What explains the making of Narendra Modi as a prime ministerial candidate in a relatively short span of time? Modi was appointed chief minister of Gujarat on October 7, 2001 by the national-level BJP leadership when criticism of the state government’s handling of the 2001 earthquake demanded a leadership change. At that time, Modi had been an organizational man without much political experience. The rise of Modi is not just the fascinating story of one man, but also the story of a party that believed in cadres and principles but has found it difficult to resist the rise of Modi’s personality cult.
I suggest that Narendra Modi has worked assiduously to create personality-centered politics within the BJP since 2002/2003 exactly the way Indira Gandhi did within the Congress in the late 1960s and early 1970s. DK Borooah, a supporter of Mrs Gandhi, coined the
slogan: “India is Indira, Indira is India”, and she adopted it. Modi has followed Indira Gandhi’s maxim. For him, personal loyalty is more important than respect for the principles of the BJP or the RSS, where he started his career. In Gujarat, he has done so by undermining party leaders of stature and creating a parallel structure that derives its power from patronage arising from the CM’s office. Even at the national level, he has tried to weed out any party leader who disagrees with him.
His personal ideology is tailored to suit his national ambitions. In 2002, Modi needed an ideological anchor to launch his political career so he utilized the majoritarian Hindu ideology for the Gujarati context. His 2002 electoral victory emboldened him, and silenced his critics within the party such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The RSS is still uncomfortable with the focus on “Modi” but they are willing to accept him because they trust his Hindutva credentials.
Modi, meanwhile, soon realized that Hindutva was a liability beyond Gujarat. In the mid 2000s, he woke up to the need for a new incarnation, and hit on the developmental plank. Gujarat was a developmental model much before Modi arrived on the Gujarat scene but he rode its success to resurrect his political career. The development agenda has made him more acceptable to both businessmen and poor deprived citizens of backward states such as UP and Bihar, many of whom are migrants in Gujarat and would like to see a similar development happen in their home states.
Soon after 2002, Modi began building a political machine around himself, while simultaneously crafting a multifarious media strategy as well as a social media strategy. In Gujarat, Modi began augmenting the CM’s office and adding staff to monitor and evaluate the diverse media output on him. Modi’s staff does a very careful analysis of all media outlets on a daily basis and tracks the journalists who write positive or negative things about him.
The focus on building a pan-Indian image came in the early to mid 2000s. Modi began visiting the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in 2003-2005. Full-page ads were placed in the main southern news dailies and his speeches translated into the local languages. The CM’s office started recording and collating his speeches and sound bites and distributing them through CDs, audio cassettes etc. This early Southern strategy may pay off in 2014. He’s also cleverly focused on the “weak” spots of BJP such as, Bihar, where Nitish Kumar parted ways with the BJP coalition in August 2013. Modi visited Bihar a number of times in late 2013 and 2014. In 2014 alone Modi has been to Bihar three times.
Recognizing the role of urban youth who seemed to support him in large numbers in Gujarat, Modi crafted a social media strategy to reach different segments of the young population. Modi began using Twitter quite early. Numerous information-centric tools within the CMO were created to publicize his speeches, visits, and ideas through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube videos, CDs etc. Various websites have been launched to augment Modi’s message, seek funds, volunteers, and convey his ideas (examples: India272). Essentially, Modi’s personal political machine crafted a systematic media electoral strategy early.
All in all, the so-called Modi wave has been consciously crafted since 2003. It includes a focus on development, undercutting of competitors, a conscious southern strategy, a strong social media presence and harnessing of the state machinery to build his persona. In the process, the BJP as a party has been reduced to a secondary position.
Sinha is Wagener Chair in South Asian Politics and
George R Roberts Fellow, Claremont Mckenna
College. She has authored ‘The Regional Roots of
Developmental Politics in India’