On May 16, Narendra Modi’s victory tweet — ‘India has won, Bharat ki vijay, acche din aane wale hain’ (India has won, good times are about to arrive) — became the most ‘retweeted tweet’ in India. While ‘India has won’ suggested his electoral success, the ‘good times’ hinted at the poll promises, hopes and anxieties that had become a hallmark of his candidacy.
In this uplifting but vague slogan, the message was clear: Modi was the one who would realise the tantalising promise of liberalisation the Congress ushered in more than two decades ago.
To those who recall the history of the early 1990s, the irony would be obvious — the original party of reforms had been upstaged from its plank and that too by a member of an organisation that was among the original opponents of the reforms.
The main opposition to the economic reforms came from both the Left-Socialist parties as well as the RSS organ Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, albeit for different ideological reasons. Yet by 2014, Modi, a grassroots RSS pracharak, had come to be seen as the prime torchbearer of the reforms agenda.
The making of Brand Modi can be traced in the currents of some fundamental shifts that have taken place in the Indian social-political landscape since the beginning of reforms. And understanding those changes is the key to making sense of those voters who purchased the promise of ‘good times’.
One of the fundamental shifts that took place between 1991 and 2014 is that the logic of economic reforms has gained large-scale acceptance in India.
It has become a matter of common sense to connect the rising economic growth rates to development and progress. This is even when the data does not support this correlation, but shows how growth by itself has never been enough to guarantee social welfare in any part of the world.
Yet the popular dream sequences — the good times — of the ‘aspirational class’ are now firmly tied to the magic of growth rates. Consequently, the success of the State is measured upon its ability to facilitate global capital flows.
Investor-confidence has become as legitimate a concern for political parties as voter-confidence used to be in the past. In fact, the two are now intricately entwined.
This key transformational shift brewing within the electorate came to the surface in this election.
Modi, more than anyone else, understood this shift and projected himself as the harbinger of good times: Jobs, infrastructure, low inflation, high capital investments.
The 1990s heated rhetoric of Mandir/Mandal or that of Hindutva was deliberately kept on low fuse even as the cold arithmetic of caste/religion played out in the electoral field. What we are witnessing in 2014 is India’s full transformation as an unbridled capitalist society that the Congress had been unable to facilitate to the same extent.
This was especially evident in the business section of newspapers where Modi was welcomed as the ‘new CEO of India’ rather than as the new PM.
The nation, the past decade, has evolved a new corporate identity — Brand India — seeking to become an ‘attractive investment destination’ for investors. In this corporate world, it is common to speak of the Indian PM as the CEO of Brand India.
The 2014 elections, in this context, have merely effected a change from CEO Manmohan Singh, who was not seen to be performing efficiently, to CEO Narendra Modi, who promises to do more. Modi’s performance in Gujarat was thus repeatedly contrasted with Singh’s alleged non-performance to mark the difference.
The Gujarat Model was pitched and publicised as a glowing ‘report card’ to secure the confidence of investors and citizens. In policy terms, the new incumbent does not offer anything radically different in the domain of economy, only the promise to accelerate the reform process that had seemingly slowed down in the UPA’s second term.
The desire for political change began gaining ground when India’s growth rates started falling below global expectations in early 2012.
The earlier sky-high ambitions of ‘making it’ to double-digit growth like in China were now looking distant as growth projections were repeatedly lowered by global rating agencies.
In August 2013, the rupee crash made a big dent in both the narrative of the ‘India growth story’ as well as the hopes of the aspirational class tethered to it. India was no longer the centre of world’s attention.
All of a sudden, the dreams of becoming a global power were set back by a decade when all India had was potential and the desire to make it big.
If we locate Brand Modi’s arrival on the political stage against this national anxiety and fear of being ‘left behind’, then the BJP’s electoral victory becomes less of an enigma.
Brand Modi fulfils all the wishes of the aspirational class that yearns for a strong wilful leadership deemed necessary for decisive action.
The campaign rhetoric of a masculine Modi — broad chest, measurements duly publicised — pitted against the image of a mild, cerebral Singh and a boyish Rahul Gandhi was by no means an accident. It sought to project the image of a man with steely determination.
In fact, his refusal to reach out to the victims of 2002 Gujarat violence even in the face of widespread criticism only worked to enhance his strongman image among his supporters.
There’s only once before in post-colonial India’s history that a PM said to be iron-willed took the reins of power. That was Indira Gandhi, whose corporeal body the nation eventually morphed into: Indira is India, India is Indira.
In 2014, we are witnessing a different merger — Brand Modi is Brand India, Brand India is Brand Modi — where the paths of the two appear to be inseparable. Yet as Ms Gandhi found out, the ‘mood of the nation’ could change rapidly. If Brand Modi does not perform, the aspirational class, forever in search of good times, may devour its deity too.
Ravinder Kaur is a historian of contemporary India and based between Delhi and Copenhagen. The views expressed by the author are personal.