Three years ago, Narendra Modi overshadowed all BJP leaders at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan a day after Nitish Kumar called off a dinner for the BJP’s national executive in a huff after ads praising Modi appeared in Bihar newspapers. The crowd in Modi masks cheered him on as he spoke, dwarfing other top leaders.
While there is no denying Modi’s immense popularity among BJP workers, he harnessed it well through public appearances, smart PR work and a wide social media presence. The RSS and sections of the BJP backing him also cited this popularity, thus making it acquire a self-perpetuating circularity.
Earlier this year, the same scene was repeated in Bangalore in the run-up to the Karnataka polls, with local MP Ananth Kumar literally being booed as the crowd awaited Modi. In a repeat act days back, the crowd again chanted Modi’s name at Jaipur.
Once the RSS thought he was the best bet for the BJP to return to power, increasing sections of the BJP leaned towards him to be in the good books of the RSS and the party cadre.
“I want you to stand up and welcome the most popular leader,” party chief Rajnath Singh dramatically told the BJP national council in Delhi early in 2013. He was making up to Modi, accurately reading that the Sangh and workers were veering towards him.
Himself aware that his time had indeed come, Modi tactically positioned himself for the top post over the following months. He took to speaking in Hindi even in Gujarat to reach out to a wider audience.
He leveraged his three-term stint in Gujarat to suggest that he was best suited to pull India out of the spiral of corruption and “policy paralysis”. Perception of a leadership vacuum and massive corruption charges against the UPA government provided Modi the perfect platform to project himself as a national alternative.
Over the last few months he addressed one rally after another across India, reaching out to different sections of the population. He addressed students at Sri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi in February 2013, rural and small town crowds at Ramdev’s Patanjali Yogpeeth at Haridwar in April, and FICCI ladies the same month. He is also slated to address ex-servicemen at Rewari in Haryana on Sunday.
“I am neither an optimist who believes a glass is half full nor a pessimist who sees it as half empty. I believe it is completely filled: half with water and half with air,” he told SRCC students amid applause, projecting himself as a go-getter.
The huge support of the Bihar unit – the one that faced constant barbs from then ally JD(U) over secularism – was an additional feather in his cap.
The circle was thus complete. RSS and the BJP backed him for his popularity, which in turn seemed larger after the backing. “I am with the leader who will make me win,” a BJP leader from Bihar said as Modi was facing fire from Nitish Kumar earlier this year.
Added to this was the massive reach out to the urban middle class through smart PR work – through PR firms including global lobbying giant APCO Worldwide, which promoted the Vibrant Gujarat Investment Summit in 2013 – and impressive social media activity. Modi is the most followed Indian politician on Twitter, has a blog, and has all his speeches of the last few years uploaded on his website.
He also took care to keep the core Hindutva constituency happy, refusing a skull cap two years back, and making loaded “puppy” and “burqa of secularism” remarks earlier this year.
The fact that he combined Hindutva with claims to good governance and middle class aspiration made his popularity among BJP workers soar further. By marrying Hindutva to governance, he had made the former more respectable, they felt.