Narendra Modi
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He’s our most polarising leader, deeply hated by many but equally loved by more, especially the young. To extrapolate BJP’s struggles in Gujarat and Karnataka to 2019 is fatally complacent.

A striking finding from travels in poll-bound states in the past couple of years is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sustained popular appeal. People are for sure angry about the kind of things people do get angry about: price rise (especially of petrol and diesel), farm distress, lack of employment, declining businesses, demonetisation, GST and so on. Much of it is also directed at the BJP, in the states and at the Centre.

It doesn’t seem to reflect on the prime minister, as if he were now an entity or a brand all by himself. Above his government, party, and facts. It will be lazy to use that ghisa-pita Americanism ‘Teflon-coated’. Teflon also wears over time with use. We are witnessing a different phenomenon. As if cast in titanium rather than just be coated with Teflon.

Shekhar Gupta, chairman and editor-in-chief of ThePrintNarendra Modi now isn’t just a self-made leader in a system weighed down by dynasties, privilege and that sweeping Indianism, “background”. He is a self-made superbrand, almost deified by enough Indians now, never mind his politics and worse, economics. Usual qualifications of course apply. It doesn’t cut across all identities and there are many that detest him: the minorities, committed socialists and, increasingly now, the Dalits. But, never in my decades of trawling the interiors reading the writings on the wall, have I noted a phenomenon like this.

Rajiv Gandhi was more popular (than Modi at any time) and could do no wrong but only for about his first 18 months. His decline was catastrophic. Simply put: in those first 18 months, anything Rajiv Gandhi said would bring tears to our mothers’ eyes. The 19th month onwards, just about anything he said would make our children laugh. That’s how long it took to turn a rock star prime minister into a joke. Anti-incumbency affects every leader. In these hyper-connected, impatient times, honeymoon periods should logically be shorter. Is Narendra Modi immune from this universal fact?

I brace for the abuse that this argument will bring. Here is a question. Everybody votes: the Chief Justice of India, the Rashtrapati, the Election Commissioners, and journalists. Do you let your voting preferences cloud your judgment?

The next question will be on my timing. Can we say this within a week of Modi failing to lead his party to a majority in Karnataka? And just months after seeing it return with a narrow majority even in his home state of Gujarat? Don’t these show that his party’s popularity is declining? The answer is, yes. The BJP has seen some decline. But not the prime minister.

In both Gujarat and now Karnataka, the consensus is that it was a lost cause for the BJP until Modi arrived. In Gujarat his party secured a majority of eight, and in Karnataka it fell short of that many. In Karnataka most opinion polls had shown the Congress 5 per cent votes ahead, and while it is the season to beat up pollsters, note that these surveys were done before Modi arrived.

Imagine what would be the score without his push in the closing stages. His party was unpopular enough to lose both the states. He is still popular enough to win these by himself. In both states his local leaders were liabilities. Vijay Rupani is a nobody. Yeddyurappa is old, temperamental, carries the burden of corruption, a single-caste leader and would’ve been devastated but for Modi’s 21 rallies. In Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Karnataka, Modi sought votes for himself. Rahul Gandhi wanted a vote against Modi in UP and Gujarat and for Siddaramaiah in Karnataka. It was a lost cause.

Can a leader so immunise himself from the image of his own party and raise himself to a platform above friend and foe? The facts are before us. We know the economy has struggled under him, job growth is disastrous, the strategic situation has worsened, particularly in the neighbourhood, social cohesion is facing dangerous strains, and far too many are feeling the pain. Yet, enough keep voting for him even when his frontmen are duds. What are they likely to do when Modi himself is the frontman next year?

Just how is this possible, is the question that sat on my mind too. Until a moment of epiphany in travels in Karnataka. Outside a private engineering college between the bellwether constituency of Shirahatti and the district town of Gadag, I chatted with young women students waiting for the bus to go home to their villages.

