Politics is largely about imagery, and Narendra Modi’s historic victory in the 2019 elections is proof of the power of images: an extravaganza specially scripted for the TV screen and the digital media. The swearing-in ceremony in the forecourt of the Presidential Palace was a spectacle; politics had been elevated to a theatrical performance. Modi’s sartorial sensibilities, his innate sense of a hatter and the ‘Modi Cave’ video at the end, tell us he is indeed the ‘king of messaging’. But beware, it’s not all style and no substance.
Political imagery needs myths and the manufacture of a heroic image; a larger than life persona and a clear identification with a big cause; a mission that can trigger a mass movement. If Mahatma Gandhi used his salt march to galvanise the nation, Modi is doing it with his promise of building a new India. Creating such a myth works like Teflon, it protects and deflects. Attacks on this heroic image become counterproductive; attempts to slander result in a blow back and the accused benefits from these slurs. The infamous tag of Chaiwala (tea vendor) in 2014 and Chowkidar Chor hai (watchman is a thief) in 2019 are the two obvious misfires.
Myths however are not fashioned out of thin air, they need a spine, a body and actions and deeds coursing through their limbs to breathe life into this heroic image. Modi while crafting this heroic image worked assiduously on his ground game, namely, delivering on his promises, or at least appearing to do so. Brand Modi needed clear deliverables, consistent communication and simple tags Phir ek bar Modi Sarkar, to be credible. The Direct Transfer of cash and benefits scheme to the poor were well directed and this laser-focused tactic was targeted at those sections of society that were not traditional BJP supporters. In the process he transcended caste politics. He built over 75 million toilets. Sanitation coverage improved from 38 per cent in 2014 to 83 per cent in 2018. Over 300 million new bank accounts were opened and over 100 million took Mudra loans, with beneficiaries being women and ‘backward castes’. Some 50 million kitchens got gas cylinders. Brand Modi was built brick by brick.
If the appointment of a Hindu priest as the chief minister in Uttar Pradesh was indicative of things to come, then the victory of Pragya Thakur in Bhopal tells us unmistakably that the country has become a Hindu nation in all but name.
Yet rural distress was acute, employment generation abysmal, and the GDP growth depressing (demonetisation allegedly shaved off 1.5 per cent of the growth). Indeed the economy has been sluggish for a while and though the Sensex is on steroids, Dalal Street is not Main Street. Having said that we are faced with a conundrum and Shashi Tharoor [Congress MP] put it well: ‘Why did that young man in 2014 who voted for Modi on the promise of a job, again vote for him in 2019 with no job in sight’? Did Modi prove Abraham Lincoln wrong, ‘you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.’
Modi knew the challenges of incumbency in 2019. A consummate politician, he knows his electorate well and realised that he could not run on his record, notwithstanding the 75 million toilets built and over 300 million new bank accounts opened.
A close watch of the public discourse from January 2019 will therefore reveal that ‘the development tag’ was given short shrift and he was on the hunt for a new narrative; a new nail to pin the opposition down: Religious nationalism.
India, with or without Modi was already veering to the right, Hindu nationalism has been on the rise. Many may say it was fanned by Modi, but the fact remains, real or imagined grievances of the Hindus were ever-present and Modi was astute enough to tap into this decisive lurch to the right. Yes, Pulwama was a gift, and it was adroitly used to strength the narrative, that the nation is safe only in Modi’s hands. Nationalism and religion are silver bullets. If the appointment of a Hindu priest as the chief minister in Uttar Pradesh was indicative of things to come, then the victory of Pragya Thakur in Bhopal tells us unmistakably that the country has become a Hindu nation in all but name. Thakur was no aberration, the country rewarded her handsomely (she won by an overwhelming majority) for calling Gandhi’s assassin a patriot. And lurking in the shadows are other Thakurs, who also won seats to Parliament.
So then, is this a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man? That would be uncharitable. Nehru said, ‘We are little men serving a great cause but because the cause is great something of that greatness falls upon us also’. We must all live on hope, perhaps some of the greatness will indeed fall on Modi.
Ravi Menon is a Dubai-based writer, working on a series of essays on India and on a public service initiative called India Talks.