A campaign of contradictions


The essence of Narenda Modi’s campaign seems to be based on an uncanny ability to combine overtly conflicting claims

There has been much talk about the alleged sum of Rs.10,000 crore being spent on Narendra Modi’s campaign in creating “brand Modi,” but much less attention has been paid to its content and structure. In other words, what has been the sum and substance of Mr. Modi’s carefully crafted multilayered campaign?

The essence of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate’s campaign seems to be based on an uncanny ability to combine overtly contradictory claims. To that extent that it has succeeded in creating a “brand Modi” that is elusive. What it has allowed is the co-existence of a mosaic of meanings, which each person, depending on his/her persuasion, can make sense of.


Mr. Modi claims that he does not believe in dividing society into Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, but instead looks at them as being “125 crore Indians.” He says he believed all through his stint in Gujarat that the citizens of the State were “my 6 crore Gujaratis.” This rhetoric of a pan-Indian inclusiveness is combined with emphasis on development and good governance, which many of Mr. Modi’s advertisements on television emphasise on. Even as Mr. Modi claims all this, Amit Shah makes the infamous “badly” comment in Muzzafarnagar, which was claimed to be a “badly” not against any particular community but against the misgovernance of the Congress. Mr. Modi claims that he believes in carrying forward Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s policy of “humanity, democracy and Kashmiriyat” regarding his approach to the Kashmir issue, even as the former President of the BJP, Nitin Gadkari, simultaneously makes an announcement that the party will scrap Article 370 if it manages a majority on its own.

Further, Syed Ali Shah Geelani makes a claim that Mr. Modi, in order to enhance his image, requested him to initiate a dialogue with him on Kashmir. The attempt clearly seems to be to “outsource” Hindutva to the second rung of the leadership while Mr. Modi himself maintains a stoic silence on it. Mr. Modi’s own contribution to the unstated agenda has been a series of symbolic gestures (and not overt statements) that allow the creation of a chimera of meanings. These gestures include his decision to contest from Varanasi and not offer a single ticket to a Muslim candidate in Uttar Pradesh, marking a shift to a “low-intensity” communalisation.

The bulk of his campaign has been against the Gandhi family and their method of managing the party. He has criticised “dynasty politics,” ridiculed the “remote control” mode of governance, and of course liberally borrowed from Sanjaya Baru’s book. In contrast to what he has projected the Gandhi family as, Mr. Modi claims that the BJP is like a “family” and that he is a “team player.” He does not believe in concentration of power, he says, even as he has consistently undermined almost all the senior leaders of the party, including L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Jaswant Singh. How many of us can recollect the names of any other cabinet minister in the Gujarat government? How many us know that Mr. Modi kept 14 portfolios to himself, including Home, which perhaps is unprecedented in the history of post-independence politics? But all these are depicted as signs of a “strong and decisive” leader and someone who believes in hard work. Yet, the leader in question feigns complete ignorance when it comes to the 2002 riots. Mr. Modi campaigned hard against growing corruption in the Congress, even as he strongly supported the return of Yeddyurappa to the BJP and the candidature of Sriramulu in Karnataka, despite Sushma Swaraj’s opposition.

Caste issues

On caste, the BJP has claimed that it is moving beyond divisive caste politics — Sab ka saath, Sab ka vikas (Participation by all for development for all),” even as the entire campaign in Bihar is based on referring to Mr. Modi’s the Other Backward Classes status. Mr. Modi himself claimed in Kerala that he belongs to the “Dalit family”; it is for this “family” that he wishes to do something if he takes the reins, he said. He shares the dais with Baba Ramdev, again a silent gesture toward combining OBC politics with Hindutva. Even as the BJP’s manifesto does not mention its support for reservations and instead promises to move toward “equal opportunity,” it believes that a Constitutional provision of reservations is mere “tokenism.” Mr. Modi does not reveal which sub-caste he actually belongs to; instead he claims to represent all the poor in India. He is a “ chaiwallah (tea seller)” who rose through sheer determination unlike the “ shehzada (prince)” of the Congress.

Further Mr. Modi’s campaign was singularly focused on propagating the “Gujarat model.” This should have ideally led to an alternative policy frame taking centre-stage on his campaign trail, but this was not so. Not only was there no sustained debate on what these policies will be that will reproduce the magic of the Gujarat model elsewhere in India, but also that possibility was consciously avoided by delaying the release of the BJP’s manifesto to the first day of polling — the message being that it is not “mere” policies on paper that matter but leadership. Thus, the repeated references to how Mr. Modi’s popularity is higher than even that of the BJP is being repeated ad nauseam. Therefore, Mr. Modi does not find it difficult to not only replace the party but also the state and the nation. When he is criticised he makes a pitch for how “Gujarat gaurav” suffers. When he was asked recently to answer on the “snoopgate” controversy, he remarked that it has “shamed India globally.” All this while claiming that democratic institutions have to be strengthened.

All this has been combined with a targeted strategy of nullifying any criticism against him by redirecting the same at his opponents. He launched the offensive against Nitish Kumar for being ambitious about becoming the Prime Minister, repeatedly criticised Chidambaram for being arrogant, and criticised Sonia Gandhi for appearing in an “advertisement” that was telecast as her message to the nation. The BJP also accused the Congress of being the “most communal party.”

Finally, to all the uncomfortable questions he faced, Mr. Modi found answers. He said he was elected back three times in Gujarat and said “winning had become a habit,” even as his own colleague in Madhya Pradesh achieved the same feat with much less controversial governance. The moot point is this: this does not seem to take away the sheen of the campaign or make it look hypocritical. How much of this has got to do with those planning his campaign trial and the media, and the willingness of the electorate to believe such performativity as a way of relating to and making sense of the spectacle called elections, is still an open question.

(Ajay Gudavarthy is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU.)

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Printable version | Oct 20, 2017 11:29:54 AM |