New Year 2018 Double Issue: Essay

The Winning Ways of Modi

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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Are we moving towards a Congress-less federation?

GUJARAT, NOVEMBER 18TH, 2017. The Assembly elections were as electrifying an event as rubber scorching the tarmac on the road to 2019. This was a fight for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state, and the ruling BJP was faced with its toughest challenge yet since it took power at the Centre three-and-a-half years ago. But by the time Modi was done with the Gujarat polls, Rahul Gandhi’s Congress party was left with just one state government in all of north India: Punjab. Just two days after Gandhi officially assumed charge as president of his party, the outcome of his latest electoral exertions was clear: the Congress had failed to win Gujarat and lost the hill state of Himachal Pradesh to the BJP.

Other elections are coming up, and Modi has already begun his campaign for Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya in the Northeast, where polls are due in February. The Congress chief, though, still seems in hem-and-haw mode, which is inadvisable when you have only four states run by your party in the country and a rival as mighty as Modi’s BJP. In Karnataka, the only Congress state in the South, the BJP is already at work to unseat its Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. Of the 18 states that had elections after the 2014 General Election, the BJP has emerged victorious in 11. Today, Modi’s party has 19 states under its rule, and the power map of India is predominantly saffron. According to Yogendra Yadav, a politician and psephologist, the Congress is up against “the most formidable election machine in the country”, controlled by Amit Shah and backed by the RSS. Rallying a rag-tag bunch of forces to combat the BJP or merely spinning out an anti-Modi message, he says, is unlikely to halt the saffron juggernaut; the opposition would need to build organisational strength from the ground up and then try to capture the electorate’s imagination.

In early 2017, Uttar Pradesh was a triumph for the saffron party, but it was in Gujarat where Gandhi, riding pillion on the din-raising ability of three young political activists—Patidar quota fighter Hardik Patel, Dalit protestor Jignesh Mevani and OBC leader Alpesh Thakore—sought to project himself as the man who would challenge Modi’s political narrative. Diminishing Modi’s clout in his home state a year-and-a-half before the next General Election would have been a morale booster for the Congress and Gandhi, personally.

However, Modi’s timely intervention in the BJP’s campaign saved the party any such embarrassment. A closer look at Gujarat’s results undoes many myths of an anti-incumbency mood. South Gujarat, where Gandhi had gone town to town with anti- GST message, covering Bharuch, Valsad, Vadodara and Ahmedabad, voted resoundingly for BJP. In Surat, the party won all 12 seats. “Had the GST not come in July and the Government not been flexible enough to respond immediately to the grievances of diamond workers and the textile sector by recalibrating tax slabs, the BJP may have been in trouble. The response, though, dissipated Gandhi’s anti-GST pitch,” says an analyst. In urban Gujarat, where GST should have mattered, the BJP raised its vote share by 1 per cent over 2012. The party won 43 of the state’s 55 urban seats, proving that the taxation shift had not undermined its support in cities and towns dominated by commercial interests. The Congress, which poured scorn on the ‘Gabbar Singh Tax’, as Gandhi called it, was able to secure only 12 of those seats. So much for the story going around that no government in the world had been re-elected after rolling out GST. Just as UP bust the myth of disaffection brought on by demonetisation, Gujarat laid the tale of GST disgruntlement to rest.

Also exposed was Hardik Patel’s real strength. Despite his large electoral rallies, he did not prove to be the phenomenon that the opposition was betting on. State-wide, the BJP finished with a vote share just above 49 per cent, more than a percentage point gain from 2012.

In his post-poll address at the BJP headquarters after the victory, Modi, who held more than 34 rallies in the state, highlighted his development agenda by urging workers to repeat this slogan after him: “Jeetega bhai jeetega, Vikaas hi jeetega” and “Vikaas hamara mantra hai.” It was a retort to the pre-poll message that went around social media, ‘Vikas Gando Thaye Che’, that the Congress had latched on to.

Gujarat was clearly Modi’s victory. He jumped into the fray in the second phase after he realised that his party could not do without his aggression at the stump, and he invoked Gujarati pride while making his development pitch to clinch victory

Gujarat was clearly the Prime Minister’s victory. He jumped into the fray in the second phase after he realised that his party could not do without his aggression at the stump, and he invoked Gujarati asmita (pride) while making his development pitch to clinch victory. He also played up ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’. The message was sharp and clear: there was no place for casteism in a modern, inclusive Gujarat and, indeed, anywhere else in India. This combination of canvassing votes was effective in countering the caste alliance that the Congress had sought to form against his party. Here too, analysts were proven wrong in their contention that a prime minister could not succeed simultaneously as a trumpeter of a regional identity and as a national-level leader.

