Decoding the Modi personality cult

As the 2019 general elections in the world’s largest democracy concluded, the people’s verdict presented a spellbinding development. Not only did the Narendra Modi-led BJP win a second term, but the party secured a far more resounding victory than the historic 2014 elections. The BJP has secured a absolute majority in parliament for a second term, a development that hasn’t occurred in nearly five decades. The BJP’s victory is spectacular but also unprecedented because the Modi government’s performance in its first term was fraught with hiccups and setbacks. From the highly disruptive demonetisation to the inept rolling out of the GST, from massive unemployment to tremendous agrarian distress, from increasing socio-cultural disharmony and communal violence to reports of corruption, the indictment against the Modi government was formidable. Despite the shortcomings, not only did Modi manage to fight anti-incumbency, he bounced back with a larger majority and a stronger mandate.

The Modi magic

It is not just the performance of the BJP-led government or the popularity of the party that was the key factor in the victory. Unsurprisingly, it is Modi’s magnetic charisma and unassailable popularity that has led the BJP and its allies to victory. Reports suggest Modi’s stature eclipsed and neutralised other factors in this election—the shortcomings of the NDA government, the unacceptability of the controversial candidates and the opposition’s attacks. It is thus imperative to better understand that factors that have contributed to consolidate Modi’s personality cult.

The BJP’s stupendous propaganda machinery and organisational architecture under the highly skilled leadership of party president and Modi aide Amit Shah have successfully crafted a narrative around the prime minister’s personality, which resonated with the majority of the Indians. The narrative that created the cult of Modi has a four-pronged approach—Modi as a selfless leader with a humble origin; Modi as a decisive and strong leader capable of defending India against its adversaries; Modi as a beacon of hope for development; and, Modi as an indispensable national leader in the absence of any credible alternative.

Selfless leader

Modi’s repeated assertion about his humble origins seems to have greatly resonated with the masses. His proclamations of being a “fakir (pauper) who has abandoned his family and worldly attachments to serve the nation has meticulously crafted his austere personality. The narrative of Modi’s rise from the unassuming ordinariness of a tea seller and subsequently a low-rung RSS cadre to the highest pedestal of power seemed to electrify and ignite the aspirational hopes of diverse sections of people clamoring for social mobility in their own lives. Moreover, Modi’s garb of austerity and self–abnegation nullifies all charges of corruption and impropriety hurled on him by the opposition. It is obvious that the much vaunted campaign of the principal opposition party, the Congress, against the Modi government’s alleged corruption in the Rafale deal didn’t find any traction among the people. Rather, the Congress’s blatant labeling of Modi as a “chor” (thief) might have further alienated the masses, resulting in the party’s weak poll performance. Importantly, the picturesque imagery of Modi visiting a number of Hindu religious sights further bolsters his “saintly” demeanor besides brandishing his deep- rooted Hindu credentials.    

The indomitable strongman

Modi’s unhesitating claims regarding his bold and decisive leadership that has been most unequivocally reflected in his own words of having a “56- inch chest” greatly contributed in the making of his personality cult. His claims of decisive leadership gained prominence as it was pitted against the confused and tainted image of the corruption-laden Manmohan Singh-led UPA government. Modi’s promise of decisiveness and courage to take quick decisions to bolster India’s national interest imparted immediate enthusiasm among the Indian public looking for hope.

Modi’s first display of his much-vaunted “boldness” was the demonetisation of the Rs 500 and Rs 1000 currency notes as a daring bid to annihilate the menace of black money in India. Interestingly, despite the unspeakable hardships that the process caused to the common man, Modi’s support not only remained intact but also increased.

The development narrative

Some of the government’s policies yielded immediate dividends for the Modi cult, presenting him as a “development man”. The Modi government enacted some impactful welfare schemes that gave a strong sense of empowerment and hope to the people, particularly to the economically weaker rural population. Schemes like distributing gas cylinders to rural households and cash transfers to farmers showed positive change to many poor households who found themselves to be a direct beneficiary of the Modi regime.

Moreover, there were also couple of other tangible and transformational policy implementations like building of toilets and electrification of villages. These measures played a big role in convincing poorer voters that the Modi regime is one that works and has the capacity to do more if given the chance. The timely and effective implementation of government schemes had a major impact in increasing the BJP’s popularity in general and Modi’s popularity in particular in traditional Congress bastions. Besides, voters who didn’t receive the government benefits but witnessed or heard of such benefits being received by others had hope that they might benefit if the Modi government came back to power. This can be attributed to the continuous advertising of the schemes by the Modi government’s propaganda machinery. The packaging of such schemes as “benevolent” Modi’s gift to the people immensely helped in pulling the crowd towards him as an icon of hope and development, strengthening the perception of the prime minister as the “savior of the masses”.

No national alternative

Modi’s team not only deployed all possible tools to craft his larger than life image in politics, but also convincingly pushed a narrative that there is no credible alternative to him in Indian politics.

The BJP’s relentless effort to discredit Congress chief Rahul Gandhi as a politically naïve and privileged dynast with no experience of the struggles and churning of life in general and politics in particular, effectively influenced the political perception of the masses. Modi’s repeated attacks of the Gandhi family is a tactical reminder to the masses that Rahul is the very symbol of political opportunism and misappropriated political entitlement that Modi constantly accused the family of.

Modi has also managed to communicate that all other opposition leaders are mere corrupt opportunists who have united against him with a single-minded focus, not to serve the nation but to stall his developmental agenda.

What does this mean for democracy?

The BJP’s propaganda machinery and publicity managers played a pivotal role in effectively articulating the narrative of Modi’s indispensability. Armed with tremendous financial clout and technocratic wherewithal, the party assiduously created the Modi personality cult, which enjoys almost habitual reverence from a significant section of Indians.

But the unfettered rise of the colossal stature of a single leader in a multi-party democracy might be detrimental to the very idea and practice of democracy in India. This culture automatically dwarfs not only the other leaders of the ruling party and the opposition, but also reduces crucial institutions like parliament and the executive as extensions of the leader’s whims and fancies. India, as a durable democracy, has seen such strong personality cults in its history, regionally and nationally, with alarming consequences. As the preponderance of an individual leader in the entire discourse of politics is conducive for authoritarian trends to grow, it is in democracy’s interest to immunise the political discourse from turning into a unipolar one, so that the multiplicity of Indian democracy can survive and thrive.

Ambar Kumar Ghosh is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata. 

Narendra Modi