In the run up to the Gujarat elections, other younger leaders with forceful campaigns have challenged Narendra Modi’s brand appeal.
At the entrance to a small lane leading into Dhalni Pole in Ahmedabad’s old city, one finds a panwalla, a galla piled with rolled fabric, a blackboard, a chakki with old fashioned grinding machines and a reading room where several old men sit in chairs with their faces buried in newspapers. Nothing seems to have changed here in over half a century.
Except for one thing: ‘RG’s Salon’ has granite on the walls, new tiles on the floor, six large new chairs facing full length mirrors, each with its individual supply station, fluorescent lights and a board offering a range of services including facials, hair cut, hair colour, highlighting, straightening etc. The young man who has taken over the management of what used to be his father’s barber shop, shows me the styles favoured by today’s youth on his smartphone: mohawks, burst fades, skin fades, razor tattoos.
In the streets, the crowded marketplaces, in malls and in small town nukkads one sees small-built, sallow-skinned, thin young men in gaudy shirts, sporting spiky Mohawks and faux hawks or hurtling down streets on motorbikes. In a deeply stratified society where appearance is often a signifier of caste, local observers suggest that this form of style assertion is tied to the rise of the OBC. OBC or Other Backward Castes, which include several communities such as Thakors, Rabaris, and Kolis, and forms a hefty 45 per cent of Gujarat’s population.
Benefiting from expanded reservations in education and public sector jobs in the 1980s , which created a professional class, backward castes have continued to improve their economic lot. Many came into big money by selling their land to real estate developers seeking to build in the rural margins of cities (and sometimes blew it up in unwise spending sprees). At the lower end of the socio-economic scale, they have moved into the bootlegging business, once cornered by Muslims and now also supply the growing demand in the service industry, working alongside Dalits in malls and as couriers. The current reigning superstar of the Gujarati screen, Vikram Thakor, belongs to a backward caste and is a sensuous, fiery personality whose entry on screen is often marked by a camera lingering lovingly on his various style markers: tight white trousers, a flashy watch, tan leather brogues and layered locks.
Gujarat, as this brief preamble suggests, is at once a deeply stratified as well as a fluid society, where aspiration plays a strongly motivating role. Among other characteristics one can identify a marked strain of anti-elitism that draws both from tradition but also from the indigenous schools inspired by Gandhi as an alternative to colonial education during the freedom struggle. The extreme commercialisation of education starting in the 1970s lowered standards of learning, creating a sense of inadequacy among people known for their commercial acumen and entrepreneurial talents.
A significant part of Narendra Modi’s appeal as chief minister derived from his understanding of, and ability to harness, the latent insecurities arising from these factors. In the aftermath of the 2002 mass violence when Gujarat was at the receiving end of worldwide criticism Modi crafted a narrative of victimhood by harping on Gujarati asmita (pride) and offering himself as an embodiment of the same.
He was the virile figure with a 56-inch chest, wrestling with alligators in a lake. He was the leader who manifested the desires of his audience in his flamboyant dress style, not unlike a film star, appearing in glossy indo-west ethnic wear at times that would do a TV star proud, in bright turbans, in suits, sometimes with a cravat and even a cowboy hat.
As prime minister he has continued this strategy by attempting to symbolise the nation. There are shades of India-is-Indira-and-Indira-is-India here but the more relevant example is Richard Branson’s strategy of embodying the corporation. As Branson talks about his hectic work schedule and performs adventurous stunts, offering himself up for the public gaze at all times, he is the brand. Modi works with a similar combination of narrative, virility and visibility.
These strategies have always existed and been used by politicians to build charisma, but in a world intensely driven by media and glamour, they have become more intense. Vladimir Putin’s sporty, bare torso images, and Justin Trudeau’s boyish good looks and sensitivity, all underscore certain narratives. Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan both benefited by their high visibility, as did N.T. Rama Rao in his day in Andhra Pradesh.
But, to come back to the Gujarat elections: the ongoing campaign has been analysed in terms of issues—a disgruntlement over the adverse effects of GST, joblessness etc.—and personalities. The emergence of new leaders, each representing a constituency, and the combativeness of a Hardik Patel and even Rahul Gandhi, has been perceived as posing a threat to the BJP’s fortunes in the state.
How this will play out will be seen when the results emerge in a few days. But in the run up to the elections, the young leaders with their forceful campaigns have challenged Modi’s brand appeal by competing, not for stature but for attention. For a strategy that relies on undiluted attention this is a concern, and the days ahead might see a course correction that could have more enduring political implications.
Amrita Shah is Visiting Faculty, Centre for Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.