From hope to rage: Modi's emerging poll narrative
Modi's refusal to budge despite criticism from the Opposition since Pulwama shows that he believes his core constituency will back him, come what may.
As the 2019 general elections are coming close, the mood of the nation has begun to change. The opposition had begun to consolidate itself around the slogans of `Save Democracy, Save the Nation’. In this, they were claiming that an unabated attack on various institutions was underway; that there was a witch-hunt against all those who differed with the government.
The current regime continues to attempt to collapse the meanings of government, nation, and religion, meaning Hinduism, and equate all of them with the idea and image of Narendra Modi. Any critique of Modi is either `anti-national`, or `anti-Hindu`, and those differing with or critiquing him can be branded anything from ‘anti-national’ to pro-Pakistan. They can even be painted as terrorists and `urban naxals`.
Sushil Pundit of Hive Communication – who has worked as a media strategist for the BJP in the past – said on a TV show that we need to take care of Pakistan on the other side of the border and a `Pakistan` that is inside our own borders. After the recent events in Kashmir the narrative has become shriller, equating anyone who might differ with the current government as someone who supports Pakistan. Elections, at least for the BJP-RSS, will now be fought on this issue and in this mood. In 2014, it was about `sab ka saath sab ka vikas`, `acche din` and `New India`, signaling hope.
The 2019 election is about rage.
The narrative has shifted from hope to rage. What does this tell us?
Does this say that the BJP and Modi have conceded that they cannot win the elections on the record of what they have achieved in the last five years? Or does it tell us something more? While the opposition was gathering momentum, it was not clear if people had given up on Modi`s leadership.
The electorate seems to have reached an ambiguous position of continuing to trust Modi`s intention but beginning to doubt his competence. They began to doubt his ability to lead a team and deliver, especially on the economic front, given the persistent agrarian crisis, jobless growth, and growing economic inequalities.
Many still do not doubt his intention- `saaf niyat, sahi vikas`. The electorate is unhappy but not angry with Modi. There is still an innate trust on him as an individual. This is, perhaps, unprecedented and even the Gandhi family did not ever enjoy this kind of `deep` belief. What explains this?
Is this a result of the Hindu rhetoric? Does this trust emanate from a belief that Modi does what he promises to do -- especially after Gujarat 2002? Modi is repeating somewhat similar optics in his recent speeches, with references to `pilot project`, and claims that he is as enraged as the rest are after the recent attacks in Pulwama.
Does the element of trust have something to do with the helplessness and hopelessness created by aggressive neoliberal reforms leading to a faceless growth, without a sense of belonging? Or does it have to do with self-censorship, a climate of intimidation, where people tend to trust and follow him because the costs of doing otherwise are far higher? While this trust was used for generating a hope in 2014, it is being put to use to manufacture rage this time around. Is this rage a sign of Modi`s own anxiety or is he articulating the anxieties of the majority?
The opposition is struggling to come to terms with the capacity a leader possesses once he has gained the trust of his constituency. The opposition`s narrative is limited by the fact that overdoing the critique can actually consolidate the Hindu majority more solidly behind Modi.
Modi is keenly aware of how deep his credibility is, at least within his core constituency. His recent moves like continuing with a photo-shoot while the news of the terrorist attack broke; addressing a tele-conference with BJP workers even as the rage had not died down; or participating in a sports-related event in Vigyan Bhavan even as the opposition was raising a hue and cry about his nonchalant attitude suggest that he believes his supporters will back him, come what may.
Modi did not budge amid criticism. He knew that the optics were a brazen demonstration of the trust and credibility he enjoys. He could afford to look indifferent because it makes him look more authentic. It will at best keep the people guessing but not doubt his intention. Will those who began to grow unhappy but did not doubt his intention now come back the way they did in 2014? While hope always has larger catchment than rage, will rage go beyond the core constituency of the BJP-RSS? These are the questions that will be answered in the results of 2019.
(Ajay Gudavarthy teaches Political Science at JNU, New Delhi. He has authored the book 'India after Modi: Populism and the Right' (Bloomsbury, Delhi, 2019)