BJP President Amit Shah, the man in charge of the party strategy’s nitty-gritties, described it as a victory of “developmental politics” against “caste-based politics”. It was harder, however, than it now looks; as Union Minister Prakash Javadekar had earlier admitted, “Whenever the opposition gangs up against one party on caste-based lines, as it has done in Gujarat, the fight will be tough. But it has to be fought, nonetheless.”

Nor is the BJP resting on its laurels. The party plans to introspect on the pluses and minuses of its approach. A sharpening urban-rural divide in Gujarat has not escaped its attention. “We need to pay special attention to some of the districts where cotton is grown,” as Union Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore has acknowledged. The outcome of the introspection session is likely to guide the state’s governance over the next five years and also provide inputs for any course correction needed in the run-up to 2019. That over 300,000 voters chose NOTA—the null vote option—over either the BJP or Congress is also likely to come up for discussion.

BRAND MODI, enabler-in-chief of the BJP’s near hegemony over the country, has been carefully built and painstakingly marketed. According to marketing experts, transforming a politician into a marketable brand is a very difficult job. Brands are expected to have a consistent message and deliver on it, too, which most Indian politicians fail to do. Modi scores highly on his ability to communicate effectively with the electorate in his distinctive interactive style. He tells anecdotes, jokes and reaches out to the lowest common denominator in any audience.

BJP President Amit Shah, the man in charge of the party strategy’s nitty-gritties, described the Gujarat win as a victory of “developmental politics” against “caste-based politics”. It was, however, harder than it now looks, as some in the party admit

Notwithstanding Modi’s occasional references to the Ram Janmabhoomi issue, Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and Pakistani plots in the heat of campaigning, Hindutva rhetoric is largely a thing of the past. A crucial part of building Brand Modi for 2014 involved highlighting the contrast between him as an alternative to his Congress predecessors. His image, therefore, had to be a stark counterpoint to the corruption that marked the UPA, and to capture popular anger against it, he had to be projected as a fully empowered leader, his party’s supreme authority, unlike Manmohan Singh. Also part of the package was his intrinsic but distinct anti-dynasty aura, since Modi had no family and could thus dedicate himself completely to the nation. The discipline of his RSS background and his humble social origin added to his credentials for hard work.

Aided by his team, Modi came to dominate social media, quickly becoming one of the most followed political leaders in the world, and it gave him a direct connection with millions of supporters ready to spread his message. This presence, he has kept up. “The social media image both complemented and extrapolated on Mr Modi’s real life actions and policies as Prime Minister of the country. That is something that helped immensely in reinforcing his new media presence,” says an expert, adding, “His ability to always revert very convincingly to ‘vikaas’ as the steady, primary message and knit other ideological messages effortlessly into the warp and weft of vikaas and nationalism worked very well to flesh out his image.”

As Prime Minister, Modi has travelled widely both abroad and within the country’s neighbourhood, making him appear approachable and on-message in public spaces, whether among overseas Indians in the US, after the earthquake in Nepal, or addressing local crowds in the Northeast, where he has breached one Congress bastion after another. What has made Modi so marketable, in that sense, is that he is a leader who works round- the-clock to transform India’s image both at home and abroad, an exercise he recognises the value of. From selfies to WhatsApp, he is a Prime Minister who is tech-friendly and willing to engage millions through new media, while widening his audience via a weekly old-world radio address, Mann ki Baat.

Irrespective of the odd controversy, the Modi Government had stuck consistently to its key agenda of development and reforms, for which it has a range of decisions to show, including notebandi and the ‘One Nation, One Tax’ GST. In the words of a Union minister, “The governance theme of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ also includes everything from the Jan Dhan Yojana, the Ujjwala Yojana which was a big hit in UP and contributed to the BJP’s historic win, the highly successful Give It Up campaign on cooking gas subsidies, the ‘Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao’ campaign for awareness on the girl child, the Swachh Bharat Yojana, the surgical strikes in Pakistan and much else.”

Veteran Gujarati leaders of the Congress performed badly at the hustings, by and large. This exposed a lack of both local leadership and organisational strength in a state that the party has lost for the sixth time in succession

According to a recent survey by an international opinion pollster, Narendra Modi is by far the most popular politician in India today. Trust, reliability and pro-active decision making are his key brand attributes. With Gujarat under the BJP’s belt once again, Modi has shown that despite the controversies, personal attacks and vilification by opposition leaders, he retains the trust vested in him by millions of voters. This shield of credibility has allowed Modi to take an ad hominem swipe aimed at him by Mani Shankar Aiyar and convert it to the advantage of the BJP’s own caste-neutrality narrative.

