberals saw red, so did a section of the media. What exactly is the issue?

One reason for Congress’ ire is that it has been outsmarted by the BJP. It was evident that the so-called ‘apolitical’ interview was an innovative PR strategy designed to raise the prime minister’s profile. In a presidential mode of election — which is what the Lok Sabha polls have become since both the BJP and the Opposition have conspired to turn it into a mandate on Modi — the personality of the candidate is as important as the issues on campaign menu.

One of the reasons why the Congress wanted to have Narendra Modi’s biopic banned on celluloid or other streaming platforms is that it enlarges the prime minister’s larger-than-life persona. The biopic has Modi as the subject. He is reportedly shown to be heroic in adversity, steadfast in will, in love with his country and its people and standing against forces of division. Though it is a work of fiction, the Election Commission (EC), in delaying its release, felt that it may affect voter sentiment when elections and campaigning are under way.

How does that work? The fear is that the character traits on reel might get attributed to the person in question for real, and Modi’s popular appeal might exponentially increase just when people are standing in line to cast their ballot. That, at least, is the fear that led to the movie makers being asked to delay the biopic’s release. The EC has taken a similar decision with the Mamata Banerjee biopic.

EC’s act to delay the release of these movies ostensibly because they violate the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) might be interpreted as a challenge to the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Indian Constitution, but the powers vested with the EC enable it to take such actions and its move enjoys a degree of latitude. The Congress was doubtlessly happy with the development.

This is where the “interview” of Modi conducted by a celluloid superstar was such a PR masterstroke. The MCC guidelines prevented the Modi biopic from being released on time, but what if the same messaging is done by changing the medium, made even sharper and released in such a way to ensure even greater coverage?

Buying a movie ticket for the Modi biopic is an exercise of personal choice. The movie may be a hagiography, but its makers can’t force patrons to watch it if they don’t wish to. What if the platform is changed from silver screen or streaming device to another format where it will ensure voluntary telecast and grab millions of eyeballs?

One must applaud the way the BJP executed the idea and took communication to the next level. The platform was carefully chosen. The journalistic format of an “interview” easily avoids the complications related to MCC and hence is expected to remain outside the purview of the EC. The stress on the word “apolitical” is deliberate. It simultaneously created a new genre, appealed to a cross-section of the public who might be suffering from election fatigue and ensured blanket coverage on electronic and digital media followed by headlines in print.

The “message” was driven home so effectively also because it was done in a non-obvious way — unlike the biopic. What was the message? The effort of the so-called interview was to cast an inward light on Modi’s personality, character traits and personal journey to make the prime minister appear more human — a more rounded and three-dimensional figure far removed from the political caricature that abounds.

Questions that were centred around his personal life, likes and dislikes, relationship with family, how he controls his anger or when does he drink his cup of tea, how much sleep does the prime minister get, what equation does he share with his mother, whether he likes to watch movies, which rival politician sends him kurta and sweets — at one level might draw the “apolitical” viewer who is interested in knowing about the prime minister’s life and at another level portrays Modi as a semi-ascetic, a workaholic, a management guru and a down-to-earth leader whose heart beats for the common people.

This is not “apolitical” but political messaging at its very best, leaving the Opposition scratching its head over a response. The move to make Bollywood hero Akshay Kumar — a superstar in his own right — the “interviewer” was a touch of genius because Kumar’s association increased the reach and appeal of the interview and consequently, Modi was able to send his message across to a section that may reflexively remain disinterested in politics.

And the EC could do nothing about it. It is understandable that the Congress is incensed because it really has no answer to BJP’s communication coup and by reacting with ire at the interview, it walked into the trap set by the BJP. It ensured even greater stay for the headlines for the interview and made Congress appear as a sore loser.

The reaction of the Modi baiters in media, “liberals” and compulsory contrarians is on predictable lines. It is not clear what they are objecting to — the BJP’s right to exercise a PR campaign around its most-valued star? That’s what all other parties are doing too. The Congress has made multiple campaign videos which are being aired on TV, appearing in print and every other conceivable medium. If that is a legitimate way to reach out to the voters, so is BJP’s PR exercise to impress voters.

The ire of the Opposition parties and Modi baiters is the reaction of defeatists who know that they have been outsmarted. For the Opposition, there is much to learn from the way BJP is using new-age media to mould its campaign outreach. It was ahead of its peers in using social media in 2014, and five years later, it again showed that it remains the master of the communication game.


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