From Chaiwala to Chowkidar: understanding Modi’s journey from politics of issues to identity
Modi wants an election with easy binaries rather than a reasoned debate on issues
In what can be described as a big gamble, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has launched the “Main Bhi Chowkidar” Campaign on the social media, by adding the prefix “Chowkidar” to his name. All cabinet ministers followed suit and within hours the entire BJP had added the prefix on Twitter. Even former Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yedyurappa, accused of corruption and MJ Akbar, a former Minister who had to step down following outrage after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct in the past, added the prefix and joined Modi’s campaign. As part of the campaign, on the 31st of March, he will interact with “Chowkidars” or honest people from various walks of life via teleconferencing. The question is: how does one understand the underlying political implications of this campaign?
From Chaiwala to Chowkidar: an attempt to drive the narrative
Symbols play a very important role in politics and Modi has always revelled in the politics of symbolism. He swept to power in 2014 by coining the symbol of the humble, unmarried, incorruptible “Chaiwala” devoted only to the nation; a man who represented the righteous anger of the common man against the corrupt elite. This time around he has coined the symbol of Chowkidar, in a bid to resignify Rahul Gandhi’s, “Chowkidar Chor Hai” barb. Rather than try and evade the allegations on Rafale he has decided to own the tag.
The basic structure of Modi’s campaign is the same as 2014 – first, it is centred on an individual with any other BJP leader visibly absent from the campaign; this allows him to identify with the party and be above it at the same time. Second, it is made for television and, third, and most importantly, it is designed to portray him as an outsider. Modi thrives in the role of the challenger. However, the problem is that this time around he does not have a clean slate; on the contrary, he has a rather dodgy record to defend.
He came to power on three central promises – crackdown on black money, development and eradication of corruption. On all three fronts his government has been found wanting. Therefore, one can observe that demonetization, his “masterstroke” to counter black money, is completely absent from his campaign speeches. Same is the case with GST and the promise to generate two-crore jobs annually. On the development front, mounting debts of farmers and the recent report on massive unemployment don’t paint a pretty picture. But above all, his claim of fighting corruption is compromised with the recent revelations in the Rafale Scam where a ten-day old company of Anil Ambani was given a defence contract.
A choice between identity and issues
Given this predicament, he has resorted to the use of the well-oiled cadre base at his disposal to counter attack. It is to supplant the “issues” that the “identity” of the “Chowkidar” is being constructed, so that the campaign can return to convenient binaries that Modi likes – nationalist vs. anti-national, corrupt vs. non-corrupt, Hindu vs. anti-Hindu, Kaamdar vs. Naamdar. This will perform three functions – It will mobilize his Hindutva vote bank, but more importantly, it will allow him to keep the discourse personality-centric, which will, in turn, enable privileging rhetoric over reason.
On the other hand, given the decentralized structure of the Congress, Rahul is forced to invoke issues as for him mobilization on the lines of identity is impossible. There are multiple ideological fault lines within the Congress which are papered over only through such a strategy. While Rahul himself has anchored his politics within the rights framework; this cannot be said of all of the Congress.
Therefore, he has sought to politicize issues of governance. This is apparent on his emphasis on farm loan waivers, reforming GST, doing away with the angel tax for start-ups, ensuring tribal land rights in Chattisgarh, promising more allocation for education, employment generation through promoting small and medium businesses and the big promise of an ensured Basic Income to every poor citizen of the country.
Towards an Election Without an Agenda?
We witnessed a similar conjuncture recently in the three state elections where the Congress politicized issues while the BJP relied on identity. The media kept quizzing the Congress, without success, on the Chief Ministerial candidate, as projecting politics as a clash of personalities makes for better television. However, localizing elections, decentralizing leadership and focusing on issues paid dividends for the Congress. Whether it can be replicated is uncertain; however, while Modi commanded the issues five years ago, now the Prime Minister wants us to have an election without any issues or agenda.
(Anshul Trivedi is an activist and a freelance journalist. He completed his MPhil from the Centre for Political Studies, JNU.)