This election is now all about the ‘Idea of Modi’

Modi wants voters in the remaining seats to not just rate his performance, but to legitimise him. (PTI)

As the Lok Sabha election of 2019 nears its end, it is no longer about whether or not Prime Minister Narendra Modi deserves another term in office. It has now morphed into a referendum on the ‘Idea of Modi’ itself.

Is there such a thing as the ‘Idea of Modi’, and indeed, is it not specious to speak of it as one would of the ‘Idea of India’? The answer to this is not immediately apparent and perhaps will be fully answered only in the long run. Yet, evidence of the attempt to build such an idea is all around us. At a simple level, the ‘Idea of Modi’ invokes a mix of Hindutva, nationalistic rhetoric and a pro-development pitch laced with anti-Congressism. But it is more than the sum of its parts. Indeed, it includes the narrative of India being seen as an equal on the international stage, antipathy directed at Modi from a range of opponents and liberals and something more – an ‘X’ factor that allows Modi to connect with voters directly.

This idea is on test in Phases four through seven of the ongoing polls, covering large parts of the Hindi heartland where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had performed spectacularly in 2014. Just to recall, BJP and allies won 73 out 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh, all 25 seats in Rajasthan, 25 out of 26 in Bihar and 27 out of 29 seats in Madhya Pradesh.

It was believed then that Modi’s promise of ‘achche din’ was behind the BJP’s stupendous showing in these regions. And yet, five years hence what we are seeing is no mere referendum on the idea of ‘achche din’, as the Congress and the opposition would have liked it to be. After all, BJP itself has been quick to bury ‘achche din’. If job numbers and farm income figures are anything to go by, not even the shadow of ‘achche din’ has appeared.

And yet, the ‘Modi factor’ continues to be a big issue in this election. Perhaps bolstered by the Balakot strikes, perhaps carried further on the wings of China’s accession to the Indian demand on Masood Azhar, perhaps...perhaps.... There are no clear-cut answers to how this mythology around Modi has taken root.


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There is a kind of mania, encouraged by Modi himself in no mean part, that accompanies him wherever he goes. Modi increasingly only refers to himself in the third person. The idea of Modi seems to have a life separate from Modi, the man. Speaking to India TV’s Rajat Sharma during an interaction, Modi suggested to a roaring, delighted audience that he was human and had virtues and flaws like anyone else.

Are we witness to the creation of a populist strongman who will tower over the processes of the state – as his five years in office have amply suggested – and yet become a figure who cannot be dislodged from people’s affections easily? Is there such a thing as a committed Modi voter now?

What is clear is that Modi wants voters in the remaining seats to not just rate his performance, but to legitimise him and reaffirm faith in what he symbolises for India. It’s a big ask, but also the one singular thing that can help BJP re-create the wave of 2014.

The Opposition, ranging from Rahul Gandhi to Mamata Banerjee, is struggling to find a response to this canny-political-operator-meets-charismatic mass-leader. The more they attack Modi, the more the issue of whether or not India endorses Modi comes to the foreground.

The figure of Modi is so larger than life that it has dwarfed every other issue in the election at this juncture. Will this figure help BJP repeat its 2014 performance or will opposition unity and electoral arithmetic be able to take the wind out of the Modi project?

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