Narendra Modi winning a third term in Gujarat does not come as a surprise. The more significant topic engaging Modi-watchers has been the role of Modi beyond Gujarat-2012. The question is whether and under what conditions Modi will be able to go beyond being the supreme leader of Gujarati Hindus and emerge as a national leader.
Modi’s prime ministerial ambitions are no secret. Since his victory in 2007, Modi has been alive to the reality that, to occupy national centre stage driven by coalition politics, being the Hindu Hriday Samrat of Gujarat — or even becoming that of all of India — is not sufficient. His efforts and attempts over recent years have been to overcome his limitations, particularly the trust deficit among Muslims, to become acceptable as prime minister.
Modi launched the Sadbhavna campaign to improve his image and presented himself in the company of bearded Muslims with skull caps. He sought out Muslim interviewers — similar to a strategy adopted by Tony Blair in 2005, who, as part of rebranding, sought out the toughest TV presenters and hostile audiences to show how democratic and reasonable he was. Modi got endorsements from several prominent Muslims that he was “a changed man.” However, as the elections neared and it appeared the closest of the three elections that he has fought, Modi panicked and abandoned his rebranding efforts. He returned to appealing to the latent and widespread prejudice against Muslims among the Gujarati middle class — warning them of the possibility of Ahmad ‘Mian’ Patel becoming the Congress chief minister; the domination of the “Delhi Sultanate” and even Muslim Pakistan taking away some territory in Sir Creek.
To understand the prospects of rebranding Modi, we must first look at what makes Brand Modi. In marketing, brand is the emotional connect evoked in the consumer, beyond the tangible benefits of a product. There are three components that make Modi a brand.
First, his ability to couch the secular process of economic progress in religious terms and attribute an emotional strand to it — what I would term the Hindutva rate of growth. Gujarat’s industrial development is portrayed in his clever oratory as an outcome of the Hindu upsurge in 2002. His speeches compare Gujarat before and after 2002 — so many roads built before, so many after 2002 etc. The implied suggestion is that the real emergence of Gujarat as a robust economy required the subjugation of Muslims. Gujarat is one state where redistribution of growth has not been a political project as in the case of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu that have had similarly impressive economic performances. The Hindutva appendage to growth serves a dual purpose — for the prospering middle class, it reduces alienation and offers belongingness; for the excluded downtrodden — yes, they do exist in Gujarat — it offers distraction and a sense of pride.
Secondly, Modi invokes images of Gujarati provincialism, adding yet another emotional connect to material growth. The third component of Brand Modi is a projected aura of decisiveness as opposed to equivocation that has come to characterise politics. “He never says ‘maybe,’ it would always be ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” points out a close aide.
The Modi brand undoubtedly has a formidable following in many places outside Gujarat, particularly among the middle class. He could easily reconcile provincialism with the emergent national middle class’s imagination of India as a superpower and rebrand himself as its most competent pursuer. However, the disadvantage with a cut-and-dry decisiveness is that it could also mean an inability to negotiate a middle path that is often the norm in the fractured coalition politics in Delhi. To succeed nationally, Modi will have to rebrand himself as a coalition builder too.
But when he tries to a build coalition, as he did with Sadbhavna, his initial constituency rebels. And this is the dilemma with all political rebranding. LK Advani’s attempts to get rid of his hardliner image by visiting the mausoleum of Jinnah did not succeed. Lalu Prasad tried to reinvent himself as a development and governance man from being a champion of caste politics, but failed; the Left tried to reformat its politics from being Luddite to entrepreneurial but was wiped out in West Bengal.
But there are successes, too, in political rebranding. Tony Blair rebranded the Labour party first and rebranded himself before the 2005 elections — from ‘tough Tony’ to ‘mature Tony.’ Closer home, the Congress party that swung from being pro-poor to pro-rich through 1990s, rebranded itself under Sonia Gandhi as a catch-all party that appeals to the middle class and the deprived at the same time.
Political rebranding is fraught with high risks as Advani’s example shows. Modi’s own abandoned rebranding attempt shows not only the risk in it, but also his realisation that it is necessary for a national role. Perhaps, from a ‘tough Modi’ to a ‘mature Modi’.