In what has now been dubbed the country’s first ‘social media election’, the world’s most populous democracy turned out in heavy numbers – a record sixty six percent, in fact – to vote Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party into power, with an overwhelming majority.
In an electorate of around 800 million, over 100 million of whom were casting a ballot for the first time, traditional election campaign strategies needed to be revamped in order to accommodate a public that was increasingly connected through the widespread prevalence of mobile phones. In his ‘victory statement’ uploaded on the last day of the marathon ten stage election, Modi admits the significant role played by social media in this election and its usefulness as a tool both to read the local pulse on important issues, as also to disseminate information.¹ Acknowledging that new technological and cultural changes produce new conditions, altering traditional forms of, and public engagement with, rhetoric, politics, and political expression, the BJP’s use of technology to build greater access to the Indian public presents an interesting case study.
As much as this election was about a change in governance and public disappointment with an existing state of corruption, administrative incompetence, economic and developmental stagnation, it must be acknowledged to also been uniquely a war of personalities. Traditionally, the nominating of a prime-ministerial candidate has been the prerogative of the elected members of parliament, post-elections. In a new model similar to the American presidential elections, the NDA alliance declared Modi as their candidate, thereby opening up the possibility for a unified national campaign that rested squarely on the representation of Narendra Modi as a capable, decisive, strong, relatable, grounded, approachable, charismatic and proactive leader. From holographic technology that was used to project Modi at various meetings, while he was physically present and speaking at other rallies, to the use of social media platforms such as Facebook, in which Modi is now the second most popular political figure after Obama, or Twitter with the #SelfieWithModi trending worldwide – these campaigns, though themselves articulated through the performance of technology, primarily served to reveal and produce the figure of Narendra Modi: the politician and the man.
The selfie or self-portrait, ubiquitous in common parlance and practice today, is an interesting entry point into looking both at the ‘celebrity-politico figure’² of Modi, and the ways in which the democratic potential of photography embraces the democratic space of the world wide web³ to produce a new visual culture of a participative public sphere. While on the one hand, Modi was represented as a larger than life political leader who would single handedly revolutionalise Indian politics, on the other he was being personalised – his impoverished background emphasised his image as that of an aspirational idol-ideal, deepening an interest in his personal life. This blurring of boundaries between public and private selves is a fundamental attribute of the manner in which celebrities are constructed⁴, and implicated directly in the taking/sharing of a selfie.
When Modi posted a photograph of his inked finger promptly after voting, a general outcry was raised regarding its potential violation of electoral laws.⁵ The selfie was however followed by Modi urging other voters to share their own photos by tweeting “Selfie is in! Share yours using #SelfieWithModi & see what happens,” producing a flood of images uploaded by friends, supporters, and fans, which were then used by the BJP to create a mosaic image. A composite of these multiple selfies (as if individual pixels) produce the figure of Narendra Modi in his site, enabled such that one may view each of the images comprising the whole. Aside from thereby cleverly producing a visual representation of the democratic process, this initiative also illustrates a new socio-political atmosphere where voting moves from being essentially an anonymous to a proudly declarative practice.
“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies.. . . turn experience itself into a way of seeing. . . . an event has come to mean, precisely, something worth photographing,” remarked Susan Sontag.⁶ Making a parallel argument, the craze witnessed for inked-finger selfies in these elections have been criticised for undermining the importance of civic duty by the precedence given to the display or spectacle, rather than performance of the act.⁷ However true this may arguably be, it is more useful to look at these photographs as self-conscious and self-constructed images of participative democracy, providing us with a new visual vocabulary of contemporary discourse, in a world where older ideas of what encompasses the public sphere have rapidly shifted.
– Shilpa Vijayakrishnan
- Academic theorizing on the ‘celebritization of politics’ is relatively recent; initially serving largely to critique the phenomenon, and it’s affect on the legitimacy of elected representatives in existing post/modern democracies. At the beginning of the millennium, however arguments begin to swing towards better understanding the ways in which celebrity politics effect political communication and state policy, contextualised within general socio-political and cultural changes. [For more, see Corner & Pels, 2003; Street, 2004; Zoonen, 2006; and Marsh, Hart & Tindall, 2010]
- Greater access to technology enables the presence of selfies not only from celebrities, a special category on their own in any case, but also from ‘ordinary’ citizens, or the ‘common man’.
- Modi’s celebrity status is consolidated in this merging is stupendously illustrated by the production of a comic book (in the style of Amar Chitra Katha) titled Bal Narendra –Childhood Stories of Narendra Modi [reported here: http://indianexpress.com/article/india/gujarat/out-in-print-how-narendra-the-boy-picked-up-a-crocodile/] & the sale of Modi merchandise whether through a dedicated site such as www.thenamostore.com or other specially designed products such as the ‘NaMo’ pen-drive.
- For a brief news-story look at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/india-election-narendra-modi-selfie-lands-frontrunner-in-hot-water-9304368.html
- In Sontag, Susan. ‘On Photography’ New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1977.
- Though this article primarily protests the proliferation of celebrity finger-selfies: http://www.firstpost.com/living/look-i-voted-voter-selfie-wave-trumps-modi-tsunami-1496903.html