Presidential Prime Minister Narendra Modi is marching back to Raisina Hills. PM Modi seems to have persuaded the people of India to embrace a muscular, aggressive developmental Hinduvta, at least momentarily. His ‘permanent election’ mode turned 543 Lok Sabha constituencies into one national (nationalist) constituency and converted parliamentary elections into a presidential referendum. And this has paid huge dividends for the BJP.
Modi’s presidential power, as the election results demonstrate, is the product of three related sources.
Modi has invoked a deeply troubling, but politically beneficial, idea of Hindu majority being threatened by internal and external enemies. He has gone beyond ‘regulation Hinduism’ to a muscular version of resurgent neo-Hinduism. And in the process, Modi has challenged traditional ideas of plurality, diversity and secularism in India.
I was in Banaras (Varanasi) recently and witnessed his emergence as a new ruler of Kashi, a glitzy city combining fantasy and economy. Don’t forget, the politics of Hindutva feeds on the demolition of what it considers ‘structures’. How else could the city of Varanasi have tolerated the destruction of temples in the name of building a grand corridor between Kashi Vishwanath Temple and the river Ganges?
The “unblinking eye” of television, the insanity of social media and the endless WhatsApp forwards have added to Modi’s presidential leadership new mythologies and symbols. In presenting his image as that of a problem solver rather than a theoretician of justice, analysts have not yet recognised the stylistic communicative successes of Narendra Modi.
His vastly popular public radio show ‘Mann Ki Baat’ has brought him closer to the people. I was not surprised when a septuagenarian Dinesh told me at Godowlia Chowk in Varanasi that he regularly listens Modi’s ‘Mann Ki Baat’ to fight off old-age despondency. This is what has made Modi sort of a ‘new-age’ Western televangelist.
The ‘surgical strikes’ were seen by his followers as a deeply cognitive and psychological relief from immediate family and social stress. So, this public and private media-induced feeling of togetherness, shared by upper castes, backward castes and sections of Dalits is the spine of the rising BJP.
Wholesale vs retail politics
Using his humble background and Gujarati straightforwardness, Modi presented the 2019 elections as the moral equivalent of war and hyped national security as the panacea for all ills in society. This not only made opposition parties appear as a greedy-squabbling ‘Mahamilavat’ bunch but also helped him blunt the power of caste to a large extent in North India. No wonder the hyper-personalised political campaign of PM Modi worked wonders, while a more decentralised, non-personalised campaign of the Congress party huffed-puffed with intermittent success on the ground.
Instead of highlighting various policies in the retail politics of fast-moving consumer goods, Narendra Modi captured the imagination of masses and classes with a highly emotive ‘wholesale’ politics of personality and character.
That’s why he kept harping throughout the campaign that he works 20 hours a day and hardly sleeps. Even if it is fake news, people believed him.
Just recall Aamir-Khan starrer ‘Thanda matlab Coca-Cola’ ad campaign that made Coca-Cola a household name in India. Modi has instinctively followed this marketing strategy of fast-moving consumer goods and sold himself as the biggest brand of what he called ‘vikaspanthi’ politics. This is the power of messaging that the 2019 Lok Sabha elections have witnessed.
Consider his game-changing political marketing speech in Uttar Pradesh’s Bhadohi district. In a district with considerable Muslim population, he said, “After Independence, there have been four types of governance, parties and political culture — ‘naampanthi’ (dynastic) ‘vaampanthi’ (Left), ‘daam aur damanpathi’ (relying on money and muscle) and the fourth one that has been brought by us, the ‘vikaspanthi’ (development).
More than anything else, the marketing of a strong, muscular image of a ‘vikaspanthi’ who can punish Pakistan has brought Modi back to power.
Congress’ fragmented campaign
In contrast, the Congress party-led opposition got mired into the fragmented images of farmer’s stress, joblessness and demonetisation pangs. The opposition focussed more on confrontational, negative political marketing than offering aspirational products for an emergent India.
During elections, I travelled across UP, Bihar and Jharkhand, and could not find a single soul who mentioned the Congress’s much-hyped NYAY scheme. In contrast, a large majority of people believed in presidential PM Modi and his 24×7 politics of messaging and imaging.
The Modi voters could not identify any single economic policy that enhanced their livelihoods or employment prospects, but they still supported his second term. Most respondents in UP and Bihar told me, “give him at least another term”. Perhaps a presidential term limit has silently set in, giving Modi at least a two-term presidency.
Indian politics has traditionally been defined by caste, corruption and crime. But If my recent field trails are to be believed, contemporary Indian politics has changed beyond recognition. It has now become a political market for voters operating around 3Cs: Catch, Connect and Close.
Voters have increasingly become consumers of branded products. So, catching and connecting with voters has become vital. In this game, branding of the product matters. A good marketing campaign always needs to have a consistent and direct message. This is where the grand old party Congress has failed. Therefore, it is not surprising that the NYAY scheme failed to make a mark.
But credit must be given to Congress president Rahul Gandhi for taking his youthful exuberant rhetoric of “Chowkidaar chor hai” deep into the Modi’s camp and sully some of the PM’s lustre. Many people in the field told me that more than anyone else, Rahul Gandhi stands tall as the only politician who has challenged the power of ‘billionaire raj’ in India. If PM Modi has ensured himself his second presidential term, Rahul Gandhi has also stayed in the ring of Indian politics like the proverbial ‘gadfly’, despite Yogendra Yadav’s death wish for the Congress party.
To conclude, the victory of Narendra Modi has all the hallmarks of remaking India. It presents the risk of a ‘democratic dictatorship’ or altered version of ‘bureaucratic authoritarianism’. It also reinforces the trend towards a personal and hegemonic leadership, which is quite visible in the emergent model of a Presidential-Prime Minister in India.
With or without Narendra Modi, the office of the Presidential-Prime Minister will witness more aggressive centralisation in the future and system-altering leadership towards de facto presidentialism. So, watch out. We know presidentialism is usually an “irresponsible system of government” in the words of famous Brazilian statesman Ruy Barbosa.
The author is a poet, policy researcher and professor of political science at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Mumbai). His recent book is Banaras and the Other, first of a trilogy on religious cities in India. Views are personal.