They were first year, second semester students, so around 18 and first time voters this year or next. Conversations brought the same answers, so striking that I made videos on my phone. Each said she would vote for BJP, “but only because of Modi”. Why? Because Swachh Bharat has worked, even my village is 75 per cent clean, we are becoming Digital India, he has improved India’s image globally and, most importantly that “corruption has been destroyed”. Now there is no point arguing because they believe it as ‘the’ truth. What do they think of Rahul Gandhi? “Must be a good man, but I don’t really know.” So, it isn’t as if I love Modi and detest Rahul, I only know Modi as a leader. And his is the only message I have heard.

I had written after the 2014 elections that this is the young new non-ideological, I-don’t-owe-you-nothing India. It has no nostalgia for dynasties, whatever their sacrifices. In those minds now, Modi is the only leader. They know no other. Conversations across Karnataka, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh affirm this pan-national phenomenon. The grown-ups are still polarised and mostly haven’t shifted old loyalties. That’s why Modi’s opponents still get large numbers of votes. But the young, are now a different electoral demographic. There will be 14 crore of them voting next year. There will be divisions but their devotion is largely now to a new monotheism: Modi-ism.

How did Modi get here? He has perfected a new kind of messaging where he prescribes for you good things: cleanliness, honesty, education, use of technology but places the onus on you to do it for yourself and not set targets for himself you can judge him against. So you have to clean up, use digital cash, learn to use smartphones. He stays silent on any setback. He won’t speak on Kathua but later speak generally about the need to protect our “betis” and reform the “betas.” He won’t speak on Una (Gujarat) but later say, in deep anguish, kill me, but not my Dalit brothers. This distances him from bad news. He is never on a defensive ground. His is forever the moral high ground.

Rather than be held accountable, he is creating a cult around himself. Even on demonetisation, a decision as disastrous and irrational as Mao’s war on China’s sparrows, his message has simply been: I know this caused you pain, but aren’t you willing to suffer a little to make India a better country? It’s like the biblical logic of how your suffering shows there is God and you need Him. For sure, everyone doesn’t buy this. But enough do, and the very young who aren’t in the job market yet, love it.

Modi is the most polarising figure in our democratic history. Those who oppose him, hate him. They might also detest my argument. But politics is about accepting a reality and then finding ways to counter it. Or you can be fatally complacent and extrapolate BJP’s relative struggles in Gujarat and Karnataka to 2019.

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10 Comments Share Your Views

10 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Shekhar

    Nice way of portraying one side of a story without considering specifics. I think few instances need to verify population register like Punjab, Puducherry and Karnataka have more older people than younger generation as per your analysis. All individual incidents related to head of the state (nation) for your convenience. But it would be always state subject when we ask for Congress reaction.

    I really appreciate the role played by media for this story. Still we can’t find middle ground in media for our opposition to policies of this government. Maybe for diverting larger public from addressing these issues. We have taken Congress Mukth Bharath too seriously rather its Congress neglecting Hindustan.
    We really miss effective role of opposition (always thinking who is heading before opposing) for building our nation now. Maybe belated entry of Congress to social media cause for loosing ground to younger generation.

    Truth always triumphs

  2. You seem to think you are doing a tightrope walk. But your pole is tilted. What you think is Titanium is merely some cheap veneer. Teflon too is a far cry. You sound like those sill BJP ads playing on FM Radio paid for by Government of India.

  3. This is the most silly article penned by learned person like you. Everybody know how media people are cronies of the highest order where each of them strive to get favors from political class. The most obvious example is where and how they live. Secondly even the reputed newspaper like the one you are associated with have fallen a bit in the line as today’s biggest news of Farmers Bandh is nowhere to be seen on its front page.
    All TV news channels at least to say are nothing but mouthpieces of one or the other political party backed by their crony capitalist

  4. Pretty perceptive article.. Except that SG doesn’t tot up the positive points of the Modi regime adequately..swacch Bharat, saving and protecting the girl child and educating her ,building loos and pucca houses in crores, all weather road s to villages, vastly improving our highways, cooking gas and electricity for some 6 crores families and now health and medical insurance facility for the poor..wow.. That’s a lot of doing in 4 years. Add to this some 20 lakhs irrigation storage tracks and much improved irrigation facility.. The failures are in the urban front..cities , the pollution and congestion haven’t improved much. Ease of business is marginal.. Many businessmen are needlessly being hounded by the govt and tax rules are onerous.. If business doesn’t grow, sharp growth won’t happen. Employment is a function of prosperity in businesses, industry.. Govt can’t give employment to more than a few lakhs in any case..a good finance minister is sorry lacking..

