Who wore it better?

Narendra Modi takes every opportunity to do some yoga:


He tweets about it often (there was a flurry of yoga-related tweets last night for Maha Shivaratri).

Now comes the turn of Shinzo Abe:


According to the caption that’s actually zazen meditation, but close enough.

Who wore it better?


Images of the Year, 2015

Last year’s winners were relatively frivolous, reflecting a new, more casual, more boisterous way of doing politics that accompanied the rise of the BRICS. Top of the list was the Natalia Poklonskaya fanart, symbolising the changing ways in which citizens interact with politicians and political events (and also because mmmmmm Natalia Poklonskaya). Second came Angela Merkel’s Caxton Street selfie, representing the same phenomenon but also the new breed of populist personality politics. Third was the razzmatazz surrounding the APPEC Summit in Beijing, in there to show how the rising states tend to lack the Western modesty and or embarrassment about openly taking pleasure in wealth and power.

This year’s winners?

Well most people would probably go for that photo of Aylan Kurdi.

Aylan Kurdi

However, it really says a great deal more about Western social media trends than about Asian politics, which rules it out for the purposes of this blog. On the other hand, the Charlie Hebdo cartoon satirising the Western attitude to refugees that was immediately seized upon as being anti-Muslim did make the short list:

Charlie Hebdo Aylan Kurdi

However, this blog deliberately focuses on high-level power politics and the way that this is expressed and understood. This year has seen a certain amount of settling, familiarisation and concretisation of the phenomena that first hit the limelight last year. The rise and rise of Donald Trump has gone a certain way towards confirming that populist personality politics is here to stay, even in the West. With this, however, audiences have also grown more cynical and calculating regarding its manifestations. Last year we were – to a large extent – blown away by all the showbiz glitz and renewed joie de vivre on the part of our leaders. Now we’ve had time to think about it, we’ve also begun to look beneath the surface. While we’re still impressed (cynically impressed, for the most part, but still impressed) by all the swag, we’re also aware that beneath it all decisions are being made and strategies played out that will change all of our futures, whether for better or worse.

That’s why this year’s winner is a group of pictures, namely every image tweeted under the #ModiFindsCamera hashtag, which began after video footage came out showing Modi literally dragging Mark Zuckerberg out of the way of the photographers.

The #ModiFindsCamera phenomenon wins because it shows that while people are still impressed by this new-style politics, they’re impressed because they can see the skill and calculation that goes into it, not because they’re deceived by the show.

And while we’re on the Modi theme, another honourable mention has to go to the brilliantly telling (not to mention sinister) pictures of Modi standing by while David Cameron serves as his warm-up act at Wembley:

Modi at Wembley

Which leads us on to second prize…

While last year’s political swag had a certain amount of because-we-can exuberance to it, this year the displays have tended to be more purposeful (though this hasn’t always been the case). The message has generally been more focused and clearer, even brutal in many cases. This is why second prize goes to the picture of Xi Jinping’s jet being escorted by JF-17s during a visit to Pakistan:

Xi Jinping visits Pakistan

Also, because it’s just fucken awesome

There is nothing I can add here that will better explain the message intended by this gesture than the image itself. It’s almost feudal: Pakistan is deliberately casting itself in the role of vassal, but accompanying this with such an immediately impressive display of military capacity (yes, I know it’s just eight JF-17s, but that’s not your first thought when you see it, and it’s the instinctive reaction that counts) that it nevertheless retains its dignity. The impression is more of a samurai retainer or a mob boss’ enforcer than of cringing neo-colonialism. Everything about the display works and is deeply satisfying.


Third place goes to another incredibly well-done piece of military image-crafting, this time from Russia. It’s gritty, brutal and immediate, but it’s also a media product, created with an aesthetic underpinning and an intention to use skill and artistry to produce a specific response.

Russiaworks Syria video

As we said at the time “Who knew reality could be this beautiful?”

Frustratingly, since the video was first published the team that made it seems to have signed some sort of rights deal to restrict the availability of their footage online. For the time being, you can watch it here, though the link may go down at any time. There are also some other videos available on their website.

