City City Bang Bang, Columns

An aura of invincibility?

What does this massive victory really about? Apart from the fact that the unexpectedness of its sheer scale and sweep makes most analysts look foolish, what does it say about the politics of the day? What are voters looking for that they have found in Narendra Modi?

Potentially, there are many explanations, some of them rooted in thinly veiled incomprehension. The BJP’s ground game, the owning of nationalism as a theme and its salience post-Pulawama, the swooning support of media, particularly the popular TV channels, the growing appeal of an assertive form of Hindutva, the relatively unheralded impact of developmental schemes on the ground, the lack of a credible alternative, the Congress’ absence of coherence in their strategy- all of these are in some way or another, responsible for the remarkable outcome.

But perhaps there is something that at work here that goes beyond a set of tangible reasons. Arguably, Mr Modi won because he comes through as the only person capable of leading the country. After Indira Gandhi, he is the only leader who wins because he looks the part. For most voters, it is as if he is meant to lead; the reasons count, but are secondary. The other factors all play a role, but there is something about his persona that allows him to be seen as the presumptive leader of the nation. The fact that his appeal far outstrips that of the party that he leads suggests that what people are voting for are not the party’s policies but the leader’s aura.

He rises above not just caste and regional considerations, he rises above his own words and actions. This time around, he has made no promises. No acche din, no 15 lakhs, that can come back to haunt him. His primary reason for winning cannot be attributed primarily to what he has done (although that would certainly have played a role), nor on what he will do, but to who he is. His failures are elided over, his intentions are what matter. This is a kind of immunity that is unprecedented, and this gives him virtually limitless powers.

What has unquestionably helpful, has been the role played by an adoring media. The post-Pulawama bump that Mr Modi saw owes a lot to the nature of the coverage that helped fan a form of nationalism that was not rooted in BJP’s traditional Hindu-Muslim binary. This was a wider and deeper current that could accommodate many who were relatively unmoved by the usual party rhetoric.

Balakot became an ideal stage to underline the qualities that make Mr Modi so irresistible to his audience. What it did was to add a coat to fresh paint to the image Mr Modi already enjoyed. For any other leader, the same set of circumstances could have produced a very different outcome. Imagine a Rahul Gandhi at the helm and an assertive BJP in the opposition, and it is quite possible to paint a picture about how the headlines would have been about Indian intelligence failures, and a botched attempt at retaliation. The media could well have continued its screaming, only this time targeting the government instead of the opposition. Admittedly, this is a speculative construct, but it is far from being implausible. What it does underline is that Balakot worked for Mr Modi because of the image he has already built; it did not build this image.

It is noteworthy that the media never presents him as just another politician; interactions with him always strike a reverential note. On his part, he has always been careful to never allow himself to be bracketed with anyone as a peer; it is no accident that voters see him in a different category from any other political leader.

The other factor that helps create the image of a leader that is meant to rule is the intensity of support that he enjoys among his devotees. The word ‘bhakt’ that is used pejoratively to describe his followers, is, in fact, nothing more than matter-of-fact description for indeed no other label captures the extent of the belief that they place in their leader. Contrast this with the supporters of virtually any other party and the difference is stark. In no party, is the leader as exempt from criticism by its supporters, nor is there anywhere near the willingness to go wherever the leader takes them. This kind of passionate espousal can be contagious. The fact that the BJP’s vote share went up as voting progressed, suggests that this very visible support acted was highly influential for those undecided. In this context, the Chowkidar campaign played a critical role in creating a palpable sense of public enthusiasm. It helped identify and aggregate Mr Modi’s supporters, who by virtue of doing something markedly unusual and attention-catching, demonstrated the extent of their faith in their leader. The growing sense of inevitability that surrounded his campaign is better understood not as a result of specific promises or messages, but as an aura that made him appear to be the obvious choice.

The problem with the opposition is that they have no national leader on the horizon. What the Opposition needs is someone who has not mere supporters but believers and followers. Once the old arithmetic of caste stops winning them national elections, they have no option but to find a fitting rival to Mr Modi. Apart from the fact that no such figure exists today, given the fragmented nature of the opposition, and in particular the ineffectiveness of the Congress, which poses as a national party, but is anything but, there is little scope for such an alternative to emerge. Of course, this is equally true of the BJP, but then given Mr Modi’s age, there is no reason for them to worry about a post-Modi scenario any time soon.

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