City City Bang Bang, Columns

The politics of strength

On social media, PM Modi continues to follow all those who sent some highly abusive tweets to critics, including the person who addressed some particularly vile comments about the slain Gauri Lankesh. His defenders have argued that the act of following a person cannot be construed as support for that person’s opinions, and point to the fact he follows Arvind Kejriwal and the office of Rahul Gandhi as evidence of this. It is a transparently technical argument the merits of which are not worth debating; there is no reason to follow ordinary supporters than to show support. And even if he has not done so in the past (which he has once- when a woman BJP leader accused another of harassment), there is every reason for the leader of the land to dissociate with any supporter who behaves inappropriately.

In any case, the decision not to step back from supporting the more aggressive section of his supporters is part of a deliberate strategy to keep the muscular sections of his base encouraged. The cardinal sin in the Modi playbook as not being wrong but looking weak- and to unfollow someone in response to criticism would be an act of surrender.

Narendra Modi practices the politics of strength and this entails always looking to get into a position that is dominant and to hold fast on to it. The ability to convert a position of advantage into one of total dominance is a rare one, particularly in a diverse and fragmented democracy like India, where strength tends to create its own instruments of destruction. In the past, we have seen how strength has a way of dissolving- whether it is in the case of Rajiv Gandhi’s stunning mandate or in the cyclical fortunes of Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi, dominance at a point in time often does not endure. Either a counterpoint emerges or too many claimants for the spoils of power dissipate the strength through their fractiousness. In Modi’s case, his hold only strengthened in Gujarat over 3 terms, and at the national level too, his grip post the UP elections, seems to have tightened. And he has achieved this, apart from cobbling together an extremely canny political strategy, by adopting an approach that understands the idea of strength and deploys in a truly strategic way.

The Modi-Shah playbook contains several identifiable elements that come together. Not stepping back in the face of criticism, never apologizing, always being the person to set the agenda acting unpredictably, keeping oneself above the fray and never being truly accessible, letting no one believe that they understand you, assigning the dirty work to a trustworthy deputy, using silence to create an aura, remembering and repaying insults however small and in the distant past they might have been, keeping the muscle on one’s side in full public display and encouraging it through dog-whistle asides, symbolically flexing these muscles once in while, neutralising obstacles one by one, finding something or someone to attack particularly when one’s side is on the defensive, creating an atmosphere of implicit fear that generates voluntary compliance- these are some of the key pillars of this approach.

In Modi’s case, what makes his position doubly powerful is the fact that he presents strength as a form of paternalistic clarity, a purposeful force that the nation needs. He derives his popularity from being able to cast strength as a necessary channel for change, and this gives him an advantage that is truly difficult to challenge.

The drawback with the Modi approach is that when things start turning sour, the instinct is to double down on existing strategies. Not admitting to mistakes works up to a point, but when either the mistake is of a truly significant nature that affects the everyday lives of people or if too many slips start lining up, denial starts looking like detachment from reality. Also, the very environment of unquestioning compliance that is so useful otherwise, starts becoming a liability, as there is no one left to tell the truth.

The recent change in the narrative around this government points to the risks inherent in the Modi-Shah approach. The aftershocks of demonetization and GST are showing up in the performance of the economy, the various failures of governance across the country are damaging his reputation as an effective administrator and people who were hitherto supporters of the Modi government too have started asking questions.

A government that is bent on framing events to its advantage and branding every action that it proposes to undertake is in the danger of getting ahead of itself. This is fine as long as it operates within an aura of goodwill, but once doubts start appearing, they can widen quickly. The idea of a government that is too bombastic for its own good is beginning to take shape.

This is a decisive period because things could go either way. The government could manage to retrieve the situation, perhaps by announcing a major initiative that is popular and sweeping or perhaps even by ratcheting up nationalistic feelings. Things could under control quite quickly for the government, since the personal popularity of Mr. Modi combined with with the absence of any credible alternative would ensure that matters do not go out of hand. If on the other hand, it persists with the existing playbook and does not calibrate its approach, we could see a much wider sense of disenchantment with this regime.

The disconnect between strength in manner and the courage to make changes that are material is beginning to show. Nowhere more than on social media where the BJP now finds itself on the receiving end of jokes- a sure sign that the people are no longer taking the party and its leadership as seriously as they take themselves. This is by no means a sign of things to some in 2019, but it is the first real test for the politics of strength practiced so successfully by PM Modi till now.

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