Brand Rahul Gandhi vs Brand Narendra Modi: Evolution of political personas

Nothing like an election to bring about a certain kind of transparency and exchange of thoughts to political branding. A study in contrasts.
Representational image.
Representational image.Express illustration | sourav roy

Two personal political brands have captivated our imagination over the last four months in particular. Ever since the planning for elections 2024 began, two brands that we know so well have unfurled themselves in front of us.

The first is Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the second is a contender to that very chair, Rahul Gandhi. Today, both brands are completely open and transparent. Their mind, their plans, their mood, sentiment, biases and chinks in the armour are totally exposed. Nothing like a crucial election to get a politician to open up. And both have.

Brand Narendra Modi and Brand Rahul Gandhi have evolved over the years. One to counter the other. Each with a narrative of their own. Each with a solid brand asset of their own, built assiduously over the years by their actions, inactions, acts of commission and, equally, acts of omission. Each with a unique, passionate following.

Let me take a quick look at the history of their evolution and then jump right into today’s brand positioning of these two personas on merit, grit and value.

Brand Modi is a thought that occupies a very particular and precise high ground today. But this was not the case all the while. Modi has had his ups and downs. An early entrant into the politics of RSS, Modi made his start as the chief minister of Gujarat. Not once, but three wins in a row. A very successful tenure as chief minister, troubled of course by the imagery of chaos that Gujarat went into post-Godhra.

The CM was riled and made into a monster by the opposition parties that were wanting his downfall. And here comes the key point that brands are built not only by their good and bad work, but equally built and un-built by the actions of their opponent brands. No opportunity was left to rile the name of Narendra Modi. The opposition was a force to reckon with. He stood solid.

In the kitty of opposition work to bring Brand Modi and its imagery down were a range of actions. Some worked, some bombed. I have a list of 17 key ones, but will mention just two that illustrate opposition action—the famous ‘Maut ka saudagar’ comment from the Congress chief and the alleged Mani Shankar Iyer-ism of ‘Chaiwala’ at a later point of time. While the former comment was used to emotional advantage in a very sensitively charged nation that is India, the latter was repackaged and made into a big positive with Brand Modi’s ‘Chai pe charcha’ sessions.

If Modi was called a chaiwala, his entire set of followers called themselves that. If he was called a ‘chowkidar’ or gatekeeper, everyone said, “Main hoon chowkidar.” Every jibe had an equal and opposite reaction in Modi’s brand management style. There sure did come a time when the opposition got on the backfoot and became much more cautious, not to give him more armour to twist and return with double the vigour. In Brand Modi’s case, Newton’s third law had a twist: every action has a disproportionate and opposite reaction. Watch out!

Brand Modi, even as it focused on deflection and management of image, created new imageries on the way. Over the years, Modi has moved from being the poster-boy of Hinduism and Hindutva to be the complete package for India. The development-focused man who has India on the fast track. If in his campaign of 2019 he was running with ‘vikas’, today Modi is positioned clearly in the Hindi heartland as the ‘Vikas Purush’ or man of development. The key idea seems to move Modi’s attraction from a pure religion-based platform to a more expansive, economy-based approach.

In terms of positioning, Modi has made moves over the years. From his early RSS days of made-for-TV imagery, which was all about his ability to garner good PR for the party, the ‘Hindu hriday samrat’ of yore is today the ‘Vikas Purush’. It has been baby-steps for Brand Modi. From a narrow party-man imagery to a Hindutva icon, to a more all-embracing economic emissary of a future-embracing India with big goals. Modi has today emerged to be India’s biggest and most vocal brand ambassador. No doubt or debate on this one.

Brand Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, has had it equally tough. In the beginning, Rahul was a Gandhi. This entitlement to the name was used to his disadvantage by the BJP. Modi was but a ‘chaiwala’ with the interest of the common man at heart, whereas Rahul was devilled to be an entitled political scion. ‘Parivaarvad’ or dynasticism was the notion propagated.

Even as Brand Rahul struggled to stand up in the early days, the opposition effort to de-brand him as a ‘Pappu’ took off. And this stuck. For a long time. Every Rahul mistake was made into a gaffe and a meme in the age of the digital. As Brand Modi gained more and more traction, every effort to de-brand Rahul was made, 24x7. For every positive step Rahul Gandhi took, there were three negative steps planned and propagated by an army of trolls. Brand Rahul fell to the bathos.

Year 2022, however, saw a revival of Brand Rahul. A new imagery was in place. Rahul Gandhi stepped off the pedestal. He went off television screens and stepped into people’s lives. Real lives. In the classic model of ex-PM Chandra Sekhar’s Bharat Yatra in 1983 that covered 4,260 km, Rahul launched his own Bharat Jodo Yatra. He tenaciously covered 4,080 km across the country from Kanyakumari to Kashmir in 2022-23. The images of a very involved Rahul Gandhi with the masses hogged some screens. This was not Rahul Gandhi talking. It was Rahul Gandhi walking. Walking the talk even. And this changed Brand Rahul for a big part of India.

Brand Rahul today is that much more credible than ever before. His reinvention has catapulted him back into the debate. It has made him an option. Maybe not a full package as yet, but most certainly an option. In the reinvention of Brand Rahul, the one thing that has held in him in good stead is the fact that he has occupied a high ground all his own. He does not occupy the same high ground that Brand Modi does. If Modi is talking religion, he is talking the caste census. If Modi is talking wealth creation for India, Rahul is talking wealth re-distribution. I can go on and on, but notice the difference. If yesterday Brand Rahul was me-too, today he is talking very different. Diametrically opposed even. Rahul Gandhi has occupied a high ground all his own. And that’s his distinction for the moment.

All this takes me back to something attributed to Albert Einstein, “Be a voice. Not an echo.” And that’s exactly what Rahul is doing right now.

(Views are personal)

Harish Bijoor

Brand Guru & Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults


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