Decoding Narendra Modi phenomenon: Mediocrity of PM's rivals makes his electoral brilliance shine brighter
It is tempting to judge Narendra Modi’s mass appeal across time and compare him to an Indira Gandhi or a Jawaharlal Nehru, but the variables are so profound that such a comparison is meaningless.
Narendra Modi’s win was a combination of many factors and it is foolish to blame the mandate or denigrate voters for it
Narendra Modi has fully grasped the fact that India has changed and so have its political realities
Narendra Modi's achievements must necessarily be judged against that of his opponents
The implications of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s astounding win in 2019 will be analysed threadbare. Some of it has already happened. Rest assured we will see even serious academic discussions centred on this topic. For liberals, who whipped themselves up into a frenzy over Modi’s 2014 victory being a ‘Black Swan’ event, his retention of power with an even bigger mandate has come (to put it gently) as a rude shock. Some have lapsed into silence, some have taken to blaming the Opposition, most are blaming the people and a few like economist Amartya Sen are raising doubts against the very tenets of electoral democracy.
Liberals will eventually recover from their jolt and look for even newer excuses for their refusal to accept reality, but it is worth noting how irrelevant their voices have become. Sen, a Nobel laureate, almost descends into the nether regions of unreason while crying hoarse like the protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, locked in his ivory tower. It is sad.
Be that as it may, for us mere mortals, Modi’s win was a combination of many factors — not one — and it is foolish to blame the mandate or denigrate voters for it. That smacks of arrogance and intolerance. This piece aims to highlight some of the reasons behind Modi’s success, but it is worth remembering that contemporary assessment of any phenomenon — be it Modi’s win or Congress’s terminal decline — must be done within the temporal context. In other words, Modi might be an extremely charismatic leader and has benefitted from being at the right place at the right time in India’s rise and yet his achievements must necessarily be judged against that of his opponents.
It is tempting to judge Modi’s mass appeal across time and compare him to an Indira Gandhi or a Jawaharlal Nehru, but the variables are so profound that such a comparison is meaningless. Nehru’s India, or for that matter Indira’s India is not the same as India in the new millennium. This context is important for another reason. While Modi has fully grasped the fact that India has changed and so have its political realities, he has been lucky in the sense that his opponents remain rooted to the political realities of the past.
We need not look too hard for examples. Modi and Amit Shah-led BJP was defeated in three states in December. Not once did the party utter a word against electronic voting machines (EVMs) or blame the verdict. The party was obviously smarting and may have been more than a little worried. It went back to the drawing board and announced a slew of measures, including Rs 6,000 annually for marginal farmers.
It is instructive to note how BJP’s rivals are reacting to the humbling defeat.
Soon after, BSP supremo Mayawati started blaming her gathbandhan partner Samajwadi Party and has now announced her withdrawal from the alliance. BSP will now reportedly fight the upcoming by-elections alone. She claimed that SP’s base voters — the Yadavs — didn’t back the alliance whereas her base of Dalit votebank was committed to it. The “permanent gathbandhan” that was supposed to fight the 2022 Assembly polls, lasted all of five months.
In Delhi, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who was wiped out in the Lok Sabha polls and faces the prospect of a similar whitewash in upcoming Assembly polls, has announced that women will ride for free in the metro railway network and city buses. Apart from the fact that such a patronising move does nothing to address the real issues concerning safety and security of women in the capital, creates a whole new gamut of problems and reduces women to dole-seeking weaklings, not equal citizens of polity, it is not for the AAP supremo to announce a unilateral waiving off of fees. Kejriwal’s move is calculated and cynical. His real aim is to play the victim if Centre refuses to play ball.
Across the east in West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has taken such a dislike to the slogan ‘Jai Shri Ram’, that she feels compelled to stop her passing convoy and chase locals who dare to utter the words in her vicinity. For the “grave crime” of raising the slogan before her convoy, 10 have been arrested.
Mamata is apparently unaware that her unreasonable acts not only denigrate the dignity of her office, but make it easier for the BJP to make further inroads. The TMC supremo has fired the latest salvo by announcing that she will launch a “nationwide” campaign against EVMs and request all Opposition parties to join her in the agenda of bringing back ballot papers. Difficult to make this up.
Finally, Rahul Gandhi, the fifth-generation dynast, has ostensibly rescinded his decision to call it quits after yet another humbling drubbing and thundered during a meeting of party MPs that the situation in India right now is apparently like the British Raj. In other words, Modi didn’t win via a legitimate general election, but sailed on a boat from England, arrived in India and took over the reins.
One may ridicule as much as one likes, but the larger point is easily lost.
Modi is fortunate to have as his rival politicians who are limited in their imagination, lazy in their ideas and hope to win elections by using rhetoric of the past. The social arithmetic has changed. While most political parties are busy calculating which identity votebank they may bank on or strive to identify with, Modi has set about creating new political realities by tapping into the changed socio-political paradigm of a rising India.
Mayawati is upset Yadavs didn’t vote for her. She secretly frets that her grip on Dalit votebank is slipping, while the BJP has set about cracking these codes and creating a new electorate that trusts Modi and his ability to deliver even if evidence is presented to the contrary. In other words, while the Mayawatis and Rahuls are struggling to comprehend what may persuade the voters to vote for them, Modi has created an aura around himself that compels voters to find an excuse to vote for him.
As Ashoka University vice-chancellor Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote in Indian Express, “He (Modi) is the purest distillation of the idea of politics. For him political reality is not given, it is created; while other parties twiddle thumbs trying to get sociological arithmetic right, he goes about the task of producing a total identification with his persona. And he deploys undefeatable energy to do so.”
To look at Kejriwal’s ‘dole’ politics, Mamata’s blaming of EVMs or Rahul’s paranoia is to understand the gulf that exists between them and Modi in terms of creating these new paradigms and constantly changing the rules of the game. This is possible only when a politician is exceptionally talented and is willing to work hard.
Quite often, these underrated virtues of Modi are missed.
The prime minister possesses an almost indefatigable energy bank, is willing to challenge accepted notions and upsetting conventional wisdom. When that risk-taking is aligned with tactical nous such as actively not participating in political debates round the year, opening newer and newer channels of direct communication with people then we have a politician who, in Barkha Dutt’s words in Washington Post “always seen to be above the fray.”
Add to this the fact that Modi’s grasp of politics is more profound than his peers in understanding the inflection point that faces this young nation: where relative economic prosperity and social media has empowered people and made them, in Devesh Kapur’s words in Washington Post, “More aspirational, more assertive and less deferential, with more pathways to social mobility than ever before. Rising social groups are resentful of the social and cultural capital that privileges the elite and are increasingly willing to express this resentment electorally.”
A confluence of this reasons has made Modi what he is, but never forget that his brilliance as a politician is relative to his opponents who are, by any measure, immeasurably mediocre.
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