In comparison with the Prime Minister, Rahul Gandhi fares poorly as branding material, say experts. Aside from his own shortcomings, a key part of building a brand relies on offering positive attributes that are in clear contrast with the rival’s. On this, there is little to work on, they say, and without this being done, he cannot be presented as a credible alternative to voters. “In any direct face-off with Modi, Gandhi is unlikely to come off positively,” says one such expert. Ergo, without a comprehensive long-term agenda and a reliable brand to market to the electorate, any gains made by the Congress in Gujarat are probably just a flash in the pan.

In a desperate bid to loosen Modi’s vice-like grip on Gujarat and snatch its government back for the Congress after 22 years in the opposition there, Gandhi had even gone temple hopping. He visited as many as 29 Hindu places of worship all over the state, and sported a red vermilion mark on his forehead at his rallies, prompting critics to call it a ‘me too’ campaign, a brazen attempt to out-Hindu the original party of Hindu nationalism. On the campaign trail, he described himself as a ‘Shiva bhakt’, and after questions arose about his religious identity over his visit to the Somnath temple, a party spokesperson referred to Gandhi as ‘janeudhaari’ (a sacred thread wearer and thus Brahmin by implication). His itinerary had no mosques or churches.

If that came as a surprise to some observers sympathetic to the party, Gandhi’s reliance on the trio of Patel, Thakore and Mevani unsettled others. The patchwork of caste resentments represented by this social alliance, especially the identity politics pursued by the latter two, could have jeopardised Congress prospects as the all-inclusive party it professes to be. At the end, these failed to detract Gujarati attention from Modi’s primary message of the state’s development and performance under BJP leadership. The last time the Congress scored an impressive win in Gujarat was decades back, with the popular regional leader Madhavsinh Solanki at its helm and its KHAM caste coalition of Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims. The fallout was the party’s alienation of Patels, who shifted their favour en masse to the BJP. This time, the caste combination that the Congress was toying with included a section of Patels led by Hardik Patel.

The outsourcing of the grassroots campaign to the Patel-Thakore- Mevani trio and the virtual absence of Congress forces on the ground—its organisational wing was destroyed in a decade of turmoil from 1969 to 1980 and never rebuilt—spelt a wide gap between the hype around the Gandhi family dynast and the political realities of Gujarat. On paper, the Congress had everything going for it, from rural unrest to highly vocal demands for caste-based reservations. But when it came to turning all this into votes, the party fell short. Gandhi’s overt display of religiosity also amounted to little. Historically, the party has never succeeded on such appeals.

Veteran Gujarati leaders of the Congress performed badly at the hustings, by and large. Arjun Modvadia and Shaktisinh Gohil lost in their constituencies. This exposed a lack of both local leadership and organisational strength in a state that the party has lost for the sixth time in succession. Some believe that the task of defeating the BJP was too difficult for it in the first place, a pipe dream, this being a state where the RSS has a significant presence from the booth level upwards, and which prides itself in being the Prime Minister’s political karma bhoomi.

THAT THE CONGRESS stood a chance at all was a dream peddled by Left-liberals so keen to see Modi receive a setback that they indulged Gandhi his disregard for the principles they claim to uphold. Sections of the media, likewise, were willing to overlook his shenanigans and endow him with leadership qualities, as if reporting a revival of the Congress under him would somehow prove self-fulfilling in ballot booths and signal a tough fight for the BJP in the next General Election.

After Nitish Kumar retired from the 2019 prime ministerial contest, Gandhi is being projected as the Great Secular Hope and challenger to Modi. “Many people used our victory in two states as an excuse to congratulate Rahul Gandhi. Logically, they should congratulate him if he won, and ditto with us,” Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told a TV channel on the night of the poll results.

Thirty years after 1984, a year when the Congress last won a parliamentary majority (it got a record 415 seats in the Lok Sabha with a vote share of 48 per cent in a sympathy wave after Indira Gandhi’s assassination) the party led by Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia Gandhi managed to get only 44 seats in the last General Election. The party has singularly been unable to put this debacle behind it, losing poll after poll since.

The BJP may have won only 99 Assembly seats in Gujarat, 51 short of its target and its worst tally since it took power in the state. Despite that, the BJP’s win under Modi’s leadership has enthused voters in various parts of India. In 2019, the Congress will have it no easier than it did before the Gujarat campaign. The road is still uphill for India’s former ruling party.