Brand Modi, so shiny

Published April 30, 2014
Children play wearing masks of BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi in Varanasi. -Photo by AP
Children play wearing masks of BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi in Varanasi. -Photo by AP

Three years ago, few Indians would have bet on Modi being anointed BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and also becoming the frontrunner for that position. Such a thing was deemed possible, yet highly improbable. Agreed, the man was already worshipped by hordes as the most decisive leader to have been born on this side of the Hindu Kush Mountains, but the shadow of 2002 loomed large over him.

What changed?

Well, many things. After all, we are talking about a great political shift in the world’s largest democracy. Let us have a quick look at how we arrived at the present moment.

An internal shakeup

By mid-2011, the success of the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement offered sharp contrast to two important political realities.

The first one is obvious: the Congress party was getting exposed for the impunity with which it practised and tolerated corruption. The second political reality was that, unlike the anti-corruption movement, the BJP was facing a crisis in leadership.

The party’s patriarch – LK Advani – had already lost popularity. And it was becoming painfully evident that he was losing clout within the party as well. At this juncture, an array of second-rung leaders began a not-so-private clamour for power.

The leaders of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha – Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley respectively – were favourites, with Ananth Kumar and even Venkaiah Naidu reaching out for the top post. Not even a consensus candidate emerged and the crisis continued. Even the prospect of toppling UPA-2 before its full term did not fully unite this central leadership.

It was time for the Sangh Parivar – BJP’s ideological parent and, in many ways, the master of BJP’s political will – to assume full control. This happened in a tenuous manner due to a clash of egos between two Sangh Parivar stalwarts. The first was Suresh Soni, the powerful liaison between the Parivar and the BJP.

The second was the RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat himself. Soni had, of late, been relegated to the sidelines since the incumbent BJP President Nitin Gadkari received instructions directly from Bhagwat. When the opportunity came, Soni outwitted Bhagwat by ensuring that Nitin Gadkari did not get re-elected as the BJP party chief.

Rajnath Singh assumed this post, and in an unrelated note, Soni decided to elevate Narendra Damodar Modi as the face of the party for the 2014 elections despite strong opposition from factions within the BJP, as well as the RSS.

 Narendra Modi greets supporters after casting his vote at a polling station in Ahmedabad on April 30, 2014. -Photo by AFP
Narendra Modi greets supporters after casting his vote at a polling station in Ahmedabad on April 30, 2014. -Photo by AFP

Modi had a few things going for him. Most tellingly, he had the maximum mass appeal amongst all BJP leaders. This was a welcome change as compared to the central leaders who could not even boast a decent home base of support. Jaitley, in fact, has never won a Lok Sabha election and is far more effective in an air-conditioned television studio than a hot maidaan. The other leaders weren’t much better off. Is it any surprise that these leaders have either fallen in line or been sidelined?

Once the party cadre and Modi admirers welcomed his candidature, it became easier to douse the still simmering ambitions of Advani. A cherished star was growing brighter and his home cosmos was ready to send him out into the universe.

Weakened adversaries and good tidings

Every Indian political party hopes to be lead by a person who will attract coalition partners by the dozens. Coalition drama ... sorry … coalition dharma paves the path to the Lok Sabha, and there’s no way around it. Simply put, the presence or absence of strong coalition partners makes or breaks a party respectively. This is especially true for the BJP, which has zero or negligible presence in large swathes of India (so much for being the second largest national party!).

Here, Modi is found wanting. Desirable allies such as Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik and others want nothing to do with a man living under the shadow of the 2002 Gujarat communal riots. And no amount of mass appeal could have compensated for the loss of significant coalition partners. Modi circumvented this problem due to favourable political conditions in adversarial camps:

• Nitish’s fortunes are on the decline in Bihar. So much so that BJP might be eyeing net gains in that backward state in spite of not partnering with Nitish’s party, the JD(U).

• The bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh was a classic case of the Congress shooting itself in the foot. It is unable to encash the formation of Telangana because the TRS will get a lion’s share of the credit. Meanwhile, the move ensured that the Congress would be routed in the rest of Andhra Pradesh. Due to these surreal developments, the BJP knew it could get at least one strong regional party into its ranks. As of now, that party happens to be the TDP. Who knows? Maybe even the YSR Congress might join the Modi bandwagon later.

