It’s been just over a month since the first votes were cast in the largest democratic exercise on the planet: India’s general election. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants a second term, and his party, the BJP, seems destined for victory.
Over the past financial year, the BJP’s publicity budget has been 20 times that of the main opposition party, the Congress. That’s a lot of extra billboards, rallies and social media ads – spent to brand Modi as the leader Indians need, the antithesis to what the BJP calls the country’s weak, anti-national and anti-Hindu opposition.
Throw in a few dozen celebrity endorsements, Bollywood style, a mainstream news media whose support the BJP mostly gets for free – and it adds up to an election that looks like Narendra Modi has well in his grasp.
“Now India has a parliamentary election, but since Mr. Modi has arrived on the scene, our national election has repeatedly been described as ‘presidential style’,” says Raghu Karnad, contributing editor, The Wire.
The kind of visibility and name recognition Narendra Modi benefits from does not all come for free. For the financial year 2017-18, the BJP spent the equivalent of more than $80m in election publicity. More than all the other parties combined. And that was before the campaign had formally begun.
For one period earlier this year, the party spent $100k on Google advertising alone, and that’s 10 times more than its Congress party challengers. Modi’s BJP is also India’s biggest Facebook advertiser. Those are among the places the BJP’s money is going to. Then comes the issue of where that money is coming from.
According to Supriya Sharma, executive editor, Scroll.in, “The BJP has found a way to cloak these funds that it receives in absolute secrecy. It has introduced a new system of electoral bonds which allows for completely anonymous donations. We don’t even have a way of tracking who exactly is giving this money to the BJP and why? What are they getting in return?”
News outlets are also acutely aware that the BJP-led government is the country’s biggest media advertiser. And the party wields that money tactically. The other medium Modi’s BJP has mastered is film, through the prime minister’s courtship of Bollywood A-listers, tweeting at them, taking selfies with them – even being interviewed by them.
On April 24th, two weeks after voting had begun, Modi had a series of softball questions lobbed his way by Bollywood actor, Akshay Kumar who was playing the role of an interviewer.
“When you sit through the interview you realize that Narendra Modi loves mangoes,” explains Joyojeet Pal, associate professor, University of Michigan School of Information. “He was a poor person – he made it a point to point that out and it highlights how he is a self-made man and this is really important because the son he is standing against, Rahul Gandhi, is the son of a prime minister, he is the grandson of a prime minister who is the great grandson of a prime minister and Narendra Modi comes across in this interview as everything that the common average Indian is or aspires to be.”
Raghu Karnad – Contributing editor, The Wire
Joyojeet Pal – Associate professor, University of Michigan School of Information
Supriya Sharma – Executive editor, Scroll.in
Parth MN – Journalist
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