Modi’s election conundrum
Naturally, the BJP’s state party organization had pulled out all the stops to welcome the most powerful crowd-puller in the world’s largest democracy. Thousands of people had been ferried in by bus for the occasion and the roads were choked with traffic. It was event management on an epic scale.
With nothing better to do, I tuned into the rally. Modi, the canniest of campaigners, began with a few sentences of Kannada he had rehearsed for the occasion (he does not speak the language). In 90 seconds, the chant burst forth from the crowd: “Modi…Modi…Modi…”
Many times in his political career, Modi has shown scant regard for the institutions of democracy. But if there is one aspect of democratic politics he loves unequivocally, it is elections. Indeed, from the time he took over the reins in New Delhi in the summer of 2014, Modi has never really left the campaign trail. In India, a “major election” is always around the corner. And to Modi, wherever there is an election in India, it is his duty to help win it.
There’s a certain paradox to the winner of the biggest election in history continuing to remain always on the stump. Last year, before elections in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, Modi took himself all around the state. Then, during state elections in Gujarat, he spoke at as many as 34 public rallies over a two-week period. This year he has already addressed election rallies in Tripura, Nagaland, Meghalaya, and now Karnataka.
Some would say there’s nothing wrong with an elected prime minister using his considerable influence to swing state elections. Whatever their effect on Modi’s duties as PM, his interventions in the states are almost always a source of rich electoral gains for the BJP. Furthermore, legislators in the upper house of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha, are elected by state legislative assemblies, so strength in the states translates into more power to decide policy at the center.
Many times in his political career, Modi has shown scant regard for the institutions of democracy. But if there is one aspect of democratic politics he loves unequivocally, it is elections.
But the relentless rush of rhetoric and self-promotion has its downside too. On at least two occasions in the last four years, in state elections in Delhi and Bihar, Modi has been the main campaigner for his party and watched it routed in the polls. This has been a source of great personal embarrassment for him.
And that’s not all. Sometimes Modi has actually coarsened and trivialized the debate in state elections. At a delicate stage in the Gujarat election campaign last year, he addressed a rally where he accused India’s former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of colluding with Pakistan to help defeat the BJP: An idea as laughable as it was crass. Such wild theories are a tell-tale sign that Modi does not entirely trust his own declared idea of “vikas” or “development” — the cornerstone of his prime ministerial campaign in 2014 — as the source of his success with the Indian electorate.
When does the relentless canvassing turn into overkill? When a person’s face is already everywhere, where then can it go? We’ll find out soon enough, when Modi takes to the stage again next year to seek a second term. In the giant, all-consuming irruption across physical space, media and social media that this project will entail, it will be a challenge for Modi to cut through the air of deja vu he has inadvertently built up around himself.
• Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer based in New Delhi, and the author most recently of the novel Clouds (Simon & Schuster, 2018)
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