It’s in there not just as a tribute to the success with which the Russian leadership has been able to sell its own Syrian narrative via the media, but also as a stand-in for all the other brilliant, witty, perceptive and creative Russian media experiments that have kept us amused and impressed throughout the year.

Finally, an honourable mention has to go to the coverage of Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral.

LKY funeral

LKY funeral

LKY funeral

LKY funeral

LKY was genuinely one of a kind, so the reactions to his death cannot be said to be symptomatic of wider global trends (though they did include weather modification, which is one of the big political stage-management trends in Asia at the moment). Nevertheless, we predict that with greater insecurity and a return to personality politics, we will be seeing more of this sort of thing in coming years.

So that’s that. Think we missed anything? Please comment!


Democracy of the emotions

Narendra Modi MiG

This text has been doing the rounds on Indian Whatsapp groups and elsewhere since Narendra Modi Independence Day speech this year:

I don’t say ‪‎Modi‬ is the best pm, but its the first time i watched PM’s speech other than that on 15th august

I don’t say Modi is the best pm, but its th-e first time i know my country is safe

I don’t say Modi is the best pm, but its the first time 20k indians gathered in for a politicians speech on a foreign land

I don’t say Modi is the best pm, but its the first time every NRI is proud

I don’t say Modi is the best pm, but its the first time 80 countries are listening to indian pm

I don’t say Modi is the best pm, but its the first time when pakistan is totaly screwd up and china is scared

I don’t say Modi is the best pm, but its the first time USA knows it not the soul power

I don’t say Modi is the best pm, but its the first time Obama realised, he is not the most famous politician

I don’t say Modi is the best pm, but its the first time INDIA seems a superpower

I don’t say Modi is the best pm, but its the first time The World Knows WHY WE ARE THE WORLDS LARGEST DEMOCRACY

I don’t say Modi is the best pm, but its the first time i know I AM A PROUD INDIAN !!!

It’s generally attributed to Naryana Murthy, something which is frankly improbable, but the source is nevertheless less important than the content.

Nationalistic, typo-laden and open to dispute though its claims may be, I have yet to find a better summary of Modi’s success. His charisma works because it simply overpowers all quibbles. As the text says, Modi’s precise ranking on the list of India’s Prime Ministers is effectively immaterial: having him in charge of things feels good now.

Moreover, it demonstrates why India’s growing liberal middle class has had such a difficult time fighting Modi’s rise. They niggle away at the details of his policies, saying “Ah, but Gujerat’s agricultural growth was actually two percent higher under the previous government” or “The nuclear power investments that he likes to brag about were actually a hangover from the previous government” or similar. Their criticisms may well be true, but it doesn’t matter: you can’t destroy magic by nitpicking.

It’s interesting that when we went to Modi’s rally in Singapore, the other leader that many of his supporters expressed a liking for was Vladimir Putin – someone who has achieved much the same effect in his own country (though minus the barnstorming speeches). In times of uncertainty, it seems, a leader you can have faith in is more important than the technocratic details of policy implementation.

Up Close

Modi Cameron Wembley

Whenever people are talking about scary rising powers, India always tends to get pushed to the back of the queue. When Xi Jinping visited England recently for a very sedate and polite exchange of money views, the press raged at the government for kowtowing to the Chinese.

When, a few weeks later, Cameron essentially served as the warm up act for Narendra Modi at Wembley, we barely heard a peep out of them. If you still retain any illusions about Britain’s place in the world, go and watch the video of it.

We didn’t cover this here at the time, not because we were suffering from the same let’s-all-ignore-India syndrome as much of the English language media, but because we had something even better in the offing and wanted to do both at once.

Jennifer Dodgson

Pretty sure that this is the ultimate armour for the Political PR Nerd character class.

Yep. We were behind the scenes at one of Modi’s rock concert rallies, and we’ve got the pics to prove it.

There were several key differences between the London and the Singapore event, however.

