‘Vikas’ is a rather sanskritised term but surprisingly it was a common refrain even among the most illiterate people from the most far-flung villages of Gujarat when they discussed elections. Many contested the claims, many questioned the distribution of its benefits; but at least the discourse was around development and not about caste or some other kind of identity – of the sort that fractured Gujarat politics in the 1980s, for example. Narendra Modi, for a variety of reasons, has happened to choose development as his politics. And it has resonated with people at large. Take the ambulance service called 108, making emergency healthcare available in remote areas. It is a hit across the state. It is run in association with an NGO. It does not take great leadership or vision or planning or money to offer a service like that. Even if Modi’s heady popularity started with something else, namely hardcore Hindutva, he had the long-term strategy of refashioning himself, rebranding himself.
In Manek Chowk, the hub of the market district of Ahmedabad, they’d tell you why you pay more for this plastic tumbler than that one. “Because this is branded.” It does not matter that the brand is not famous at all, but the very fact that it is branded means it has some identity. Beyond urban pockets, in villages, people were not able to tell me two things about Keshubhai Patel and Shankarsinh Vaghela – and even one about Arjun Modhvadia and Shaktisinh Gohil beyond their party affiliation. Modi is a known brand. People can talk about him at length – for or against. Brand Modi means development, whichever conception of it. It means decisive leadership (incidentally, the term used for LK Advani in the 2009 Lok Sabha campaign) – a no-nonsense administrator. Also, aggressive, pride of Gujarat and so on. On the opposite side is an undifferentiated blank space.
Modi harped on this point at every rally, asking voters not to hand over “the key of Gujarat” to somebody they don’t even know. He was essentially referring to the unbranded maal. Calling branding or PR or perception management if you prefer business jargon; Modi has done that aggressively over the years. After all, politics is not about reality but perceptions. Thus, by 2007 he had proved and now he has proved it again that the local candidate does not matter, people are voting for the leader (think of Indira Gandhi at the height of her popularity). This of course reduces the role of a legislator, and in the process a whole array of people have been elected who cannot hope to win without Modi’s backing – not a good sign for the party in the long run. But this sort of direct democracy works well for Modi. And an important element of it is communication.
Talking to people
Modi is probably the best orator among politicians of the post-Vajpayee phase. There’s never a dull moment in his speeches though selective one-line spins and outright lies are of course are a norm, as is the case of most political speechmaking. He actually holds dialogue with people, asking questions and the crowd shouts back. (In a rally in a tribal pocket, the people took the wrong cue and shouted YES when NO was needed, but it does not matter, they were full of enthusiasm). At another rally, again in a tribal pocket, a group of youngsters came out and said, “had fun!” One may contest his claims of economic growth and pocketing of credit for a lot that was not his doing, but if the Congress big shots cannot go to the people and convince them that RTI or NREGA or whatever was a great revolution, then they are obviously the losers. That brings us to the next point:
Congress as opposition
Talking to independent activists over the years, it has seemed that the Congress’s diffidence is even more than Modi’s confidence. Modi must have done punya in the previous lives to have earned an opposition like the Congress. More surprisingly is the factionalism inside it: what exactly could the three losers be fighting over?
Which brings us to the final point.
In selecting a commandant, Napoleon used to ask his generals, "But does he have luck?" Modi has it, in good measure. From the post-riot demands of his resignation even from within the party to the rebellion during his first full term, he has survived and emerged stronger. At every election, there was a whole range of factors going against him, and by the counting day analysts had to work out new explanations. Even in 2012, one can list out a dozen factors which could have ensured his defeat. They didn't.
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