Elections that shaped India | 2014: The year Narendra Modi rose to power

As the clock ticks down to the general elections of 2024, The Hindu takes a look at the historic elections that have shaped the polity and political landscape of our nation since Independence. This one charts the journey of Narendra Modi, and examines what transpired in 2014.

April 10, 2024 10:00 am | Updated April 15, 2024 04:28 pm IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing a public meeting ahead of the elections to the Telangana Legislative Assembly in Hyderabad. Image for representational purpose only. File

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing a public meeting ahead of the elections to the Telangana Legislative Assembly in Hyderabad. Image for representational purpose only. File | Photo Credit: Nagara Gopal

The year is 2014. A lotus blooms on front pages of newspapers and saffron flags deck the streets. The air is abuzz with reports of a ‘landslide’ victory, a wave sweeping across India. The world’s largest election concluded on May 17, and the mandate of 81.5 crore people has revealed itself — not with a whimper, but a bang. Three words, etched in bold, take centre-stage on The Hindu’s front page: PRIME MINISTER MODI. 

India has voted for a Prime Minister who promised acche din, days that break the cycle of corruption scandals, policy paralysis and economic stasis that had come to define the reign of the incumbent Congress party.  

The 2014 elections were the prelude to India’s Modi era — a decade-long reign the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party vies to extend in this year’s national elections. To understand India in 2024, we go back to the time when a politician’s popularity lodged BJP into the corridors of Raisina Hills, transforming the nation’s political landscape.

The pull of the Gujarat model 

In 2014, the BJP’s numbers reflected the success of a carefully crafted campaign, set in motion at a very opportune time. Its platform comprised three planks: developing civic and commercial infrastructure (which included combatting corruption), focusing on youth and employment, and fixing the economy. 

The lead-up to the polls was heavy with an air of resentment. Corruption scandals, including the coal block allocations and 2G spectrum scams under UPA-I, gave rise to an anti-corruption stir, triggering a series of demonstrations, marches, hunger strikes and rallies to protest the perceived endemic corruption. Under the UPA-II, GDP growth was on the lower side, struggling to reach a modest 5% per annum. Food inflation emerged as another area of concern, with 20% increase in wholesale prices and about 15% in retail prices in November of 2013. This proved fatal for Congress, which in 2013 was unable to retain the State assembly in Rajasthan. 

Revenue inflows dried up and inflation rose. Benchmark indices had suffered as well. In fact, within the first five months of the financial year 2013-14, the central government had reached 74.6% of its fiscal deficit target, compared with 65.7% a year ago, as per data from the Controller General of Accounts. Fiscal consolidation was in order, with a specified timeframe that would allow the government to cut expenditures and boost revenue. UPA began to prune out subsidies meant to be a salve to treat a global economic meltdown and free controlled prices in the energy sector. This mandated budget cuts for the UPA government’s flagship schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Act (MNREGA). 

The feeling remained in the market that a BJP-led coalition, considering Mr. Modi’s pro-business approach, would be good for them. What Raegonomics was to the U.S. in the Eighties, the ‘Gujarat Model’ became to India in the early aughts. At a rally, Mr. Modi, the vikas purush, said, “I transformed Gujarat, please give me a chance to transform India.”  

Mr. Modi was presented as business-friendly and pro-industrialisation, and his neoliberal policies were credited for a quantum jump in Gujarat’s growth rate between 2002 and 2012. He was openly seen with businesspeople, hosting investor summits and calling for investments in the State. As the Chief Minister, he also brought several automakers to the Sanand municipality in Ahmedabad district — making it an important industrial hub. The most prominent among these was the Tata Nano project which had to exit Singur in West Bengal, after then emerging Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee staged a hunger strike.  

Psephologists found a similarity between him and Chandrababu Naidu of the 1990s – who would do something similar for Andhra Pradesh.   

But could Gujarat’s growth be replicated elsewhere? At a rally in Varanasi in December 2013, Mr. Modi pointed to the Ganga River being unclean despite the several projects undertaken by the UPA government. “If the Sabarmati can be cleaned then why not Ganga?” he questioned. Further, he spoke of the technological upgradation of power looms in Surat, saying that this could be achieved in Varanasi’s sari industry as well.   

Part of Mr. Modi’s assertions also included a series of imagery portraying the Congress to be anti-poor. During an address, he sought why a ‘Chai wala’ (a leitmotif of his campaign) could not become the country’s prime minister. Launching a scathing attack on the Opposition, saying that Congress was mocking the poor and that it would be his government’s prerogative to throw away the people who exploited them. This sentiment became the catchphrase “Janta Maaf nahi karegi”.   

In 2014, the BJP got about 65 million more votes than its closest competitor, the then-incumbent Congress party. The Congress failed to send an MP from Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Delhi, Odisha, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. Kerala, on the other hand, was the only big State where the BJP did not have an MP. The BJP nearly doubled the number of votes it received in 2009. Its vote share stood at 31% — in other words, it bagged every third vote cast in the country. The BJP secured 282 seats in the 552-member Lok Sabha.

