A referendum on Modi’s leadership - Hindustan Times

A referendum on Modi’s leadership

Apr 18, 2024 10:00 PM IST

The 2024 general elections is fought in the name of the Prime Minister, for or against

An electorate of a whopping 960 million plus, spread over 543 constituencies, and over a million booths in 28 states and eight Union territories are voting in an election in the world’s largest democracy being fought on just one name: Narendra Damodardas Modi. The 2024 election is the ultimate presidential-style battle being contested under the guise of parliamentary democracy by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Leave aside Kerala, a state that marches to its own beat, and Andhra Pradesh, which has an old-style match-up between regional satraps, in every other state, there is only one candidate who has made this election a referendum on his leadership.

Chennai: Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a roadshow ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, in Chennai, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. (PTI Photo)(PTI04_09_2024_RPT303A)(PTI) PREMIUM
Chennai: Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a roadshow ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, in Chennai, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. (PTI Photo)(PTI04_09_2024_RPT303A)(PTI)

Even the BJP manifesto is almost entirely about deifying an individual above all else. “Modi ki guarantee” is the catchline that runs through every promise with pictures of the Prime Minister (PM) splashed across almost every page of the manifesto. The party has been subsumed within the towering personality cult built around the “one nation, one leader” drumbeat. Not since the high noon of the Congress in the mid-1970s when then Congress president Dev Kant Barooah infamously spoke of “India is Indira and Indira is India” has a national election been so completely identified with one person. The 2014 election was a vote for change made with the assurance of “acche din”; 2019 was about leadership but within the context of a broader nationalist appeal built around the Pulwama terror attack and the Balakot response.

This time, there isn’t even a façade for making this an issue-based election around jobs, inflation or income inequalities. Or, vigorously debating the hits and misses of the last 10 years. Even Hindutva doesn’t matter beyond the core BJP voters. The much-hyped “Viksit Bharat” narrative is built around the core belief that only one leader can take India into the future. Even the promise of bringing the Olympic Games to the country in 2036 is designed to create an aura of near permanence around PM Modi’s tenure. From spinning a dream of a “new India” by 2022, the calendar has been artfully shifted to 2047 and beyond, embodied in the Prime Minister’s vision of an “Amrit Kaal”.

The concept of a “guarantee”, a word coined first by AAP and Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi in 2020, and later used by the Congress to highlight its poll promises in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, is now the PM’s USP. It is based on the realisation that voters are generally sceptical of their local leadership but more inclined to trust a larger-than-life national leader like Modi even if the “guarantee” is based more on hope than concrete delivery. Not surprisingly, the PM, rather grandiosely, refers to his guarantee in the third person, almost as if he too is subordinate to his own cult.

Karnataka offers a good illustration of how this obsessive personality-driven politics is working on the ground. With an abundance of cash-rich netas, defectors and dynasts, the “new” BJP candidate list in Karnataka reflects how a “party with a difference” is now simply a “win-at-all-costs” Modi-centric election machine. Half the sitting MPs have been dropped — many of them senior and loyal karyakartas — while the party has stitched an alliance with HD Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (S). Only a year ago, the BJP fiercely campaigned against the JD(S) in state elections, accusing the party of being a father-son private limited company that was steeped in corruption. The anti-parivaarwaad, bhrashtachar hatao trope at the Centre sounds hollow in the lush green countryside of southern Karnataka as the BJP and JD(S) leaders campaign together in the name of Brand Modi.

In a sense, the BJP’s Modi fixation is understandable. When you have a trump card in his undeniable popularity and mass connect, why will you not flaunt it? If the Congress in the Indira years built its election strategy around the latter’s post-1971 “Maa Durga” imagery, why should the BJP hesitate to showcase its tallest and most trusted leader by some distance? But what makes sense electorally might not always be healthy for a diverse multi-party democracy. In the most fundamental sense, a concerted attempt is being made to render all other leaders and parties irrelevant to voter choices.

Ironically, it is the Sangh Parivar that has often emphasised the importance of sanghatan (organisation) over vyakti (individual). Recall how the RSS frowned upon the BJP’s 1999 and 2004 campaigns where massive cut-outs of Vajpayee dotted the political landscape. Now, the RSS appears to have silently acquiesced to the “aayega to Modi hi” propaganda blitz, secure in the knowledge that Modi 3.0 will faithfully implement the saffron brotherhood’s core ideological agenda. A coalition-era PM like Vajpayee had to work within the constraints of a common minimum programme while a majority Modi government can push ahead with removing Article 370, building a Ram Temple and now promising a Uniform Civil Code.

With MP candidates reduced to faceless nobodies, with Union ministers serving as faithful implementers of executive firmans, with bureaucrats living up to their reputation as dutiful “yes men”, with the Opposition browbeaten and bruised and the media as cheerleaders, the stage is set for an election where a resounding mandate is sought in Modi’s name alone. In the short term, it’s a strategy that should pay rich dividends for the BJP when pitted against a divided and demoralised Opposition. In the long run, the inevitable question will pop up: “After Modi, who?”

Post-script: On a bus ride in rural Karnataka, I asked a group of women whether they had heard of “Modi ki guarantee” and the Congress’s promise of “Nyay”. Almost all of them identified with the former coinage, none of them could fathom what “Nyay” meant. Ironically, they were all beneficiaries of a free bus journey, one of the five “guarantees” implemented by the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government in the state.

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal

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    Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist, author and TV news presenter. His book 2014: The election that changed India is a national best seller that has been translated into half a dozen languages. He tweets as @sardesairajdeep

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