  5. Dear Mr Gupta

    Though the article is well articulated, your bias against Modi is well reflected, when you give your opinion on ‘distratous growth and failing job market’.

    A country with billion people still relying on failed methods of cast reservations and choosing a incompetent dynast over no-nonsense self made leaders will remain the dream of so called ‘dedicated socialist’.

    I prefer meritocracy, substance over rhetoric and a country with equal opportunities.(Read Modi over ragtag Opposition)

  6. Perhaps the opinion piece writer needs to pull his mouth out of Modi’s cock.

    Come on, good or bad, Modi is just a human being. I am a Congress supporter but I can see the good in all leaders. What I really hate is the way Modi’s Bhaktas elevate him to God level.

    I may be willing to concede that Modi is not corrupt himself but he is surrounded by mostly corrupt people like Amit Shah. Either way he needs to resign from PM post. The nation is far more important than him.

  7. OMG! He has not come out of his digestion problem from 2014. And the same rhetoric “the economy has struggled under him, job growth is disastrous, the strategic situation has worsened, particularly in the neighborhood, social cohesion is facing dangerous strains, and far too many are feeling the pain” is never ever ever substantiated with proper facts on ground. Hail prestitutes for another win for Modi.

  8. Carefully crafted damaging essay by SG to depict Modi all image and no substance. That depiction fits your essay like a glove.

  9. This kind of journalism only strengthens Modi.
    To say that he has not done anything in four years and the last four years have been hell for every section of society is what most people do not believe. He might not be what he promised to be in 2014 but nobody is.
    The NPA mess that the UPA left is now being cleaned up through IBC (Tata buying Bhushan Steel for 36000 crores is a good example)
    Giving gas cylinders to millions of poor women is no joke and the fact that there is not a single substantial corruption charge against this governmentis remarkable considering the UPA era. He is not the perfect leader and there are many mistakes being made, but he still the best alternative.

    He has a good chance of winning 2019 because the secularism bogey that the oppostion has been using is way past its expiry date. Modi is not Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi of 2019 is not tge Sonia Gandhi of 2004. She is no longer the sacrificing goddess she was made to be in 2004. There are some very good people in the Congress but their loyalty lies in the wrong places.
    One thing I do know is that the more I watch these so called experts of indian society, I recognize the lies that has been peddled since this government came to power and why some people simply cannot give up the idea of India being ruled by only one family and no one else.

    • Totally agree with the above.
      Excellent articulation. And an excellent analyis, by Shekhar Gupta’s as well.

      Infact one looks forward to expressed opinion from him, whether it be online, on TV or on Twitter.

      He is a top class journalist. Enjoyed his NTDV stints covering GJ, PJ and recently KA elections. Each view of his is so well nuanced and balanced, never a wiff of what his personal prefs are.

      Each of his interventions on NDTV debates is so calming and educative, one wishes he would do more.

      And he has such a sobering influence on Prannoy and Dorab, who are supposedly anti Modi, although I honestly cannot make out.

      Yes, there are terrible Congi biased journalists like Sreenivan Jain and Needh Razdan, whose tilt and partisanship is clearly visible and are disgusting to watch and hear.

      Vikram Chandra is again NDTV’s classiest journalist, who keeps debate
      beautifully balanced and his parlays with Shekhar Gupta are like akin to sipping a fine wine with gourmet cheese.
      One just walks away with such a +ve feel good, watching them both.
      Sorry to veer of onto NDTV, but I am a very big SG patron

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