BJP securing a total majority also meant that India was to transition away from an extended run of coalition governments at the Centre. Congress was the last to have achieved this feat in the 1984 elections — amidst a wave of sympathy following the assassination of Congress prime minister Indira Gandhi.  

A split Opposition further contributed to the BJP’s numbers and aided their quest to form a single-party majority, wrote political analyst and author Milan Vaishnav. “Many Opposition parties were competing with one another as much as they were battling the BJP,” splitting the vote.

Also read: The multitudes dispossessed by the ‘Gujarat model’

Modi’s anointment 

The parliamentary body of the BJP forged a consensus on Mr. Modi as a prime ministerial candidate in September 2013. The road wasn’t easy, paved after days of “back-room maneuvering at the behest of the RSS,” B. Muralidhar Reddy reported in The Hindu. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat reportedly held meetings to rally BJP patriarch L.K. Advani and Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj for a smooth endorsement. Both wanted to wait until November, when five Assembly election results would give a better indicator. A close aide also called Mr. Modi a “polarising leader,” questioning his ability to “run a smooth, stable and effective government.”  

However, leaders including Arun Jaitley and BJP chief Rajnath Singh backed Mr. Modi’s nomination. The latter told PTI in late September: “He is a crowd puller, not only in Gujarat, but also in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. He has a national appeal.” The formal announcement came on September 14, at a presser notable for Mr. Advani’s absence.

Gujarat legacy 

The party and Mr. Modi had to answer allegations about his alleged complacency in the 2002 Gujarat riots, what the Human Rights Watch called the country’s “worst religious bloodletting in a decade.” A retaliatory killing spree by a mob of Hindu activists killed more than 800 people and displaced tens of thousands— mostly Muslim. The Gujarat administration, helmed by then-CM Mr. Modi, reportedly “gave free reign” to mobs whose violence was “prepared in advance” to “target Muslim homes and businesses,” according to a BBC investigation in 2023. Another report from 2014 by Stanford Law School placed accountability on the Gujarat Government. The Supreme Court, two decades later, gave a clean chit to Mr. Modi. 

A year before the 2014 poll, the then party president Rajnath Singh stated that the election campaign would be centred around developmental issues rather than the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute. In both, Gujarat’s 2012 State elections and the 2014 national elections, the BJP reiterated they were focused on development, and not “community-based issues”. 

One time, when asked about shuttering slaughterhouses as a means to target a specific community, he said dismissively: “I have some Jain friends too who are in this profession,” he stated, adding, “If there is an environmental concern. Would you look at the concern or the caste and creed? ... This thinking (the allegation) is part of a larger trivial and perverted scheme that tries to divert everything into that realm of affairs.”

However, traces of Hindu cultural nationalism were prominent across Mr. Modi’s campaign in Hindi heartland states. The Gujarat Chief Minister’s candidature had been backed by RSS. In 2014, the Vadnagar resident had opted to contest from the Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency, telling the press “...Earlier I used to think that the BJP has sent me here... [but] I feel neither has anybody sent me nor have I come on my own. It is Mother Ganga who has called me,” after filing his nomination. An editorial in The Hindu, on the day of Mr. Modi’s victory, noted the sacred geography in Varanasi, coupled with Hindu cultural idioms, stood out as incongruous to the “public space in democratic India.” 

Expanding the voter base 

A often-repeated story in the lead-up to the polls was that the youth were going to swing the election. A Lokniti-CSDS pre-poll survey found young voters were more likely to say decisive leadership mattered more than others. There was a high level of dissatisfaction with the UPA government. First-time voters, the urban and educated masses with high media exposure, those belonging to dominant castes and the economically well off were more likely to vote for the NDA, the survey said.

Mr Modi’s campaign had a distinct focus on youth, raising concerns about employment and young people migrating to cities in search of jobs.

A post-poll survey showed the vote share for the BJP among the youth was 5% higher than the general population, showing that the youth did indeed particularly prefer the party and Narendra Modi, a researcher told The Hindu in 2014. 

The BJP — at the time largely associated with urban dwellers, dominant castes and middle classes — extended its social base in the 2014 elections. It managed to consolidate voters who would traditionally not vote for the BJP, such as those from the OBC and Scheduled Caste communities. From a 22% vote share in 2009, the BJP won 30% of OBC and 43% of EBC vote in the 2014 elections. Interestingly, it led the Congress among both Adivasi and Dalit voters by a wide margin. The only parties who managed to stand up against the BJP wave in the election were Trinamool Congress (West Bengal), Biju Janata Dal (Odisha), and AIADMK (Tamil Nadu) — whichretained a large chunk of the dominant castes and OBC votes. 

“The electoral transformation of the BJP under Modi owes its success to the party’s ability to attract OBCs,” Mr. Vaishnav wrote in 2023. “BJP positioned itself as the champion of [subcastes] located among the lower rungs of the OBC community, who were dissatisfied with the promises of the Mandal mobilisation. 

