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What Makes Narendra Modi Special Among India's Prime Ministers Since 1991?

Leader of the masses.

18/09/2017 11:12 AM IST | Updated 18/09/2017 12:53 PM IST
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What explains [Narendra] Modi's cross-cutting appeal?

K.N. Govindacharya was one of the most influential leaders in the BJP organization through the 1980s and early 1990s, and has seen Modi evolve over the decades. He is outside formal politics now, but remains a senior Sangh ideologue. He says, 'Narendra's forte is political marketing. His mental matrix is simple. Politics is equal to power. Power stems from elections. Elections are a battle of images. And therefore, politics revolves around images, messages, and signalling.'

For this, Govindacharya suggested, a leader needs three elements in place: infrastructure to sustain oneself in an adverse situation, resources and technology. 'The infrastructure for adverse times is available through the Sangh; they have adequate resources now; and they have technology in the form of media and social media which play a huge role in amplifying the message. Narendra has a natural talent for blending it.'

There is no doubt that the construction of the Modi image, or Modi images, is central to the making of the hawa.

A leader needs three elements in place: infrastructure to sustain oneself in an adverse situation, resources and technology

For the Sangh base, he remains the Hindu leader. For the urban middle class, he is the man who would bring vikas and jobs and the nationalist who would teach Pakistan a lesson — take the recent Delhi municipal elections as proof of his continued romance with this constituency. Despite a poor record over multiple terms in office, the BJP swept the city in the name of Modi. For the poor, he is the man who has taken on the rich and thinks about their daily needs. For hundreds of thousands of citizens who tune in to listen to him every month on 'Mann ki Baat', he is a man above politics, a moral science teacher, a life-guru offering lessons. For the OBC, he is one of them. For the upper caste, he is taking forward their dream of a strong India as a world power. Often, all these lines intersect.

Selling these multiple images is however hard work. And that's where the other element of the Modi personality comes in — energy.

Varanasi — Modi's Lok Sabha constituency — went to polls in the last phase of the 2017 UP elections. The prime minister decided to campaign in the city, and its adjoining areas, for three days. Many saw this as a sign of the prime minister's nervousness.

But this ignored the fact that Modi was not just a prime minister but also a mass leader. A generation of Indians had stopped seeing this duality inherent in the office. Let's look at India's prime ministers after 1991.

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P.V. Narasimha Rao may have been a mass leader in his home state of Andhra Pradesh, but he had no base beyond his state, and definitely no appeal in North India. H.D. Deve Gowda was a Karnataka phenomenon. I.K. Gujral would just about have been able to win elections at Delhi's India International Centre. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the only prime minister after 1991 with charisma, mass appeal and the zeal to reach out to the public directly — but he became prime minister in his seventies, was not completely healthy and confined himself to key elections. Manmohan Singh lost the only Lok Sabha election he contested, and stayed away from the electoral fray, selecting a safe Rajya Sabha seat from Assam where he had never lived.

And then comes Modi, who believes winning elections is his core dharma. He begins campaigns early, and relies on extensive mass contact. His own organizational background — he came to the BJP from the Sangh as the general secretary handling sangathan in Gujarat — keeps him on top of the party machinery. And he is not scared of defeat — the possibility that the party may not do well in elections does not keep him away from the field, but makes him jump into the fray with more zeal.

On the last day of the UP campaign, a leader from Purvanchal, who has known the prime minister for two decades, mentioned to him that his Varanasi campaign was being interpreted as a sign that the party was scared, and asked him why he had decided to campaign now.

An election is a war, and I am the commander. I am also the MP from the city, I have not been able to spend enough time there, and this gives me an opportunity to connect with the people.

Modi replied, 'Chunav jang hai, aur main senapati hoon. An election is a war, and I am the commander. I am also the MP from the city, I have not been able to spend enough time there, and this gives me an opportunity to connect with the people. And in the process, if the party benefits too, it is all for the good.' This approach — of viewing each election as critical and as one which has to be won, of taking responsibility for it and investing extraordinary energy — distinguishes Modi.

It has also made him India's tallest mass leader of contemporary times. The flirtation of 2014 has turned into a full romance three years later. It is winning the BJP elections from the panchayat to Parliament, and everything in the middle, across the country. The future of Indian politics is dependent on whether this love affair turns out to be a brief phase in the life of the nation or continues for long enough to change the very nature of the nation. And whether it lasts will depend as crucially on another man and the infrastructure he has created to make the relationship flourish — Amit Shah.

Prashant Jha's How The BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine is published on Juggernaut.in.

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