Is Modi’s cult of personality strong enough to see him through?


Supporters stand beside a cardboard cut-out of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. T Narayan / Bloomberg

The Indian Prime Minister has a formidable hold over the national narrative, and yet the Indian electorate is discontented

Barely a week after marking the 39th anniversary of its founding, India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will fight an election that could be decisive for its and the country’s political, economic and cultural life. Over the BJP and India looms one man, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose biggest task this election is to convince Indians he is indispensable to the nation’s security and economic prospects.

It is not yet clear if Mr Modi can pull it off. There have been mutterings of dissent within his party. On April 6, the day the BJP was co-founded by him back in 1980, the party’s elder statesman L K Advani publicly delivered what seemed to be a rebuke of Mr Modi’s stewardship of his political project. In a swipe at Mr Modi’s propensity to label political opponents as agents of India’s arch-rival Pakistan, Mr Advani claimed his party “never regarded those who disagree with us politically as ‘anti-national’”. He went on to suggest the BJP’s values revolved around “diversity”, “freedom of expression” and India’s “democratic traditions”.

On the same day as Mr Advani’s outburst, Shatrughan Sinha, a Hindi film star and long-time party member, quit the BJP and defected to the opposition Congress party. He lamented “the rise of dictatorship” under Mr Modi and that “good people” such as Mr Advani and two other senior BJP leaders — Murli Manohar Joshi and Arun Shourie — had been “kicked out” of the party. “Everyone is scared of Modiji in the party,” Mr Sinha added for good measure. “Even the MPs are scared of the Prime Minister.”

The criticisms don’t seem to have had the intended effect. Mr Modi ignored Mr Sinha’s complaints but quickly — and cleverly — endorsed Mr Advani’s sentiments as a perfect summary of “the true essence of BJP”. Meanwhile, Mr Advani’s supposed anguish over the BJP’s charged rhetoric was roundly denounced by political observers as hypocritical, even mendacious. For Mr Advani, once Mr Modi’s political mentor, led the Hindu nationalist movement in the 1980s and 1990s and is associated with the campaign that led to the demolition of the medieval Babri Mosque in 1992. His apparent truth-telling decades later was seen to be the pique of a sore loser — Mr Advani, like Mr Sinha, was not picked as the BJP’s candidate for his long-held parliamentary seat. At 91, Mr Advani could legitimately be seen as irrelevant to the future of the Modi-led BJP.

But does the future hold for Mr Modi and his party, and how will their combined political fortunes affect India? Two basic truths are undeniable. First, Mr Modi seems to have a formidable hold over both the BJP and the national narrative. An energetic and folksy campaigner with a masterful grasp of social media and the art of spin, Mr Modi is able to drive attention towards issues that show his government as the only one capable of keeping India safe and strong on the world stage.

An energetic and folksy campaigner with a masterful grasp of social media, Mr Modi is able to drive attention towards his chosen issues

Second, there are signs the Indian electorate is discontented. Consider the recent musings of Gurcharan Das, a prominent Indian author, commentator and former head of Procter & Gamble India. Mr Das voted for Mr Modi five years ago in the hope of massive jobs-creation and vigorous economic growth. But “in 2019,” he says, “I am disappointed because jobs are nowhere in sight and there is distress among farmers… I am unhappy with BJP’s majoritarian politics. Institutions have weakened. I no longer trust GDP and job numbers. I find BJP’s obsession with nationalism unpleasant. Modi is not the transformative leader I had hoped for.”

Obviously, Mr Das is too well-heeled to properly represent the vast Indian electorate of nearly 900 million people. But his disappointment with Mr Modi’s failure to live up to catchy 2014 campaign promises is still worth noting. Never mind the unicorn pledges — a hundred smart cities and housing for all — Mr Modi is seen to have failed in his vow of “minimum government and maximum governance”, which basically meant reforming the state. Instead, he pursued an ultimately pointless “demonetisation” drive in November 2016, which voided 86 per cent of the banknotes in circulation in India overnight.

One has to wonder if memories of the resulting economic distress for small businesses and day labourers will surface when they cast their ballots this time round. Then there is falling agricultural productivity and the inability of many Indian farmers — 263 million and a significant voting bloc — to earn enough to feed their families. Will they vote for the BJP?

No one can say for sure. Prannoy Roy, who pioneered opinion polls in India and introduced psephology to Indian election commentary, recently noted the risk of over-reporting support for the BJP. And Dorab R Sopariwala, co-author with Mr Roy of a new book, ‘The Verdict: Decoding India’s Elections’, said Indian voters were very different from, say, those in the US. “In America… the upper-class conservative voters are the ones who are quiet. The lower class, factory workers and all, are very vocal. In India, the upper-class conservative voters are not all quiet while the lower caste voters in general are muted.”

What this means is that we won’t know the Indian people’s verdict on Mr Modi until the last vote is counted.