Brand Modi

By Geeta Padmanabhan

NamoHe is stylish, he is spicy, he is sweet, he is explosive. Choose a non-controversial product, attach his face, add the brilliantly-coined acronym NaMo, and you have a best-seller. Brand Modi sells – anything from clothes, snacks, tea, explosive firecrackers to the idea of India.

Some attribute it to the business acumen of the Gujarati, others point to the unquestionable charisma of the man, but brand-merchandising has closely accompanied Narendra Modi’s rise in the national scene. With state elections a few weeks ahead and national elections just months away, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who is also the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Prime Ministerial candidate is on a brand projectile.

The first to appear were the ones you would see in the US election conventions: Modi masks, pins, bands, caps, T-shirts – in one early rally an entire section of the audience was made of Modi faces – a startling sight! Soon BJP supporters saw the business opportunity in his growing popularity. The obvious product was the Modi kurta – the knee-length top worn over leggings – customized and popularized by the man himself. With a close collar, short sleeves and earth colors it was already a “moving” item. All it needed was international exposure.

A boutique in Ahmedabad has registered a trademark for these “half-sleeve kurtas”. “We’re trying for an international trademark for the brand,” said its owner. A report in the Indian Express said at least 30,000 made-in-Surat kurtas carrying embroidered “NaMoMantra” were sold at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan on the October 27 Hunkar rally, addressed by Modi. A NaMo store opened in an upmarket mall in Ahmedabad to sell NaMoMantra apparel, books and other merchandise. Modi Lion, named after the Hunkar (roar) rally, will soon reach the children’s section of super markets. “Even his most ardent fans could not have foreseen this transformation – from Loha Purush to cuddly toy,” wrote Firstpost Editor Sandip Roy.

The Patna rally also saw the mushrooming of those humble tea-stalls that dot India’s roads, street-corners and railway stations. Unsurprisingly called Modi Tea-Stalls, they were dual-purpose. The kiosks made sure tea was available to rallyists all day while reminding them of the great man’s humble origins as a vendor at a railway tea-stall. A killer branding idea!

Diwali of course brought a multitude of options for value addition. Boxes of firecrackers (labelled Modi Brand) wrapped in Modi’s photograph sold the most, outdoing cheaper imports from China. One shop-owner cracked: “We have Chinese items as well as the ones with photos of actors. Right now, “Modi Brand” is the most popular and is explosive in Rajkot. “Explosive like Modi” was the underlying sentiment, agreed the buyers. In the US, the boxes went for $16/- . The firecracker business, reported India Today, was worth $8 million in Rajkot alone.

Can Modi snacks be far behind? NDTV ran a story of how “Modi magic” spiced up this year’s Diwali in the US. Rajbhog Sweets, which celebrated Modi’s elevation as Chief Minister of Gujarat for a third consecutive term by gifting each customer with 11 pedas (one for each year), decided to go “namkeen” on the run up to the 2014 general elections. According to the news channel, Arvind Patel, Rajbhog Sweets, Newark Avenue, Jersey City said, “A few of us were chatting one afternoon when the idea of ‘Modi Magic’ came about. We give it out for free at BJP events and festivals here in the US, and aim to distribute 10 lakh packets till the elections.”

Each packet of  spicy mix labelled “Modi Magic” sells at 45 cents, but 10 lakh packets will be given away free, said Mr Patel, adding he was ready to do much more. The mix was a hit with the customers, probably Modi fans. “This is the first time I have seen an Indian politician branded like this, his magic is working not only in India but the whole world,” said one. Mr. Patel would have happily sent the sales proceeds to the BJP election campaign, but laws don’t permit supporters in the US to donate directly to political parties in India. So after spreading the Modi message on foreign shores, Mr. Patel has traveled to India to campaign for the BJP.

The virtual world has embraced him. While Modi social-networks constantly, tweeting, face-booking and blogging on the go, his fans have made a video game and composed a Namo Youth Anthem that goes, “A powerful orator will now become the nation’s curator. His persona is athletic, his charisma magnetic. Who’s gonna mar ’em? NaMo. NaMo. Who’s gonna scar ’em? NaMo, Namo.”

Merchandising politics isn’t new to India. Gandhi topi, Nehru galaband, I Am Anna cap, Mamata sari and paintings, Mulayam pehalwan doll, yojnas (schemes) and streets named after leaders are all part of this branding culture. But Modi-branding is much larger in scale and scope. It is market-savvy, and thanks to supporters’ unrelenting efforts, has gone global. In is case, Modi’s the brand, and his supporters know how to sell him.

“Brand Modi becomes an act of reflection with the multiplying effect of a hall of mirrors,” said Firstpost editor Sandip Roy. “As Modi stands at the rally, beaming, waving to the crowd, the jubilant crowd gazes back at him draped in NaMo paraphernalia… Our feverish passion for politics and our insatiable hunger for brands have finally come together in common churn. And Narendra Modi has emerged from that manthan (churn) as an entity than can both sell and be sold.”

As in everything political in India, Modi branding is not without its comic consequences. To their utter dismay, BJP’s election supervisors have found that people in many parts of the hinterlands who have pledged to vote for Modi (Modi ko vote denge) are clueless about the party symbol. Brand Modi now outshines brand BJP! The lotus (party symbol) has been blown away by the Modi storm, said a commentator. Ironically, the party might lose the votes of those who support Modi! Party heads are no doubt at the drawing board figuring out how to bring the lotus back into the picture. Any ideas?

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