The Election Commission of India issued a ruling on Wednesday banning a biographic film about incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the duration of the election, which begins on Thursday and will last through May 19. A complaint was filed alleging the film was intended to “manipulate, influence, and impress viewers and voters.”
The movie in question is a fictionalized account of Modi’s life and political career. Eyebrows were raised after the studio behind it published a trailer last month and some of the people behind the film expressed political support for Modi.
Indian law bans political advertising outside of certain predetermined spending caps while the lengthy voting procedure is underway. India’s election commission takes these rules so seriously that it once removed cooling fans from a polling place because one of the candidates adopted the fan as his campaign symbol.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) argued that blocking the release of the movie would violate freedom of expression and insisted the party played no role in its creation.
Critics denounced the movie as political propaganda, particularly since it includes purely fictional scenes.
A glance at the poster for the movie reveals why critics might feel that way:
The tagline from the poster is “Patriotism is my strength.” The trailer included hagiographic narration such as, “An ordinary tea vendor became the nation’s prime minister!” and used a song that was employed by the BJP as a campaign anthem in 2014.
The BJP does not lack for star power during campaign season. On Wednesday, a list of 900 artists, including the star of the Modi biopic, published a statement urging Indians to vote for BJP candidates and keep Modi as prime minister because “when challenges like terrorism are before all of us, we need a strong government, not a weak government.”
The signatories praised Modi for delivering “corruption-free good governance” and a “development-oriented administration.” Their statement was a response to a broadside from about 600 other Indian celebrities who urged voters to boot Modi and the BJP because they pose a threat to India’s constitutional system.
The UK Guardian read some tea leaves on Wednesday and predicted former tea leaf salesman Modi would prove more popular than his party in the election, buoyed by nationalistic sentiment and patriotic fervor due to India’s confrontation with Pakistan over terrorism in the Kashmir province.
The Guardian’s theory is that India is so large and diverse that Modi will clean up in some regions, especially those close to Pakistan, but will need to recruit allies from different parties in other regions of India to form a government. The election might boil down to whether Modi’s opponents, rallying behind a scion of the Gandhi family, do a better job of putting together a coalition of feuding parties than he does.
One of Modi’s political problems, which would have been ameliorated by the timely release of an admiring biography fronted by top Bollywood talent, is that his performance on the stump is less electrifying among the large number of Indians that do not speak Hindi.
India holds the largest democratic elections in the world, with over 900 million eligible voters. BJP was heavily favored to win until reversals in regional elections late last year, which suggested some Indian voters are less satisfied with Modi’s leadership than previous polls indicated.