• The fact that the Third Front does not exist even in a fractured form converts this election into a two-horse race. And with the Congress almost certain of being decimated, it will not be in a position to get together with the Third Front to keep the BJP-led NDA out of power.

• Sonia’s illness weakened the Congress further. She had to pass on the baton to the eternal prince-in-waiting. Of course, the prince has dropped the baton since and is unable to find it in the dark.

Besides, many opportunistic regional leaders will make their moves once the results are declared. If a Modi-led NDA gets close enough to the magic figure of 272 seats, and it’s a matter of just travelling the last mile into the PMO, many regional parties such as AIADMK, TMC and maybe even the BJD might help him.

Modi’s authoritarian, non-secular image will be a liability only if the BJP fails to secure even 180 seats. But since that seems unlikely at the moment, his current NDA allies are in a reasonably peaceful frame of mind, allowing him to focus on mesmerising his audiences.

And he’s doing that with the help of…

A brand so shiny

More than anything else, a modern election is about creating alluring, sustainable perceptions. It’s about Brand Building. And the Modi Brand has managed to convince millions that he:

• Is a man of action – even the Economist has described him thus.

• Loves nation building – apparently, he has always dreamt of doing great things, never about becoming somebody great.

• Doesn’t waste his breath accusing opponents – (his maidaan speeches indicate otherwise, but then, we are talking perception).

• Believes in more progressive meaning of the term secularism – it means India first. Using this stance, he attempts to sidestep landmines in the shape of skull caps and whatnot. He is also helped by the possibility that a great number of non-Hindutva Hindus aren’t currently defensive about or ashamed of their religious identity. Many moderate Indians, once appalled by 2002, now want to see it as a blip in the past. Only time will tell whether this is wisdom or myopia. Whatever it is, it is working for Modi.

• Is tough to the core – will not stand nonsense from neighbours and super-bullies. No matter how he behaves tomorrow while in office, he has carefully built the image of being tough and wanting to protect Indian interests despite odds. Which brings us to the next point.

• Is not a quitter – perhaps the most truthful element in his Brand. Modi is, in many ways, the quintessential fighter. He won’t back down, he won’t ever say die. Whether you badger him on actual development figures in Gujarat or his role in the 2002 riots, he is ready to counter you with either his silence or his rhetoric.

• Hates nepotism – he actually keeps a bureaucrat brother at arm’s length to send the message that nepotism will not be tolerated. That makes another truthful element in the Brand.

What’s not to love about this Brand? It’s the phantasm resulting from this Brand that’s roaming the nation like a juggernaut.

An illusion so sustainable

As already mentioned, a brand so alluring must also be sustainable. Modi ensures sustainability by:

• Indulging in negligible media interaction till recently. The shrillest and biggest television anchors – virtual power centres in Indian politics – have not been entertained by Modi. A Prime Ministerial aspirant needn’t himself speak to the media so long as he is spoken about in the media; the latter is happening.

• Being extremely choosy about media exposure now, as the tempo of campaigning increases. As we approach the business end, Modi is giving interviews on platforms that will allow him to stay in control.

• Running a campaign so ubiquitous that it is impossible to ignore. In fact, many accuse him of pumping billions of corporate rupees into his high-octane campaign. After all, he is the darling of the business world – a man known to simplify life for the capital class.

For once, the anti-establishment outsider seems to have more wherewithal than the clueless insiders. Yet, another paradox of Brand Modi, but one that doesn’t engage us sufficiently at the moment. The juggernaut rolls on.

 Narendra Modi takes a
Narendra Modi takes a 'selfie' after casting his vote at a polling station in Ahmedabad on April 30. -Photo by AFP

That magical election plank

Modi’s election plank is a corruption-free, pro-people government that practises transparency. Sounds familiar? It should. It’s strangely similar to the demand made by the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption, pro-Lokpal movement.

As early as March 2011, this plank found massive support amongst Indians. Nobody was left in any doubt that the nation is witnessing an anti-Congress, anti-mis-governance sentiment. Modi seems to have adopted this election plank before painting it with his own colours. It’s more than a little ironical because it was the Hazare-led movement which indirectly led to the leadership crisis in the BJP, resulting in his elevation.

In this manner, the story of Modi’s mainstreaming comes a full circle.

And so it stands at the moment – the most diverse and largest democracy in the world seems to be contemplating over just two choices. You can have the Modi or the non-Modi. And making everything about oneself is as mainstream as one can get.


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