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Modi-fying India? A presidential campaign and the challenge of parliamentary governance

With the din of the Indian election campaign dying away and the refrain of the BJP – “Abki baar, Modi sarkar” (This time, Modi government) – about to be realised, the implications of this momentous result can be assessed. After a quarter of a century the accepted wisdom of Indian electoral politics that coalition politics was here to stay has been turned on its head and a single party has gained an overall majority. Albeit that the BJP’s majority of 23 in the 543-seat Lok Sabha rests on a remarkably narrow 31 per cent vote share, appreciably less than what Congress managed in suffering crushing defeats in 1989 (39 per cent) and 1977 (34 per cent), for the first time India will be governed by a majority party other than Congress.

The last Indian political leader to dominate a national party’s election campaign to the extent that Modi has done was Indira Gandhi in the 1970s – the then Congress party president, DK Barooah infamously proclaimed “Indira is India, India is Indira”. However, her campaigns were waged when the great majority of Indians did not have access to a television, let alone all the social media now commonplace. Today perhaps two-thirds of households have a television and over 80 per cent of Indians have mobile phones. In this context it was a master-stroke by the BJP to focus its energies on selling the NaMo story as that of the underprivileged chai wallah (tea boy) made good as the development delivering chief minister of Gujarat who now promised to do the same for India. It was also a narrative that suited the personality of Modi, dominant and combative rather than collegial and accommodative by temperament.

For eight months Narendra Modi’s BJP election team under his lieutenant Amit Shah, enthusiastically assisted by the nationwide network of 45,000 shakhas (branches) of the BJP’s nine-decade-old Hindu cultural nationalist parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), conducted a slick campaign focused on projecting Modi as leader in waiting. As the strains of the party’s campaign song of  “Modiji ko lane wale hain ache din aane wale hai” (Modi is coming, good days are coming) rang out, television screens and social media outlets filled with images of Modi. Modi crisscrossed the country attending over 5000 events and addressing nearly 500 rallies in 25 states over nine months, beginning as soon as he was named the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in September 2013. In what was possibly a global first, certainly on the scale on which it was done, where he could not physically appear he was projected in 3D holograms. In saturation advertising in mass circulation English, Hindi and regional language newspapers (including separately printed wraparounds on polling day), Modi almost always appeared alone – a commanding presence.

The Congress party claims that the cost of this presidential-style campaign may approach 50 billion rupees (c. a billion dollars) in an election the overall expense of which may only be surpassed by the 2012 US presidential contest. Despite the efforts of the Election Commission, the exact provenance of the funding for the marketing of “Brand NaMo” remains, as ever in Indian elections, murky as does the precise nature of the payback anticipated by the large Indian corporate business houses  and others bankrolling the spending. Even if limited in the effective geographical spread of Modi’s electoral appeal by the historic weakness of the BJP in states outside western India and Hindi-speaking northern and central India, their investment yielded a rich return. The overwhelming 244 seats (out of a total of 304) seats the party won in northern and western India carried Modi nearly nine-tenths of the way to an overall majority. The success of what was India’s first virtual presidential campaign of the electronic age could set the pattern for how national elections are fought and won for years to come.

The challenge facing Modi and India is whether, having won presidentially, he can master the art of parliamentary governance in a complex federal system. His election catchphrase of “minimum government, maximum governance” when regarded in the light of his record in Gujarat since 2001 suggests an energetically business friendly  polarising authoritarianism that may not translate well, especially if crudely pursued, at the centre. The BJP may not require the 54 members belonging to its allies in the National Democratic Alliance for a majority in the Lok Sabha but it will need them, as well as the support of powerful regional parties, to prevail in the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, where it holds only 46 of the 245 seats. Furthermore, unlike its pre-1989 Congress predecessors at the centre, Modi’s government will have to cohabit with state governments controlled by other parties in most states – the BJP leads the government in only five of the 28 states (the defeated Congress does so in eleven).

Beyond the institutional environment, there is also the diverse and plural reality of the society that lies beyond. In a country with the world’s third largest Muslim population – nearly one-sixth of all Indians – Modi will for the first time lead a ruling party that does not include a single Muslim Lok Sabha member. As Indira Gandhi found to her cost, the Indian political and social context is not one in which a centralised and authoritarian approach can succeed. Modi would do well to heed the warning, recalled by Congress party president Sonia Gandhi in a magazine article just days ago, that a reflective Jawaharlal Nehru anonymously addressed to himself after helping lead Congress to its first election victory in the 1937 provincial elections, a decade before becoming prime minister:

he has all the makings of a dictator in him – vast popularity, a strong will, energy, pride … and with all his love of the crowd, an intolerance of others and a certain contempt for the weak and inefficient … His overwhelming desire to get things done, to sweep away what he dislikes and build anew, will hardly brook for long the slow processes of democracy … His conceit is already formidable. It must be checked. We want no Caesars. (‘The Rashtrapati’, The Modern Review, Calcutta, vol. 62, Nov. 1937, p. 547)

Dr James Chiriyankandath is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, and Co-Editor of Commonwealth & Comparative Politics.

 

 

 

Published inIndia Votes 2014

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