Master of messaging, Modi could be the greatest Indian adman

No situation can seem beyond solution when Modi takes the microphone. With bluster, bravado and ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’, Modi can take you to the sunlit uplands like no other politician 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a master of metaphor among modern politicians. His nose for consumer insights and the ability to tailor messaging around divined sentiments are unmatched. But for the warm embrace of politics, and had he been so inclined, Modi would have been a formidable rival to Piyush Pandey, the greatest Indian adman. One of the key purposes of advertising is the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses. The suds do clean but can’t turn an old shirt into lily white, off-the-shelf new. You kind of know it, but the power of advertising lies in washing the skepticism away.

Modi’s politics isn’t dissimilar. When Modi takes the microphone, no situation can seem beyond solution. With bluster, bravado and Bharat Mata Ki Jai, Modi can take you to the sunlit uplands like no other politician. No jobs? No problem – who needs jobs anyway when we can all turn entrepreneurs. Sputtering economic growth? Nah, that’s a technical glitch you needn’t worry about. Why demonetization? For national security. Err, we were also thinking of banishing black money. No, digitisation, actually.
In the Budget 2018 speech we finally learnt that it was in fact a “festival of honesty”.

No matter how big the problem, you shall be rocked in the cradle of a Modi special. Since this was the last Budget of this government’s term, the cradle swung gently for 110 long minutes. I could even hear the playlist of my mind turn on ‘Row, row, row your boat. Gently down the stream...’ on a loop.

India’s annual Budget making exercise is the weather vane of a government’s socio-political priorities. The priority now is to win the elections in 2019. At all costs.

Sops for electoral stress

What the monetary costs are, the Budget doesn’t tell us very clearly. But it signals some big ticket sops for farmers (to arrest the incessant chatter about rural distress turning into electoral distress), large proposed spends in the agriculture sector, and Modicare, an ambitious health insurance scheme for 10 crore poor households.

It is not difficult to decipher why the big focus on agriculture. The recent discourse over Indian agriculture has been gripped by pessimism. Agriculture and rural distress are terms that figure often despite India being a world leader in the production of several agricultural commodities such as rice, cotton, fruits and vegetables and dairy products. The government’s own stated mission is to double farm income by 2022. Despite the noise, that target seems elusive. The FM recognized the fact that India’s agriculture policy had remained fairly production-centric in the Budget speech. “Agriculture has to be an enterprise,” he said. It is indeed critical to make agriculture a throbbing enterprise that powers the economy.

Since farm loan waiver was a trick already employed by the Congress, it was unlikely to be on the table. An alternative quick fix seems to be the decision to hike minimum support price (MSP) by 1.5 times the production cost. How it plays out in the fields and farms will be interesting to watch. Ashok Gulati, a leading agriculture economist who has been a member of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) that recommends MSP, seems flummoxed. “The biggest announcement for the farm sector is that they have promised 50% higher MSP than cost. They have not clarified which cost they are talking about. Is it the comprehensive cost (including rent and interest on owned land and capital), which is called C2? Or is it A2, which is the paid out cost? If it is A2, already MSPs are 50% higher than cost. If it is C2, then it will require a 50% hike in MSP, for instance, in paddy. That would cause huge distortion,” he told the website, QZ.com.

Beyond the big headline numbers, such details matter because a sudden spike in MSPs for some commodities could determine crop patterns. It has a bearing on the crop diversification that the government wants to encourage to counter sudden food price shocks. For instance, the 1.5 times increase for rice and wheat could discourage farmers away from vegetables. Also, higher MSPs would surely drive inflation up, which in turn would have a bearing on interest rates.

India’s annual Budget making exercise is the weather vane of a government’s socio-political priorities. The priority now is to win the elections in 2019. At all costs.

The second major headline grabbing announcement was the Ayushman Bharat programme. It adds the muscle of high ambition, and a paltry Rs 2000 crore in funding to the existing National Healthcare Protection Scheme (NHPS) announced in 2017. Hailed as the “world’s largest government-funded health care programme”, it would provide a hospitalisation cover of Rs 500,000 a year for 10 crore poor families, or roughly the population US and Mexico put together.

In 2010 when US president Barack Obama signed on a landmark healthcare reform legislation popularly known as ‘Obamacare’, vice president Joe Biden whispered into his ears the colourful, congratulatory Anglo-Saxon phrase that it was a “big f*&#ing deal”. We may never find out what BJP president Amit Shah or the FM told the PM when ‘Modicare’ was firmed up. But listening to BJP leaders gush, it is likely a big deal indeed for the party, if not an electoral insurance policy in itself. Even with much higher allocations, the scheme would take several years if not up to the election year of 2024 given the low proportion of hospitals compared to the vast numbers it seeks to cover.

But all that is a matter of trifling detail. What matters is that the people of India must be kept rocking in the cradle of Modi specials. The FM recognizes that. “Our leadership is familiar with the problems being faced by the SC, ST, Backward Classes and economically weaker sections of the society. People belonging to poor and middle class are not case studies for them [BJP leadership: Read Modi], on the other hand they themselves are case study,” he declared, as the camera helpfully focussed on Modi’s stoic face.

Modi may not be India and India may not be Modi, yet. But Modi knows best. Rock on.

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