Firstly there is every chance that Cameron’s team and the UK Foreign Office genuinely did not realise what the event that he was being asked to speak at would be like. Modi does in fact have a record of holding what are effectively election rallies in foreign countries, but he is still pretty much the only world leader with the chutzpah to behave this way. Most politicians would never think of doing this, not because it’s not a reasonable strategy but because it’s simply not what one does. On the other hand, it’s well known that you could fill a barn with the fucks that Modi does not give, so the FCO should have realised what was about to happen.

The Singaporean government, on the other hand, is rather quicker on the uptake. Moreover, it is determinedly opposed to anything that has even a vague potential for stirring up ethnic division on the island. Nevertheless, while they were plainly not happy about what was happening, they could hardly ban Modi from speaking if he had been invited to address local Indian cultural groups.

Even then, local rumours suggested that originally the authorities banned Singaporean citizens from attending, only relenting when they realised this would make them look bad.

The result was that we ended up holding the event not at any of the excellent venues that Singaporean politicians use for their own events, but at the Singapore Expo, possibly the worst space you could think of for holding a political rally (well, you know, excluding the bathrooms at the New York Port Authority Bus Station, the bottom of the Marianas Trench etc. etc….).

The Expo centre is more usually used for trade shows, and if you’ve ever had to organise a concert or a speech in one of these dismal hangars you’ll know why it’s such a poor prospect. It’s miles outside the centre of town, you have to amalgamate several rooms to get enough seating, there’s no dedicated backstage, your podium has to be in the middle of the space if you want your audience to see anything, it’s impossible to light it artistically, and the room swallows sound like [insert joke about your mom here].

Modi in Singapore

First ushering volunteers meeting

The fact that the organisers managed not merely to get around most of these problems but to turn them to their advantage is a sign of how slick and efficient this operation really is. This was all the more impressive in light of the extent to which Modi’s own events crew were clearly happy to take a hands off approach and leave the organisation to local volunteers, many of whom were amateurs. I assume that Modi’s own PR professionals were present in some capacity (no one can successfully organise something like this from scratch on their first go; there are a million little details that you only learn through repeated practice) but merely provided the organisers with a sketched outline and advice where needed, and otherwise backed off and left them to it – a rare skill, and one that more managers should cultivate.

Modi in Singapore

10pm, the night before

The result was occasionally endearingly amateurish, but mostly extremely impressive, and created a sense of community and ownership that would have been lacking had they brought in a professional crew to handle everything. There was even a page in the event brochure saying thank you to all the volunteers. Giving us the chance to fuck up was a risk – and some things did go wrong (but then, things always do with an event this size) – but overall it was a risk that paid off massively.

Modi in Singapore

The dancers wait for their rehearsal slots.

Moreover, the Singapore government could, possibly, have spared itself some of the worry. In the end most of the Singaporean citizens present were members of the local dance groups drafted in to provide the entertainment before and after the big speech. The few locals present were mainly high school kids who’d gone along out of curiosity. (Modi tends to make a point of speaking Hindi in public, whereas most Singaporean Indians speak Tamil, and a lot of them are pretty shaky even at that.)

Modi in Singapore

Early doors: the official start time was 5:30. here’s the queue at 2pm.

The motivations of the audience varied. Some were genuine Modi supporters, some were here out of patriotism, a large proportion had come out of curiosity. In fact, Modi tends to provoke extremely strong reactions, both for and against. While the pro camp were out in force at the event, chanting and waving placards, we also spoke to some of those who would rather have chewed their own legs off than attend. One media guy (who shall remain nameless) when asked whether he was planning to go, told me “Hell no. Why would you want to listen to that man? I hate him.” Another said that he would be going, purely because he wanted to “see evil close up”. Others were more detached, saying that they just wanted to see a good show, but did not have any special faith in Modi’s policies.

Modi in Singapore

Security screening

The event had booked up three of the Expo Centre’s six halls. One for managing the queue and doing the security screening, and two opened up into one big room for the event itself.