Building a candidate

Mr. Modi’s campaign narrative threaded a distinct symbolism and imagery: an ascetic, selfless man whose family (mother and siblings) led a ‘simple’ life, who did not have any children, who devoted himself to India’s development. The austerity was a contrast to the perception of the incumbent government,seen as corrupt and flagbearers of dynastic politics; the Congress party at this time struggled to defend allegations against Priyanka Gandhi’s husband Robert Vadra.  

. Another campaign played on a Congress leader’squips at the time, who remarked that a tea vendor could never become a Prime Minister. The BJP in March 2014 launched the ‘Chai pe Charcha with Namo’ drive: it kicked off with Mr. Modi having a cup of tea in a shop on Anna Salai, and interacting with people live on television. 

Future Brand’s Santosh Desai, while speaking to a media outlet, mentioned the determined effort to build the “archetype” of an “all-knowing father figure”. The campaign, led by senior BJP leaders Piyush Goyal and Ajay Singh, was sophisticated and specialised, involving advertising groups such as Ogilvy & Mather, Madison World and Soho Square. Soho Square helped coined the jingle “Ab ki Baar Modi Sarkaar”, a message that was broadcast on repeat on television, radio and print campaigns. 

When social media entered politics 

Mr. Modi and BJP, by 2014, had finessed a new language of political campaigning and communication at scale. In the 24 hours ending 5:30 p.m. on May 9, 2014 (three days before the result day), the number of election-related tweets stood at 1.56 million; they were primarily related to Narendra Modi. Prominent hashtags included #AlwaysWithTheCongress, #AbkiBaarModiSarkaar, #AbkiBaar300Parr. Within a month of winning, Mr. Modi became the world’s second most popular head of state on Facebook.

As reported by The Hindu, social media was used to extend the reach of their propaganda, bash rival candidates, and to promote selected leaders. The messaging was continuous and interactive; “bypassed traditional media” and ignored critics; relied on selfies, celebrity involvement and “community action” of followers to propagate his messages, an EPW article noted.

Congress was late to the social media game. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who was the fifth most tweeted person, was not on Twitter at this point. Congress’s Twitter presence was volunteer driven; the BJP, in comparison, had five staffers in addition to volunteer support. The BJP IT Cell in 2014 operated online promotion campaigns with automated responses where a user who tweeted a particular hashtag would get a personalized message from Mr. Modi. In a 2023 Washington Post report that investigated how Hindu nationalists used social media, Rutgers University professor Kiran Garimella said: “WhatsApp was really mastered first, and at scale, by the BJP.” Speaking about this untapped medium, head of BJP It’s division Arvind Gupta said in 2014: “We saw a trend...where the youth of the country were embracing social media as their first tool when they started using the internet, and we made sure our presence was there.” 

Researchers concurred on one trend: 2014 was the ‘social media’ election. A total of 56 million election-related tweets were made between January 1 until May 12 with Mr Modi dominating the trends all through. He concluded the trail on the result day with the tweet: “India has won! Bharat ki Vijay! Ache din aane waale hai” — another prominent election catchphrase. 

A decade on 

On May 17, in a televised address, a jubilant Prime Minister-elect — dressed in a beige and white tunic, a Nehru jacket, a signature snow-white trimmed beard — was seen walking up to a podium in his Vidhan Sabha constituency. He promised, in “letter and spirit”, to ensure the welfare of every Indian citizen.

Does the new India shine, a decade on? A CSDS-Lokniti survey in December 2022, post BJP’s sweeping victory in Gujarat, took a litmus test of the Gujarat Model. More than half the respondents felt development was reserved for the rich, a sharp rise from 2017 when 36% felt so.

Youth dissatisfaction with job creation remains a concern too: the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy data reveal a high unemployment rate among young people — rising to a two-year high of 10% in October 2023. T

Also Read | Unemployment remains a concern in India post-pandemic | Data 

After BJP’s sweeping victory in the 2023 State Assembly elections, The Hindu’s Suhasini Haider noted the three “core issues” – abrogation of Article 370, construction of a Ram Temple in Ayodhya and the implementation of a Uniform Civil Code - defined BJP’s ideological arc, leading to a larger “decolonisation project”. Political analysts, playing on the ‘Gujarat Model’, have associated the Modi Years with a blunt shaping of Hindu Rashtra. “The BJP doesn’t really rely on the Muslim vote but religious polarization and a ‘Muslim threat’ has helped in consolidating the Hindu vote in several regions, especially in the North,” Dr. Chakrabarti says. 

Along the sidelines, from 2014 to now, India’s story is cautiously unfolding too. The time, place and context of 2014 scripted BJP’s election pitch. It championed the ‘Gujarat model of development’, made early gains from social media’s untapped potency and crafted a carefully branded persona for Mr. Modi. The ‘Modi Effect’ became a case study on India’s political past, and a template for its political future. One question rests between the two elections: What meaning did development, dissent and democracy hold a decade ago, and what do they mean now? 

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