Narendra Modi: the leader who is bigger than his party

Sundergarh: Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election campaign rally in Sundergarh, Odisha, Saturday, April 6, 2019. (PTI Photo)     (PTI4_6_2019_000113B)

Sundergarh: Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election campaign rally in Sundergarh, Odisha, Saturday, April 6, 2019. (PTI Photo) (PTI4_6_2019_000113B)

Election 2019 has smashed the assumption that India is a party-based parliamentary democracy. Yes, India is still notionally a multi-party system, and there indeed are pockets, especially in the south, where regional parties have held on to their suzerainty. But this hold is precarious and slipping by the minute.

An indefatigable leadership

The biggest blow to the party system has ironically been dealt by the biggest beneficiary of Thursday’s stunning verdict: the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party confounded admirers and critics alike by amassing a majority that surpassed its haul of 282 of 543 Lok Sabha seats in 2014. Yet, the BJP played little role in its own gigantic victory and stood by watching with stars in its eyes as Prime Minister Narendra Modi single-handedly pulverised the Opposition in large parts of the country. It is true that India’s most powerful Prime Minister since Indira Gandhi was expertly aided at every stage of the election campaign, and in the meticulous planning that preceded it, by BJP president Amit Shah. But without Mr. Modi, there could be and would be no Mr. Shah. It was Mr. Modi’s unflagging, ever-present visage, beamed into homes day and night by an adoring TV media, that spun a seductive web into which awestruck citizens walked.


Mr. Shah had announced soon after the BJP’s 2014 victory that the Congress’s days were numbered. The slogan ‘Congress-mukt (Congress-free) Bharat’ seemed outlandish initially, but the BJP, now under an indefatigable leadership that embodied the belief that the ends justified the means, purposefully expanded its footprint, capturing previously out-of-bound territories such as the Northeast through enticements and mass defections. The Congress did show its existence from time to time by registering victories here and there.

But 2019 has proved that the externment will not be long in coming. Notionally the Congress has improved on its pathetic 2014 tally of 44 Lok Sabha seats, but the defeat of party president Rahul Gandhi in Amethi is a warning of bigger catastrophes ahead. There was no reason for Mr. Gandhi to lose: He was contesting from the bastion of the Nehru-Gandhi clan and in his recently enhanced capacity as party chief he was a potential Prime Minister. Under normal circumstances, this fact alone would have appealed to Amethi’s voters to the exclusion of other attractions.

The choice of candidates

However, the larger story here is the marginalisation of the BJP. A joke that used to be heard in party circles was that the BJP was now BJP-mukt. The joke has come perilously close to being a reality. Indeed, on the campaign trail Mr. Modi asked voters to remember him and no one else as they went into their polling booths to cast their votes. “Remember you are voting Modi,” he said. The party, the cadre and BJP candidates parroted the line. BJP candidates willingly and proudly downsized themselves, insisting that it was Mr. Modi who was fighting on all seats.


Armed with this carte blanche, the Modi-Shah pair deliberately chose as candidates men and women with a record of fostering divisiveness. Among them: Ananth Kumar Hegde, Giriraj Singh, Tejasvi Surya, Sakshi Maharaj, and last but not the least, Pragya Singh Thakur. If the forte of each was to inflame passions through rabid anti-Muslim rhetoric, in the case of Ms. Thakur, a further rubicon was crossed. She is a terror accused on trial. She also spoke her mind: Nathuram Godse “was, is and will be a desh-bhakt (patriot),” she said, unconcerned that she was heaping insult on Mahatma Gandhi. The Prime Minister said he would never forgive her but did not sack her, which would have established him as being truly contrite. Clearly, Ms. Thakur was chosen in the first place to make a distinction between Islamist and Hindutva terror: The first was a danger that had to be crushed with all the force possible. The second didn’t exist even if Ms. Thakur was standing trial for it. Her dismissal was therefore never on the cards.

Projection as nationalist hero

On the stump, Mr. Modi played nationalist hero to the hilt. With a benevolent Election Commission watching, he appropriated the Indian Air Force and turned the air strikes on Pakistani territory into a personal feat of daring: “ Modi wahan ghar me ghus kar ke maara (Modi went into Pakistani houses to kill terrorists)”. In the 2017 Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, he had invoked the “jawan on the border” to blunt the impact of demonetisation on ordinary folk. The Prime Minister had also invited them to view demonetisation as an effort towards collective nation-building in which each had a share. By 2019, the message was fully internalised by large sections that saw the Balakot strike as their own spectacular achievement. Travelling in Muzaffarnagar in western U.P., I ran into a group of labourers, their torn clothes attesting to their poverty, who argued that they were voting Mr. Modi because “ desh toh bach jayega (at least the country will be saved)”.


Mr. Modi argued that the Balakot attack was an act of extraordinary courage that previous Prime Ministers had balked at — both because they lacked the steel that he had and because they wanted to protect their minority vote banks. As the campaign progressed, nationalism inevitably got posited against the Opposition’s ‘Muslim appeasement’ politics. Balakot became Ram Mandir by another name, evoking the same passion that the latter did. In some places, the majoritarian message was explicit; in a speech made in Wardha, the Prime Minister accused Rahul Gandhi of fleeing to Wayanad in Kerala to be able to contest from a constituency where “the majority was in a minority.”

It would be unfair if due credit was not given to Mr. Modi for the welfare measures his government had speedily implemented on the ground, among them toilets, houses and gas connections for the poorest citizens. Their implementation was patchy — the gas refill was unaffordable, the houses were scarce — but even the half-measures were potentially a form of empowerment. In effect, what Mr. Modi presented to the voters was a package: welfare rooted in Hindutva majoritarianism.


In the coming years, this is likely the formula that the Prime Minister will persist with. A question arises: why was the Modi wave not as visible as in 2014? Because, at least in U.P., there was a formidable Opposition in the form of the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance. The combine had match-winning arithmetic and also represented the interests of the socially marginalised — Dalits and Muslims in particular.

But as the 2019 results have shown, all Opposition alliances bombed, whether in U.P., Bihar, Maharashtra or Jharkhand. The Congress played a ruinous role in U.P. by undercutting the SP-BSP in several places. Yet this was probably a small distraction in the larger picture where the BJP virtually commanded all the votes and seats.

With his sharp nationalist-Hindutva messaging and towering presence, Mr. Modi is bigger than the party. The dangers of this will presently be apparent. For the Opposition parties, the danger is more imminent — individually and collectively, they need a strong counter message as well as an intelligent, charismatic leadership that will deliver the message.

Vidya Subrahmaniam is Senior Fellow with the Hindu Centre for Politics & Public Policy

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Printable version | Jul 2, 2022 8:01:45 pm |