Modi in Singapore

Local dance groups perform and the volunteers hand out water and biscuits

Imrpessively, they managed to turn this awkward layout to their advantage by going for a sort of theatre-in-the-round effect. As you can see from the photos, it was impossible to entirely open out the two rooms. So instead the speaker’s podium was placed centrally in the gap between the two, with a lectern that revolved slowly and a whole bunch of cameras projecting onto massive tv screens throughout the room, allowing Modi to speak directly to everyone there, even at the times when he had his back to them.

Modi in Singapore

Again, this was a calculated risk that was skillfully handled and paid off spectacularly. Not only did the fact that the speaker had his back to half the room half of the time not bother the audience, but it meant that all of the tv pictures effectively show Modi entirely surrounded by a sea of adoring supporters. You can watch the video here. The success of the gambit can be entirely attributed to Modi’s own theatrical skills. Would you have the acting chops to deliver a barnstoming oration to 9000 people sitting behind your back?

Modi in Singapore

Immediately before the start

Actually, the tv pictures made the event look more impressive in more ways than one. In real life it was pretty much impossible for the stage crew to turn the house lights down, making dramatic effects difficult to achieve. The video footage makes it look like we were all sitting in tasteful semi-darkness. In fact, those migraine-inducing halogens were on throughout. Moreover, the lousy accoustics that are built into all trade show venues by design (if they magnified sound like a real theatre the trade events would be hellish) make more or less any music sound like it was coming from the speaker of some kid’s phone on the back seat of the night bus.

You get round this, incidentally, with either lots of bass (if you see the women in the front row wriggling in their seats, you’ve got it about right) or by going acappella. The event crew obviously knew this, and the minutes preceding the speech were occupied by an ident created – I presume – specially for this purpose, with computer graphics to do with dynamic modern India interspersed with quotes about what an incredible leader Modi is, and set against the sort of music that sounds like Right Here Right Now had a baby with Carmina Burana. You know the sort of thing.

If you think this all sounds a bit North Korean (as one of the audience members said to me afterwards), I have been told that Modi’s domestic events ratchet back the hyperbole to a huge degree, instead presenting him as a humble chai-wallah’s son who happened to have the good fortune to be entrusted with running the country. Partly this is because he is less able to play on patriotism at home, and partly because Indians within India tend to be more cynical about domestic politics than their foreign counterparts.

Modi in Singapore

He’s coming! (Possibly)

But the thing is, it worked. By the end of it, everyone was on their feet waving – despite strict injunctions from security to stay seated – and cheering. And then it turned out that someone had told the stage management guys that he was arriving a tad prematurely, so we all sat down again and listened to someone singing about Namami Gange, then someone must have told the stage crew that he really was coming this time, so we got the introductory hi-tech ident again, but received it with rather less enthusiasm. Finally, the poor MC was left standing onstage – clearly with some guy yelling “just 30 seconds more” in his ear – begging us to keep clapping while we waited. As mentioned above, the evening was not without its mishaps. (A cynical friend in the audience texted me that they were clearly working on “Indian Standard Time”.)

Modi in Singapore

For real this time.

As for the speech. Well, it was very impressive. You can watch it here. I don’t speak a word of Hindi (and if you don’t either, here’s a summary of the main points), and was nevertheless not bored, despite the fact that it went on for about an hour. To a certain degree, I didn’t need to understand. Even with no Hindi, I could tell that the message and the language was simple and repetitive and probably to do with international cooperation being a good thing. As one Indian author told me, Modi is the message – he’s dynamic and entrepreneurial and can bring the roof down for an hour straight without even a glass of water. What else do you need to know?

One of the supporters in the crowd told me afterwards that it had been so good that it had made all the hair on the back of her neck stand up.

Coincidentally, one of the anti-BJP intellectuals I spoke to said almost the exact same thing to me about a run in he’d had with Modi back in his local politics days, except that he meant it in the sinister sense.

Watch the video for yourself and see which of the two you agree with.



