In the final leg of the 2014 general elections, Narendra Modi dramatically announced in a rally, “Yeh dil maange more”. It was a quintessential Modi soundbite: the BJP’s internal polls had captured a surge but the party leadership of Modi and his lieutenant, Amit Shah, were determined to push beyond “mission 272” towards a triple hundred. The rest, as they say, is history.
Twenty two months later, the 2017 assembly elections have shown that the BJP’s appetite is clearly undiminished. When Modi undertook a three-day intensive roadshow-cum-rally programme in his ‘adopted’ home of Varanasi, it was seen by some as a sign of desperation. More than one analyst predicted that the Modi juggernaut was being halted in the complex caste and community matrix of Uttar Pradesh. As it turns out, the BJP has swept the city and the entire eastern UP belt which went to the polls in the seventh and last phase. What was seen as desperation is perhaps a reflection of a trademark Modi-Shah campaign mantra: when ahead, simply go for the jugular.
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It is this constant hunger and desire for success that separates Modi from star politicians before him. Indira Gandhi was just as popular and authoritarian but maybe less driven (she actually had interests beyond politics!). The BJP’s original Lucknow poster boy, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was charismatic and arguably a much finer public speaker; but he clearly lacked the ruthlessness that is part of the Modi persona. The Atal-Advani era was a gentler one and the BJP was still an exclusivist party struggling to shed its Brahmin-Bania upper caste image. The Ram Mandir movement aided the party’s political expansion, especially in UP, but it was never able to fully accommodate the aspirations of a new India because its leadership was still haunted by the dominance of the Congress–Nehruvian system.
By contrast, the Modi-Shah model is determined to rewrite history in electoral and ideological terms and is designed to take no prisoners. The defeats in Delhi and Bihar were setbacks but it didn’t stop Gujarat’s political duo from sticking to their ambitious goal of a Congress-Mukt Bharat. When Shah first spoke of it in 2014, it sounded like the typical bombast of an arrogant politician; now, it appears almost prophetic. The Congress is now in power in barely five and a half states in the country, the BJP rules in more than ten. It is now the principal pole of Indian politics: there wasn’t a constituency in UP where the BJP wasn’t in the fight this time; a remarkable turnaround for a party which won just 47 seats in the state five years ago. Even in distant Manipur, the BJP has gained significantly—more proof of its geographical spread.
At the heart of this strategy lies a personality-centric approach which is best described as “Modi 360”. If in 2014 a ‘virtual’ Modi was transported into remote homes across India through hologram technologies, he is now being driven into the public imagination by constant marketing of the government’s ‘achievements’ across media platforms. From Start Up India to Mudra Yojana, from the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana to the soil card scheme, the message of a leader in 24X7 hyper-active mode who the propaganda machine tells us barely sleeps or takes a break is sought to be reinforced. From “anti-corruption” demonetisation to “tough on terror” surgical strikes, there isn’t any space that the Modi cult doesn’t seek to monopolise. Crucially, a large segment of the population trusts Modi. It’s a credibility quotient that has seen the poor ready to bear the hardship of ‘note-bandi’.
Indeed, as faceless RSS functionaries build a solid booth-level network during elections, as social engineering co-opts new caste groups, as an unapologetic political Hindutva consolidates a ‘Hindu nationalist’ identity, Modi is now the mascot for a brand of aggressive politics that has never been seen before in this country. In the 50s and 60s, as the Congress won election after election, the ‘umbrella’ social-political coalition under the Nehru-Indira leadership and the goodwill of the freedom movement sustained their dominance. Now, we have a new dominant force which is built around an intoxicating mix of hope, Hindutva, and personal magnetism. 2017 has confirmed that 2014 was no aberration. A distinctive, hardnosed political order is being constructed.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and the author of 2014: The Election That Changed India