The Gujarat poll verdict will decide if Narendra Modi needs to be reinvented

Representational image | PTI Photo
Representational image | PTI Photo

Regardless of how people voted, Modi jokes do not invite abuses like ‘anti-national’ and ‘anti-Gujarat’ on social media or public conversations in the state.

As the nation awaits the Gujarat election results next week, it will be useful to go beyond the hard numbers, and take note of an important tectonic shift that has taken place in the state. This is best illustrated anecdotally.

During one of his public meetings at Nadiad in central Gujarat recently, PM Narendra Modi recalled his association with the town. He said he stayed there in a room at the famous Santaram Temple for some time.

As he narrated the story, local reporters rolled their eyes. “Here he goes again. Let’s see what story he cooks up this time,” was a general refrain. Modi’s story about his stay at the temple was true, but it didn’t seem to matter. It did not change the attitude of the reporters.  

Things used to be very different in the past decade or so. Members of the mainstream media and enthusiastic crowds would have admonished anyone trying to mock Modi earlier. When Modi held press conferences as the chief minister of the state, he would rudely discourage questions from the media. On more than one occasion, he would counter a critical reporter with questions like, “What is the circulation of your paper?” And without even waiting for a reply from the journalist, he would add, “You can ask only one question with your kind of circulation.”

Reporters remained mute spectators to such instances of routine humiliation earlier. Some would chuckle, and others would advise fellow journalists not to persist in annoying Modi.

Clearly, things have changed now. Local media behaviour has changed, especially in last few months. ‘Pappu’ jokes are no longer going viral. No one remembers ‘Feku’ either. But a whole new series of jokes on Modi have poured in.

As the election campaign ended with Modi riding a sea plane, a message that was shared widely said: “Modi ran out of time, unfortunately. If he had more time, he would have definitely ridden a motorcycle in ‘Mot no Golo’ (Sphere of Death)”, a popular circus act in which a daredevil rides motorcycle in hollow sphere. Modi’s James Bond-like seaplane ride even generated comments about the lack of efficient service in the area where his plane landed.

These are not isolated examples. Modi’s disproportionate self-flagellation after Mani Shankar Aiyar’s ‘neech’ remark, just like mentions of his humble origin, provided fodder for social media, besides giving material to cartoonists here.

Such incidents indicate something important for the BJP and its prime vote-catcher, Modi. The people of Gujarat no longer think twice before making fun of Modi and his not-so-merry men. People may vote for his party, but he is no longer a ‘holy cow’. Modi jokes do not invite abuses like ‘anti-national’ and ‘anti-Gujarat’ on social media or public conversations any more. The big shift took more than a decade to come and it is not likely to end quickly, irrespective of the outcome on Monday.

Just like the viral slogan of ‘Vikas Gando Thayo Che (development has gone crazy)’, this new brazen irreverence is not being sustained by any political party. It has been propagated and circulated by the people of Gujarat.

Modi’s tears, roars, insults, and displays of wounded pride—almost everything appears predictable now.  And predictability is dangerous for performers. Modi knows it better than anyone else. (The seaplane ride at the eleventh hour of campaign proved it).

The question many are now asking is this: Will he be able to override the predicament of predictability in Gujarat? Or does he have newer tricks up his sleeve?

A victory in Gujarat with over 110 seats will convince him that the old tricks still work, and though people may take potshots at it, they are not yet fully fed up. A new trick or two to the old repertoire might keep the show going. But anything below 110 seats will be an indication for Modi that he needs to reinvent urgently, at least in Gujarat, as he faces new political challenges.

Urvish Kothari is a senior columnist and writer based at Ahmedabad.