Turns out I wasn’t the only one to notice Narendra Modi literally putting Mark Zuckerberg in his place. The internet noticed it too, and that was only the beginning. Pretty soon the hashtag #ModiFindsCamera was trending, to identify various other times when Modi ji might have been meeting a fellow bigwig but had eyes only for his PR…

For a selection of the best examples, click here. Seriously, do. The look of adoration in his eyes as he shakes hands with Tharman Shanmugaratnam is worth it on its own.

Mark Zuckerberg and Narendra Modi talk about each other’s mothers

And it’s pretty much as awkward as you’d expect. Check out the exerpt here.

Zuckerberg Modi hug

“Yo momma.”
“No, *yo* momma.”

However, what’s most interesting in this whole dog and pony show is the extent to which it’s being used as a BJP election broadcast.

It’s not unusual for politicians to use foreign appearances as a chance to send a message to domestic constituents. It is unusual for them to do it to the exclusion of actually participating in whatever event it is that they’re at. Modi is famously unembarrassable, but here it’s like the US audience isn’t even present.

You can watch the whole thing – with election rally-style music and cheering – here.

Dietary Guidelines

MNS meat protest

World’s least fun barbecue

You may remember that a while back the Indian state of Maharashtra banned beef:

The state that includes Mumbai, India’s financial capital, this week became the latest state to ban the possession and sale of beef, imposing fines and up to five years in prison for violations.

The ban in the populous western state of Maharashtra, which was passed Monday, came as an amendment to a 1972 law prohibiting the slaughter of cows, which has been expanded to ban the slaughter of bulls, bullocks and calves. The slaughter of water buffaloes will still be allowed, subject to permission from the authorities.

The Maharashtra Animal Preservation bill, championed by right-wing Hindu organizations, was first passed in 1995 but languished for two decades under a governing coalition between the Indian National Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party was the clear winner in state elections last Octoberafter Narendra Modi, the party’s leader, took office as prime minister in May.


The protection of cows is a volatile subject in India, where the animals are revered by the majority-Hindu population. Nearly all of India’s states already have provisions restricting or banning cow slaughter. In addition, the state of Gujarat, Mr. Modi’s home base, bans the sale, purchase and transportation of beef, and Madhya Pradesh State prohibits beef consumption and transportation. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto included promises to work toward “the protection and promotion of cow and its progeny.”


It is well-known that Narendra Modi is vegetarian, something which – in theory if not in practice – has connotations of moral and religious purity. With the growth of Hindu nationalism, the question of what you eat has taken on a renewed political significance.

So you’d think that the Hindu nationalists would be really happy that Bombay banned the sale of meat for four days this month out of respect for a Jain festival.

Not so much.

The photo above shows members of the MNS, a far right Marathi nationalist party, cooking meat outside a Jain temple in protest. (Also, is it just me or is that the nastiest chicken you’ve ever seen? It looks like it died of syphillis. If you want to convince people to turn vegetarian, that’s a good start right there.) They’re holier than thou, but no holier than that.

The young, secular, urban middle classes for their part, tend to veer between cynicism and depression with regard to the whole spectacle.

Choose your own adventure!

Modi - Xi

Courtesy of my friend Omar, here’s another installment in our occasional series ‘Were these journalists even at the same event?’

Compare Xinhua’s report:

China and India should work together to build a closer, more comprehensive and firmer partnership among the BRICS countries, Chinese President Xi Jinping said here Wednesday.

Xi made the remarks when meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the southwestern Russian city of Ufa ahead of two multilateral summits.

The Chinese president recalled his meeting with Modi in May in the northwestern Chinese city of Xi’an, where the two leaders reached important consensuses on enriching the bilateral strategic partnership and forging a closer partnership of development.

The meeting sent positive signals to the two peoples and the international community that the two major developing nations are committed to cooperating for common development, said Xi.

Thanks to joint efforts of both sides, the agreements reached back then are now being translated into steady progress in bilateral cooperation in such areas as parliamentary exchanges, railway, industrial parks and smart city, Xi said.

The president called on the two countries to make concerted efforts to maintain the positive momentum in the development of bilateral ties and open new prospects for mutually beneficial cooperation.

