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A limited script?

One recurrent motif in Narendra Modi’s election speeches is a sense of being a victim of personal insults and abuse directed at him by the opposition in general and the Congress in particular. His recent statement about his family members being targeted is not the only time that he has made this point. Every election, this is a strand in the narrative that he builds about himself. Given that he himself is not shy of dishing it out in very personal terms, nor can he be described as someone who is overly sensitive to criticism, it is worth examining as to what role does this recurring theme play in the way he presents himself to his audience.

The larger narrative that is being shaped is that there is a section of interests, encompassing politics and media that is blinded by Modi-hate, and cannot see beyond that. The PM, who is working tirelessly and selflessly to bring about change in a moribund system, has to suffer these personal attacks made by those whose vested interests are being hurt, for the larger good of the nation. But he, like a true statesman, is soldiering on and giving his very best to the people of the country. The venality and narrow-mindedness of those attacking him is contrasted with the selflessness of the PM’s efforts.

Like all enduring narratives, this one too has a kernel of truth at its heart. Mr Modi is a figure who attracts both fear and intense dislike, both at a personal and professional level. There is a strong section of media that has viewed him with both fear and dislike. The Opposition does indeed have a very clear goal that it is in its own way working towards- ensuring the defeat of Mr Modi. By itself, of course, this is hardly unusual. The role of the Opposition is precisely that. In this case, there is an added element of strong dislike, but that runs both ways. the BJP under Mr Shah, has hardly run shy of playing an extreme form of hardball, with both the media and its political opponents.

What is not entirely clear is how the self-pitying note that the PM strikes in his election speeches sits with his overall image of a tough and decisive leader, who is focused on his objective and is utterly unmoved by criticism. There is no question that he enjoys enormous personal equity with a large section of the voters, and by making all elections about himself personally, he hopes to mobilise support even in a context where the sentiment runs against the party. Does this frequent invocation of himself as a victim work with his audience in the context of an election?

It is a strategy that potentially offers sharply diminishing returns. Its success depends in large measure not just on popular support for Mr Modi personally, but on the kind of support that takes offence at the slightest attack on the leader. It is the kind of emotion that works better when the idea of being wrongly attacked is attributed to Mr Modi by the voters, rather than by Mr Modi to himself. In 2014, when he could credibly position himself as an outsider to mainstream politics who was being kept out by the ruling establishment, it was a narrative that connected with a large constituency hungry for change. In 2018, this kind of passion is more likely to be found only amongst the core base of the party, which in any case does not need any election speeches to be persuaded to vote for the party. For the rest, it is in danger of becoming a repetitive litany that diminishes the aura around the leader rather than enhance it. Emotional gambits need to be used with restraint. The overuse of victimhood can create indifference quite quickly, and in the case of Mr Modi, given his overall image, actually be counterproductive.

Where this kind of a strategy works for him, is when he is able to turn a personal attack into a counter-attack, rather than merely feel sorry for himself. The chaiwala opening provided to him has been used with great effect for many years now. The ‘Maut ka saudagar’ statement made by Sonia Gandhi was a big catalyst in his being able to summon up great anger and resentment at the time. In a larger sense too, the BJP thrives on attacks that it can use to mount a counter-offensive. The ‘award waapsi’ and the debate around intolerance are good examples of this ability.

But even here, there are signs that the earlier facility with turning an attack into an even more devastating counterattack is not what is used to be. The recent attempt to dub Rahul Gandhi’s dig at him about starting his speeches with a nationalistic invocation as a ‘fatwa’ feels like a stretch. As a tactic, the use of anti-Muslim dog whistle in the danger of becoming stale. When that happens, yesterday’s potent weapon can turn into today’s parody.

In a larger sense too, the BJP seems to be operating, of its own volition, off a limited script. It seems to find it difficult to go beyond attacks on the Congress that are often quite crass and an openly anti-Muslim posture (the Ali vs Bajrangbali kind of polarity) in framing its electoral proposition. At a time when significant parts of India are facing real issues and given that widespread farmer distress is an acute problem, for the party to believe that it can rely exclusively on whipping up religious passions feels unrealistic. In 2014, the party’s great promise was Mr Modi and the possibility of transformational change. Today, what it offers is a resentful return to a past rather than a hopeful push into the future. The results of the current state elections will give the party a pointer as to how drastically its current strategy would need to change.