City City Bang Bang, Columns

Mr Modi, the Incumbent?

The Gujarat results are being made sense of in different ways, but a dominant
narrative has emerged. The Congress managed to put together alliances with
leaders of local movements, Rahul Gandhi did a better job of leading the campaign
than expected, the BJP was in real trouble till PM Modi, aided by some free gifts
from Kapil Sibal and Mani Aiyar, put everything behind the campaign and made
himself the key issue, thereby managing to eke out a win. Brand Modi carried the
day, proving once more that his connection with Indian voters continues to be solid.
The BJP victory, in the urban areas, showed that issues like demonetisation and
GST had run their course, and would no longer be electoral issues going forward.

This is a reasonable reading of events, but perhaps there is another way to see this.
Narendra Modi might have pulled the party out of a mess at the last minute, but who
brought the party to that point? For Modi to come this close to a defeat in Gujarat,
not just his home state, but the pinnacle of his achievement, the showcase that
dazzled the rest of the country into believing in the possibility of a radical
transformation in 2014, is something that should cause the PM and his party great
anxiety. The polarised nature of the debate around BJP’s strongest electoral asset
Mr Modi is such that a dispassionate analysis of his position becomes difficult.

From the perspective of political management, Mr Modi, with the help of Amit Shah
has run Gujarat for several years now. The argument put forward that they have
somehow, against great odds not of their making, and in spite of anti-incumbency
arising out of their 22-year rule and motivated caste-based social movements,
managed to win a personal victory is hard to stomach. If the Gujarat model was
everything it was meant to be, what reasons existed for any anti-incumbency? If
anything, given that Gujarat’s favourite CM is now running the country, the voters
should have endorsed him resoundingly and strengthened his hands.

As for the Patidar issue, The Modi-Shah combine had more than enough time to find
a way to deal with it. They bear eventual responsibility for the party’s strategy to deal

with Hardik Patel. Patel was put in jail and he alleged that the BJP circulated sex
CDs to discredit him. Their management of the party’s Dalit problem, particular in the
aftermath of the Una atrocity has been lethargic, to put it mildly. Equally, the decision
to install weak CMs is again theirs, and the fact that the Rupani-Patel duo is back
suggests that they have put politics and their desire to retain control, over the
interests of the state. After Modi, this is a clear signal that the state does not deserve
its own administrative engine; it will have to live on second-hand governance from
Delhi. The truth is that Brand Modi may have saved the situation in the elections, but
PM Modi was responsible for creating it in the first place.

Also, it might be wise for BJP strategists not to read its strong showing in urban
Gujarat as a sign that the demonetisation and GST issues are over from an electoral
standpoint, for there is a possibility that urban Gujarat voted to signal belonging to an
identity cohort rather than indicate approval of policies. The BJP needed to be sent a
message rather than be sent packing. Which means that in other states, where the
Hindu identification with the BJP is not as pronounced, demonetisation and GST
might continue to be factors.

Even from a personal standpoint, Gujarat is not all good news for Mr Modi. He may
have worked his magic at the end, but it took a lot of hard labour and an unseemly
amount of negativity. The crowds were thinner in places, and had he not got the
windfall gift from the Congress that helped him raise the emotional pitch of his
campaign, things might well have turned out differently. Again, this was Gujarat
which is his home turf and a place where he enjoys a special connection with the
voters and it does not reflect what might happen elsewhere.

He might still carry more political heft than any other leader, certainly much more so
than Rahul Gandhi, but this may not count for as much in 2019. In 2014, Modi the
individual was central for he was the source of hope and belief. As an incumbent, he
is now surrounded not just by his own aura, which continues to be considerable, but
also by the effect of his policies and pronouncements. His record at the Centre has
many supporters, but it lacks the allure created around the Gujarat Model. Overall,

he is not the brand he was in 2014, although he continues to have a strong core of
passionate believers.

In any case, the tendency to look at politics through the frame of brands or
individuals can be misleading. As an individual Modi has no peer in politics currently,
but winning elections is not just about one’s abilities as a politician. The Brand Modi
vs Brand Rahul debate makes for good television, but in a real sense, it does not
mean too much. Rahul Gandhi’s new-found respectability as a politician does not
substantially alter the issues that the Congress is grappling with, and Modi’s
continued stature, if somewhat diminished may not automatically translate into an
electoral victory. The 2019 election is likely to shed some of the presidential
character of the 2014 one, and this is to Mr Modi’s disadvantage.
There is no question that Narendra Modi is a political phenomenon of our times. But
Gujarat might be a sign that what worked in 2014 may not work in the same way
going forward. The BJP needs more fuel in its tank, and an approach less dependent
on the personality of Narendra Modi. As the incumbent, he needs to evolve a new
playbook, and Gujarat shows that this hasn’t happened so far.

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