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  Opinion   Columnists  11 Jan 2024  Patralekha Chatterjee | How ‘selfie booths’ are changing India politics

Patralekha Chatterjee | How ‘selfie booths’ are changing India politics

Patralekha Chatterjee focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee@gmail.com
Published : Jan 12, 2024, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Jan 12, 2024, 12:05 am IST

The 3D selfie booths at the centre of the current political storm take the BJP strategy a step further.

BJP President Amit shah at the inauguration of Selfie booth at khan market in new Delhi. (Image: Bunny Smith)
 BJP President Amit shah at the inauguration of Selfie booth at khan market in new Delhi. (Image: Bunny Smith)

India could well be the only country where the “selfie” is the medium and the message and where railway stations have “selfie booths” to enable passengers to take a photo of themselves with a life-size reproduction of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Railway stations in the country do not always offer a huge variety of recreational options in case a train is running late. Understandably, some passengers passing through, or likely to pass through the railway stations where these 3D selfie booths have been installed, are thrilled. And it is not just railway stations. In October last year, the ministry of defence directed its various departments to set up selfie points, to highlight the work done by the government, and said this “may contain” photos of the PM.

In the run-up to the general election, questions are bound to be raised when it comes to light that all this comes at a cost to the public exchequer. The Union government has reportedly spent nearly Rs 6.25 lakhs on every permanent 3D selfie booth with Mr Modi’s image at various railway stations, according to a reply to a Right to Information (RTI) application. Each temporary selfie booth costs Rs 1.25 lakh.

The matter has reached the Delhi high court. Additional solicitor-general Chetan Sharma, representing the Union government, told the court that “engagement in the selfie system is a gift of technology… let’s make use of it…The physical construct of selfie points enables people to engage effectively, thereby having a greater impact”.

“The person (Prime Minister Narendra Modi) has been elected by the people and is holding a constitutional post. He may be someone’s political rival but if this is being used for last-mile connectivity of beneficial schemes, you cannot have a grievance with that,” the court said. The next hearing is due on January 30.

Unsurprisingly, reactions to the headline-grabbing 3D selfie booths are along predictable lines. Are various government departments installing 3D selfie points with the PM’s image boosting Brand Modi ahead of the elections, or is it about instilling pride in the minds of citizens about India’s achievements in the past decade?

Mr Modi’s supporters agree with the government view linking the 3D selfie booths with generating greater public awareness about feats of “New India” under Prime Minister Modi’s leadership. His political rivals and critics within civil society find them “over the top” and see them as a brazen misuse of public funds.

In a deeply polarised country, the response to the “selfie booth”, much like the response to the 3D hologram featuring Mr Modi, depends on who you talk to.

But no one who has been closely following the Modi government is really surprised. Whatever be one’s view, one thing is clear -- the “selfie booth” has emerged as a political branding tool, and part of the ruling BJP’s communications quiver, much like the hologram deployed in the run-up to the 2014 general election. Mr Modi, then the BJP’s PM candidate, appeared at hundreds of campaign rallies, sometimes at the same time, by using a computer-generated holographic image.

We now live in the age of the selfie. The selfie in its multiple avatars is firmly embedded in political arenas across the world, with increasing recognition of the importance of visual political communication. In a 2019 essay, scholars Darren Lilleker, Anastasia Veneti and Daniel Jackson argued that “visuals are thus central to the politics of our time, for good or ill, with the power to stimulate emotions and elicit engagement -- among an often disengaged and apathetic”.

The selfie snugly fits into what some experts call the “spectacularisation” of politics. It draws the attention of citizens towards the personality of the leader. 

Needless to say, the BJP needs no lessons in this game.

Scholars across the world now keenly study Mr Modi’s penchant for the selfie, use of the social media and all things tech while sledgehammering political and ideological messages.

“Although photographs have always played an important role in Indian electoral campaigns, Modi’s use of selfies to connect with his support base was unprecedented. However, this was not the first instance in which Modi effectively used technological means of dissemination for political leverage,” wrote academic Anirban Baishya in a 2015 essay titled “NaMo: The Political Work of the Selfie in the 2014 Indian General Election” in the International Journal of Communication.

Mr Baishya pointed out that in 2012, for instance, “Modi’s campaign mobilised three-dimensional holography to project a 10-foot-tall image of him delivering a speech across several BJP rallies and public meetings in the country. The use of 3-D holographic technology revealed a keen understanding of the impact of techno-spectacular media and the benefits of the ostensible ‘omnipresence’ that they accorded.” 

In 2015, in the run-up to the Delhi Assembly elections, the BJP set up over 2,500 “Selfie with Modi" booths across the city. People were urged to click their photos with a “virtual Narendra Modi”. The “Selfie with Modi” was the BJP’s pitch to young voters in the city. The BJP lost to the Aam Aadmi Party but did not discard the politics of the selfie.

In a world where the line between self and the selfie is blurring, the BJP’s Mahila Morcha has run a selfie programme for women beneficiaries of the Modi government’s schemes. In April 2023, when Prime Minister Modi visited Chennai to inaugurate development projects, he met S. Manikandan, a specially-abled BJP worker, took a "special selfie" with him, and went on to post it on the social media.

Researchers say selfies establish a sense of proximity between politicians and their voters. It is a lesson Opposition politicians can ignore only at their peril. They are not averse to selfies. But unlike the BJP, no Opposition party seems to have a coherent strategy on how to effectively leverage the tool.

The 3D selfie booths at the centre of the current political storm take the BJP strategy a step further. By positioning the Prime Minister’s life-size replicas in the selfie booth in the context of the government’s various schemes and India’s achievements in the last decade when Mr Modi has been in power, BJP strategists have inserted the selfie into the narrative of governance. This potentially leads to conflating the act of taking a selfie with patriotism and critiquing the selfie booth thus becomes the opposite.

In the coming weeks and months, those pitching counters to the Modi selfies and selfie booths must factor these issues in. With the country and a world relying more and more on visual rather than verbal communication, criticism is not enough.

Tags: selfie booth, prime minister narendra modi, 3d selfie booths