Can the Modi phenomenon by undone?

I am writing this just before the results of UP elections. It’s been two days since the exit polls were out and there has been plenty of debate on the veracity of it. Many who have been actual part of the actual exercise are debating whether it should exist at all.

If the actual results of UP, toe the line of exit polls, India’s politically most important state would have a BJP government. All credits should go to one man, the remarkable Narendra Modi and rightly so. But for him, his party stood no chance of pulling this off.

Ever since he won the 2014 election, Narendra modi has only gained in strength and stature. He commands an incredible aura and seen by many as someone who could do nothing wrong. He creates an incredible first impression as somebody who is not corrupt, hardworking, business friendly, speaks for hindus/Hindutva and as an active proponent of nationalistic zeal. These impressions mask any other negatives that may exist. Modi makes a classical case for ‘Halo effect’ where first impressions mask everything else, especially negatives.

On the other hand, any attempt to tarnish his image has misfired so far and ironically further strengthened his image. That is quite a rarity among contemporary leaders. One can compare him to the mythical ‘Vali’ in Ramayana, as anyone who challenged him would immediately lose half of their strength to him.  This is evident from how he emerged unscathed after demonetisation with his popularity intact. In fact, it further enhanced his credibility as the crusader against corruption, purely for the attempt regardless of the results. Today as things stand, nobody is arguing against the success or failure of demonetisation, the very fact that Modi took the effort is good enough and places him head, shoulders and knee above the rest. Since I was too young when Indira Gandhi was around, I don’t think any leader commanded such position in my lifetime.

I fundamentally think this extraordinary image and aura of invincibility is due to our fascination for messiahs. It is evident in the demigod status we accord to our heroes. A quick example that comes to me is Sachin Tendulkar, who was accorded such status early in his career. Before the advent of dravid, ganguly the efforts of other players in the eleven didn’t get counted. Mythology is abundant with crusaders from Srikrishna to Rama who were there to pull us out of our misery and save us from the evil forces. A hero is often whom we look up to. The success of Modi is a testimony to our continued fascination for the one man who would rescue from the evil forces that are plaguing the country. He is clearly seen as the ‘chosen one’ who will rescue us from our state of penury and restore the grandiosity of the past.

All this brings us to an important question. Is this position permanent? Is he completely invincible? Especially with him completely owning the nationalism rhetoric, can anybody dislodge him at all. A great hero he has become. But like the great heroes of the past, is there a weak link – an Achilles heel?

Indeed, there is! One must look slightly south for answers. Tamilnadu is one state where he is yet to open his account. When the entire nation chanted Modi and gave him a popular mandate, one state stood out and voted for the indomitable ‘Amma’ without any signs of Modi wave. This defiance has an interesting subtext to it. It is a case of regional identity toppling the so called national identity. Tamilnadu has a history of such defiance with the popular anti-hindi movement which set the stage for Dravidian parties to capture power. Till date tamilnadu has been a fortress for regional parties where national parties made little headway.

Modi unlike in other states is clearly handicapped in wooing the voters here given that he doesn’t speak the language and cannot stoke the nationalistic sentiments to an electorate with strong regional bias. Therefore, the only narrative that can counter the rise of modi could be subaltern feelings that doesn’t necessarily getting reflected in the larger nationalistic sentiments of the country. It is the triumph of regional over national.

One could see that in Bihar, where the voters chose to support local established leaders over Modi. The electorate didn’t take it too kindly to the fact that BJP projected Bihar in poor light. Nitish and Laloo were quick to cash in and campaigned as a matter of regional pride.  I felt their stand against reservations and painting a poor caricature of Bihar went against them in Bihar elections.

Modi, being the astute politician he is has deftly managed regional sentiments so far. By donning local attire, approximating local icons he has ensured that he didn’t antagonize local sentiments. For instance, in tamilnadu he did that by wearing a dhoti and taking a photo-op with the Tamil superstar Rajnikanth.

While I narrated the case of Tamilnadu, this can happen in states with strong local subcultures that have unique counter narratives like west Bengal, Orissa and even Maharashtra. Especially in states where they have strong regional leaders who embody these sentiments, Modi hasn’t enjoyed similar levels of invincibility.

In the longer run therefore Modi’s success in places where there is a strong regional subculture would depend on how he effectively weaves his nationalistic bombast with regional fervour. Addressing local issues, honouring local tradition and giving due regard to local language would aid his success. Any threat to local pride would prove detrimental in the consolidation that he is aiming at.

On a personal note, while I am not a fan of Modi, I do recognize the fact he has brought credibility and buoyancy to his role which didn’t exist with politicians generally in India. One hopes that he accepts that there are many Indias that exist within the broader idea of India and he needs to acknowledge and appreciate it sooner than later. From what I see on ground, it seems like wishful thinking.


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