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Digital Native: Narendra Modi’s interview by Akshay Kumar is a PR masterpiece

Posted by Nishant Shah at May 05, 2019 05:00 PM |
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How to spot the influencer in your politics.

The article by Nishant Shah was published in Indian Express on May 5, 2019.

Your digital age can easily be measured by one simple concept: the influencer. In descending order of age, there are people who have no idea what it means, those who roll their eyes at the word, those who have friends who are influencers, those who are, or think of themselves as, influencers. Despite studying and following (and sheepishly trying to imitate) influencers on social media, I still find it difficult to explain lucidly who exactly an influencer is, and what it is that she does.

An influencer is a person who has many followers on social media and they influence the behaviour of these followers. They are not celebrities who influence others, but they are celebrities because they can influence others. They are not famous like traditional stars, but they are stars because so many people listen to them. They are famous for being famous, but, more importantly, they are famous as themselves — as authentic, genuine, real people who you like, and, hence, listen to. So great is the influencer phenomenon that celebrities are now adopting the genre.

The best example of this is the video interview of Prime Minister Narendra Modi by Bollywood star Akshay Kumar. Modi, who is looking to repeat his historic electoral victory of 2014, is right now undeniably the biggest political figure of our times. His promises of development, politics of resilience, and affinity for controversial alliances make him not only an extraordinary figure in India, but also stitches him into a larger global shift towards conservative populism.

Akshay Kumar, while he might not be one of the Khans, has emerged as the “common man’s hero”, especially since his last few films have focused on a persistent, if ham-handed, social messaging about critical questions of infrastructure, gender and family in the Indian psyche. So much so, that many critics had speculated if Akshay Kumar was prepping to run for elections, following in the grand tradition of many cinema stars who crossed over from the silver screen to politics.

Individually, and together, Modi and Kumar are two larger-than-life celebrities. And yet, when they came together for an interview, which was historical for several reasons — it emerged in the middle of the elections in the country and it was streamed across digital and TV platforms — they did not talk about their respective renown, portfolios or messages. Instead, they staged an “apolitical” interview, during the course of which we learned about Modi’s preference for Gujarati mangoes and ascetic discipline, and realised that the credit for Kumar’s success has to go to his directors, if this is his repertoire of acting skills.

Or, in other words, these two celebrities came together to make an influencer video — where the banal, the everyday, and the casual are used to create subtle messaging that shapes and nudges the behaviour and taste of the networked user, who is consuming the long interview as an act of eavesdropping on two regular people. This influencer aesthetic is particularly different from the gossipy antics of producer-director Karan Johar, with his obviously celebrity friends who joke about nepotism and laugh about how, when you are a star, they let you get away with anything.

This video might be a PR masterpiece, not because it fills up the vacuum that the delayed release of Modi’s fictional biopic had created, but because in a politically saturated environment, it chose to be airy, fluffy and chatty, thus deescalating the tense atmosphere that surrounds this current election.

We might find it difficult to follow Modi the leader, but Narendra Modi the everyday man, who decided to step up and serve his country, is hard to fault. This video saw NaMo and Akki taking the influencer aesthetic to shape the political message that amplifies Modi as our leader.

In the meantime, the Opposition leaders in Congress, who desperately need a digital strategist team, did exactly the one thing they should have avoided — they took the bait of the video and went around shouting against it, thus driving more people to watch it, and giving them a chance to overcome their political preferences and relate to Modi as a human being. The Opposition strategy led to a Streisand effect, where the more they negated and critiqued, the more the video went viral, and, in an election that is already poised on a hair’s breadth, it might not be a surprise if the final vote shall be won, not by celebrity endorsements, but by influencer virality.

Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bengaluru. This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Digital Native: Two Good Men’

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Nishant Shah

Dr. Nishant Shah is the co-founder and board member of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, and is a professor at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at Leuphana University in Germany, and is Dean of Research at ArtEZ Graduate School, the Netherlands.