With politics being dominated by personalities and less by ideologies, winning elections boils down to the leader who has the strongest personal appeal. The politician becomes a brand, using his or her appeal for the party. Just like a celebrity endorses a soap.
The late Indira Gandhi began this trend. Her endorsement mattered more than the worth of the party candidate, whether in Lok Sabha or assembly elections.
After her, perhaps only one other leader can raise expectations and sell dreams during elections: Narendra Modi. He has become a powerful political brand, rivaling Indira when it comes to impressing the public.
The evolution of Brand Modi is an interesting story. When he took over as Gujarat Chief Minister in October 2001, he was an unknown party bureaucrat without mass appeal. The torching of the Sabarmati Express train in Godhra on February 27, 2002 and the riots changed his political fortune. A section of the media severely criticised him for the riots, but this actually helped him to create the image of a strong and decisive leader who had protected Hindus.
The BJP's landslide victory in the 2002 assembly elections proved that the brand was here to stay. Next, without abandoning his Hindu constituency, Modi worked on a project that has wider appeal: economic development. Backed by all-round high economic growth in Gujarat, Modi's high profile Vibrant Gujarat campaign has made him a brand for rapid development and prosperity.
He projects himself as a development man, but retains the 'Hindu hero' brand by not disowning or apologising for the post-Godhra violence. Every act of Islamic terrorism in the country helps his Hindu hero brand. His supporters get the chance to cry out: "This will not end until Modi becomes the PM."
Strangely though the BJP leadership itself has refused to acknowledge that Brand Modi could work nationwide. This it does by selectively calling him for brief campaigns in hostile constituencies in elections outside Gujarat. The BJP's loss in such elections is then used as proof that Brand Modi is confined to Gujarat alone.
In reality Brand Modi has buyers in all parts of the country. In some parts the appeal is that of Modi, the national security hero, and in others it is Modi, the development man. If there's a massive vote swing in favour of the BJP under Modi, the party can get absolute majority in the Lok Sabha elections. This is particularly glaring when all potential rivals to Modi for the prime minister's post are not as strong are him. Some cannot get elected in their own home states and have to be accommodated in safe constituencies in other parts of the country.
By trying to stop Modi, the BJP will be botching up its second chance to rule the country. L K Advani had become an equally powerful brand during the Ram Janmabhoomi temple movement in the late eighties and early nineties. He had a nationwide mass appeal, but following the demolition of the Babri structure the Sangh Parivar lost its nerve and went into reverse gear, ready to be dubbed guilty. Advani was all apologies.
The political earthquake expected after Babri didn't happen. Still the pre-earthquake tremors took BJP from just two seats in the Lok Sabha to being the single largest party. Had the political earthquake actually taken place, the large-scale tectonic movements would have changed the political map of the country. L K Advani would have been a strong Prime Minister with several chapters in history. With his brand diminished, he may lost his chance to make history.
Instead of checking the loss of this brand, Advani harmed it by praising Muhammad Ali Jinnah at his tomb in Karachi. His statement went against the "brand" Advani had created for himself and eventually harmed it severely.
If Advani can reclaim his Ayodhya brand he can certainly eclipse Brand Modi. But for that he will have to go on a long Bharat Rath Yatra and make fire-breathing speeches on his way. If this were really to happen, it would be a miracle.
(The writer is a political analyst based in Ahmedabad. The views expressed are personal.)