How India built the International Space Station, and other lessons from an Indian propaganda video

India didn't build the space station

India’s election campaigns are uneasily adjusting to the digital age. Where there once were billboards, now there are jingles, videos and even holographic versions of the country’s politicians — some more successful than others. 

A musical ode to Prime Minister Narendra Modi by one of the leader’s most avid supporters, though, is proving an embarrassment of epic proportions.

It looks like the kind of ’90s Bollywood parody you’d expect from India’s blooming comedy scene. Only this six-minute music video, titled “My country is great, my country is young,” deifies the Indian prime minister by showing him meditating atop snowy mountains, strolling with Gandhi, and sending trademark Indian lions to the International Space Station. All while three singing Hindu, Muslim and Christian men pop up alongside Modi meeting world leaders on his numerous foreign visits.

“This is Modi’s miracle, this is Make in India,” sings one of the trio while pointing enthusiastically at the International Space Station, which India has never had any part in operating. 

“After Independence, this is the new independence,” croons another, hailing (imaginary) WiFi in every village.

The clip was recently shown in theaters during the interval in screenings of a new Bollywood movie, a move that was criticized for weaving political propaganda into entertainment. 

The video’s creator, Pehlaj Nihalani — who also happens to be the chairperson of India’s film censor board and has directed campaign videos for Modi in the past — defended his puffery by claiming that the video honored the nation, not just one man. (Nihalani also denies pressuring theaters to run the video, which he says is part of a longer film to be released next year.)

This would be a good place to point out that the video specifically covers the amazing — and heavily contested — progress made by Modi’s Clean India campaign, his banking-for-all initiative, and the Make in India manufacturing program. 

The forced multi-religious nature of the video is also jarring, as attacks on minorities are increasing and several of India’s best-known artists have recently returned national awards to protest rising intolerance. Many interpret the Modi government’s silence on such violence as covert support.

If you thought the chest-beating declarations of gratitude for the country’s development and harmony were bad, it gets worse. Twitter users found that many of the images used to illustrate that progress were not even from India. The video features stock footage of a US F-14 Tomcat fighter jet, Moscow’s International Business Center, NASA’s Atlantis and Discovery shuttles, expressway construction in Dubai, a Japanese spacecraft and, er, the Tour de France.

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One thing the video does capture, albeit unintentionally, is Modi’s taste for the international: the prime minister has just returned from his 29th foreign tour in 18 months in office. It seems that Modi’s India, though, just isn’t photogenic enough for a propaganda video.

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