Students of politics tend to divide voters into a simple binary: those who support our ideology and those who oppose it. This is how most people see Indian politics today. You are either anti-Narendra Modi or pro-Narendra Modi.
A slightly more nuanced understanding, especially from the point of view of electoral behaviour, is to see the population as fixed/core voters and swing voters. Such an understanding appreciates that ideological affinities are not as rigid for everyone as ideologues like to think.
A peculiar problem of Leftist ideologues is that they look for ideological purity and seek to alienate anyone who is ideologically impure. This ‘radicalism’ does not seek to persuade anyone, and merely revels in one’s own ideological smugness. Millennials like to call it ‘cancel culture’.
A budding Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) intellectual told me once how the RSS seeks to persuade people of its cause. “We try to make our opponents neutral towards us; turn neutral people into supporters; and supporters into volunteers.”
This is a three-layered process that, at least in theory, seeks to persuade everyone — every single person — of their cause. Like a washing machine, the cleaning must be complete at the end. No opponents would be left, because everyone would be persuaded. Occasional violence is only to aid this cause of establishing a consensus in their favour.
Note that the RSS/BJP wants to co-opt even the greatest object of their hatred, Muslims, into their cause of establishing Hindu domination over non-Hindus.
Neutralising the naysayers
In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first term, the BJP and its allied Hindutva forces were unable to hide their anti-Dalit edge. The Rohith Vemula suicide in Hyderabad was followed by a series of incidents of large-scale violence against Dalits in various parts of the country: assault on Dalits in Gujarat’s Una in 2016, the Bhima Koregaon episode in Maharashtra in 2018, and the April 2018 violence in various north Indian states including Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.
The Narendra Modi government was not vocal in opposing the Supreme Court’s dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and it was only after considerable pressure that it legislated to overturn the SC judgment.
Narendra Modi and the BJP need not have worried about being painted anti-Dalit, since very few Dalits vote for the BJP anyway — 34 per cent in 2019. Conventional political wisdom would have said, ‘Why worry about Dalits when they don’t vote for you? The upper caste and OBC votes are enough for a majority.’
Will Dalits vote for Modi because he washed their feet?
Yet, PM Modi knew that the image of being painted anti-Dalit could hurt him even if their votes didn’t matter much. The anti-Dalit image posed a narrative risk. A popular perception that ‘Dalits are against Modi’ could have contributed to a wider anti-incumbency sentiment. Modi, therefore, embarked on a number of campaign initiatives to neutralise Dalit anger against the BJP, or at least distance himself from Hindutva’s anti-Dalit image.
The highlight of these campaign events was the PM washing the feet of Dalit sanitation workers during the 2019 Kumbh Mela. You won’t meet a single Dalit who will say s/he voted for Modi because he washed the feet of a few Dalits. In fact, you can meet many decrying the gimmick. But what it did was ‘neutralise the opponents’. If a Dalit in a village said Modi was anti-Dalit, a BJP supporter could turn around and say, why would he then wash the feet of Dalits?
Eventually, some Dalits did vote for Modi, lured by his class-welfare appeal (housing, for example) and because they saw everybody else was voting for Modi anyway.
The humility to change course
Modi does this all the time, taking steps to neutralise any factor with which you may be able to criticise him. Before 2014, a Himalayan-sized propaganda answered all those who accused him of being responsible for the 2002 Gujarat riots. When Citizenship (Amendment) Act-National Register of Citizens protests started, the prime minister distanced himself from the NRC and made a rally crowd chant ‘Vibhinnta mein ekta, Bharat ki visheshta!’ — unity in diversity.
When Modi felt upper castes resented not being taken seriously by him, the prime minister gave them a quota-within-a-quota. When he saw the promise of a farm loan waiver helped the Congress win Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh assembly elections, he announced a cash transfer scheme for small farmers.
All of this is well known. What is not often observed is how Modi constantly battles weaknesses and threats by neutralising critics and criticism. This becomes especially important when you see opposition parties like the Congress unable to do so. When he came in for criticism for wearing an expensive suit with his own name woven into it, he had the suit auctioned for charity. Had he not done so, the suit could have been an election issue even in 2019. The critics were silenced immediately.
Modi’s critics often see him as arrogant. He likes to be seen as a strongman who gets his way no matter what. The truth is that he seems to be extremely sensitive to criticism and reacts quickly to it. This is an underrated reason why Prime Minister Modi seems to have ‘Teflon coating’ — why no blunder seems to affect him. Rahul Gandhi, to take an extreme contrast, never seems to think he’s doing anything wrong because he rarely seems to change his course. Responding to criticism needs the humility to acknowledge criticism.
Every criticism must be answered
When Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, he immediately showed a surprising obsession with foreign policy, and that included a lot of travelling abroad. This incurred a narrative risk of voters saying, ‘He’s abroad all the time’. To answer this, the reply was immediately ready: The prime minister travels to raise India’s profile in the world. What could have been a matter of criticism was turned into a point of success.
Rahul Gandhi also travels abroad way too often, and unlike Narendra Modi he does not have the excuse of official work. Rahul Gandhi gets criticised so much for this that BJP spokespersons have now started using the word “Bangkok” as an epithet for him.
Unlike Modi and the BJP, Rahul Gandhi and the Congress have no answer for why he travels abroad so often. Sometimes they might say it’s for family reasons or exchanges with NRIs, but that does not explain the dozens of trips a year, and long days of disappearance. This is an example of criticism the Congress party does not take seriously enough to ‘neutralise’ it.
If Narendra Modi was heading the Congress, he would first spend time, resources and campaign energy on answering all the criticism the party faces. From the 1984 anti-Sikh riots to Rahul Gandhi’s holidays, he would come up with seemingly persuasive answers — even if they were merely rhetorical — to all the points of criticism the party often faces. And he would make sure these answers travelled to all voters — everyone should be aware of them.
Contain the spread
For Modi, this ‘answering’ is like a dialogue with opponents, what in Hindi is called ‘tark-vitark’, a debate with logic and reasoning. The idea is to reduce the opposition Modi could face from any quarter. There will always be opponents, but to what degree do they want to overthrow him? How desperate are they to remove him? The greater the anger — even in a small section of society — the greater the risk that it could one day spread to society at large.
This idea is followed not just by Prime Minister Modi but also by the organisation that trained him, the RSS. We may recall, for instance, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s outreach to ‘liberals’ in 2018 where he attempted to show the RSS as a dynamic organisation willing to rethink its positions and change with the times. Once again, it was an attempt to ‘neutralise’ the trenchant criticism the RSS receives from liberals.
Imagine the Congress party doing a meeting with Hindutva intellectuals?
The author is contributing editor, ThePrint. Views are personal.