Three personalities loom large in the upcoming general elections in India: Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi, and Arvind Kejriwal. The rise of new and first generation politicians like Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal, could modify the post-1989 trend towards dynastic politics, national prominence of regional parties, and the role played by state-level dynamics. This post analyzes the rise of one of the candidates—Narendra Modi—in Indian politics.
Modi was appointed the Chief Minister (CM) of Gujarat in October 2001, by the national level BJP leadership, when criticisms of the Gujarat’s government’s handling of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake created the need for a leadership change. At that time, Modi had been an organizational man without much political experience. In 2014, after 13 years, Modi rose to become the BJP’s candidate for the PM. The rise of Modi is a fascinating story of a specific man, but also a story of a party that believed in cadres and organizations but found it difficult to resist the rise of Modi’s personality cult.
Is Modi’s rise the decline of the BJP party? How was Modi constructed as “India’s PM”? What explains the making of Narendra Modi as a contender for the top post in just a decade?
This blog post argues that Narendra Modi has worked assiduously to create a personality-centered politics within the BJP since 2002 in exactly the same way Indira Gandhi did within the Congress in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The “making of Modi” will transform not only Indian politics but also the nature of the cadre-based party, the BJP.
First, Modi has crafted a cult organized around his persona. In doing so, he has undermined the organizational culture of the BJP and rendered the cadre based party subservient to his person. Indira Gandhi is known to have coined the slogan “India is Indira.” Modi has followed her maxim. Modi wants the BJP to be all about Modi and has undercut the power of his competitors within the party. Personal loyalty to him is more important than respect for the BJP’s or RSS’s principles. In Gujarat he has done so by undermining party leaders of stature and by creating a parallel structure that derives its power from patronage arising from the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO). Rather than rely on political leaders within the BJP, Modi hired Kailashnathan, a former elite civil servant to serve as his political advisor and link between the state, the CMO (from where his power arises) and the party. Kailashnathan is a Modi loyalist without any political ambitions.
But, what about the RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which forms the cultural and organizational backbone of the BJP? Modi came from the RSS and has maintained strong links to the social and cultural wing of the Hindu parivar (family). He has personal links with Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the RSS, going back to his early career. While RSS is uncomfortable with the focus on “Modi” rather than “issues,” their sense of loyalty makes them support Modi. How Modi navigates the focus of the RSS on the Ram temple and a Hindu based politics after the elections would be the key issue. Currently, the RSS leaders are willing to accept Modi’s focus on ‘development” because they trust Modi’s anti-Muslim and Hindutva’s credentials. In the process, Modi has also undermined the role of alternative RSS leaders and the RSS principles of “issues” and “discipline.”
Second, Modi’s ideological transformation has been notable. Modi is ideologically adept in transforming his personal ideology to suit his national ambitions. Former BJP Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee noted in an off-guard moment: “Narendra Modi would offer prayers in a mosque five times a day if he senses a chance to become India’s Prime Minister.” In the 1990s the BJP embraced the ideology of Hindutva. In 2002 Gujarat elections, Modi won by equating anti-Muslim sensibility with a form of Gujarati pride and sub-nationalist identity, what he terms as “Gujarati Asmita.” At that time, Modi needed an ideological anchor to launch his political career and he utilized and reformed the majoritarian Hindu ideology for the Gujarati context. His 2002 electoral victory emboldened him, and silenced his critics within the party such as Vajpayee.
Yet, Modi found that he had ridden a lion—hindutva—that could become a liability at the national level. In the mid 2000s, when his national ambitions were activated, he realized the need for a new incarnation, and found it in a developmental plank. Gujarat’s development success saved and resurrected Modi’s political career. Gujarat was a developmental model long before Modi arrived on the Gujarat’s scene. Yet, Modi rode the wave of Gujarat’s success and crafted a new ideological frame. This has made him more acceptable to both businessmen and poor deprived citizens of backward states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, who would like to see similar development in their home states.
Modi used government resources to build the CMO to craft his future electoral strategies. Quite early in the political game, Modi began building a political machine, while simultaneously crafting a multifarious media (and social media) strategy. I observed some elements of this media strategy in research on Gujarat in 2003. Modi’s staff carefully analyses all media outlets on a daily basis and tracks the journalists that write any positive or negative views on him.
Around 2003 Modi focused on building a pan-Indian image. He 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 were translated into the local languages and circulated in these states. Pamphlets and packages were distributed to local media journalists across the Southern states. Initially he did not receive much attention but this early Southern strategy will pay off in these elections when his name may be better known than many other leaders (with the partial exception of Rahul Gandhi). As the 2014 campaign heats up, Modi has focused on the “weak” spots of the BJP, such as Bihar, where Nitish Kumar broke with the BJP coalition in 2013. Modi visited Bihar four times in late 2013 and 2014. In 2014 itself Modi has been to Bihar three times. Thus, the “Modi’s wave” has been carefully orchestrated since 2002-2003.
Recognizing the role of younger, urban men, who seemed to support him in large numbers in Gujarat, Modi crafted a media and IT strategy that began using social media and texting tools much earlier than many other parties. Modi’s IT imprint is not only stronger than many other leaders, but he also created information centric tools within the CMO to publicize his speeches, visits, and ideas through twitter, Facebook, YouTube videos, CDs etc. Various websites have been launched to augment Modi’s message, seeking funds, volunteers, and conveying his ideas (examples include India272). Many other parties, and even BJP allies such as the Shiv Sena seem envious of the IT leap that Modi has achieved over the past five year.
We don’t yet know if this IT strategy will pay off, but it certainly ensures that Modi’s web presence is much stronger than other politicians in these elections. Essentially, Modi’s personal political machine crafted a systematic media electoral strategy, has sustained the use of different media sources for different class groups, and used Gujarat’s state machinery for political purposes.
All in all, the so-called “Modi’s wave” has been consciously crafted since 2003 and includes a focus on development rather than hindutva, undercutting the power of BJP’s competitors, a conscious southern strategy, a strong social media presence and the harnessing of the state machinery to create a wave for Modi. In the process the BJP as a party has been reduced to a secondary position.
Dr. Aseema Sinha [Ph.D. Cornell University], Wagener Chair in South Asian Politics and George R. Roberts Fellow, Claremont Mckenna College, is the author of The Regional Roots of Developmental Politics in India. She is currently working on: When David Meets Goliath: How Global Markets and Rules Are Shaping India’s Rise to Power. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org