Xi said the two countries should maintain high-level contact, strengthen multi-level strategic communication, complete feasibility study on major cooperation projects as scheduled and build flagship bilateral cooperation projects.

He suggested the two sides solidly implement the China-India cultural exchange program and beef up think-tank, media and local-level cooperation.

On border issues, Xi called on the two sides to properly manage and control their differences and jointly safeguard peace and security in the border areas.

China and India should make joint efforts to push forward the development of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB) and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor, said Xi.

He also proposed to explore ways to effectively connect China’s Belt and Road initiative with India’s relevant development plans, in a bid to achieve mutually beneficial cooperation and common development.

Xi suggested that China and India, both as staunch supporters and active builders of the BRICS mechanism, work together to forge a closer, more comprehensive and firmer partnership within the emerging-market framework, so as to enable the BRICS countries to play a positive and constructive role and contribute more to world peace and development.

For his part, Modi said the India-China ties are enjoying sound development momentum, with mutual trust deepening continuously.

Recalling his meetings with Xi, Modi said the two countries have maintained frequent high-level contact.

In recent years, India and China have further expanded their economic and trade cooperation and made steady progress in cooperation in such areas as science and technology, outer space and infrastructure, Modi said.

Stressing that India welcomes more Chinese investment, Modi said his country stands ready to work with the Chinese side to strengthen strategic communication and coordination and properly manage their differences, including those in border issues.

The Indian side, he said, is willing to beef up cooperation with China under the framework of BRICS and actively participate in the construction and cooperation projects of the NDB and the AIIB, which provide more opportunities for deepening India-China interaction.

It is the fourth bilateral meeting between the two leaders since their first in Fortaleza, Brazil, last July. Respectively in September 2014 and May 2015, Xi and Modi visited each other’s country, including each other’s hometown.

The meeting came before the seventh summit of BRICS, an emerging-market bloc that consists of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, and the 15th Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit.

The upcoming SCO summit is expected to pass a resolution on starting the procedures of granting India and Pakistan full membership of the organization.


With the Times of India‘s:

PM Modi told Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday that China’s support to Pakistan over the issue of Mumbai attacks accused Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi was ‘unacceptable’.

In a meeting on the side lines of BRICS summit here, the two discussed the issue in detail while talking about counter terrorism, said foreign secretary S Jaishankar.

Despite opposition from Modi, China had earlier blocked UN from seeking an explanation over the release of Lakhvi saying that there was no evidence provided by India to merit such an action. Modi emphasized the point in his meeting that many other countries, including all other permanent members of the UN Security Council, believed Lakhvi was a terrorist responsible for the Mumbai attacks which left over 160 people dead.



Modi with daughter

So we’ve done politicians’ kids pestering them on Twitter before. Here’s a variation on a theme: a political campaign to upload pictures of your daughter to Twitter to prove that you haven’t aborted her. Which is cute.

Seriously, I’m not kidding:

The hashtag #SelfieWithDaughter started trending worldwide today after Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked people to post their photos during his radio address Mann ki Baat.

PM Modi made the request referring to a contest started by the sarpanch of a village in Haryana – the state that has acquired a dubious distinction for its skewed sex ratio (the number of females to males).

‘Some days ago, a sarpanch in Haryana’s Biwipur village, Sunil Jaglan, had come up with an interesting idea,’ the Prime Minister said. ‘He started the Selfie With Daughter initiative, under which all fathers had to click selfies with their daughters and post it on social media.’

The idea took Twitterati by storm, with proud fathers — and in some cases proud mothers — posting photos clicked with their daughters.

In the afternoon, PMOIndia posted, “#SelfieWithDaughter becomes number 1 Twitter trend in India and also listed in worldwide trend.”


Modi has long held the title of Leader Best at Social Media, but this stands out as a remarkably clever use of Twitter nonetheless. There’s every chance that this one hashtag will have more effect on female birthrates than a million public health information leaflets, so that’s something.

(The perennially anti-Modi liberal urbanites have criticised this for being a pure publicity stunt, since the poorest of the poor, who do a large amount of sex selective abortion, often have no internet access.)