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As the Narendra Modi ministry gets going, the industry of deciphering every move made by the new PM is flourishing. Having won the election for the party, Modi certainly has real power now, which many a prime minister from the recent past did not have. Indicative of this is the report (“A first: PMO empowers itself on ‘all important policy issues’”, IE, May, 28) that in allocating portfolios, the prime minister has allocated to himself “all important policy issues”. While we will have to wait to find out how this operates in practice, it adds to the challenge of making sense of the Modi phenomenon. It might be instructive to go back into India’s democratic history and compare Modi with Indira Gandhi. Such a comparison may give us some clues to understanding the rise of the new leadership and its likely trajectory.
First, the transformation of an election into a plebiscite over one leader was the key strategy adopted by Indira Gandhi in 1971. Similarly, Modi transformed an adverse political context into an asset and ensured that this election was a plebiscite on him. Like her, he made a virtue of the fact that everyone else was opposed to him. He used that context adroitly to place him at the centre by getting himself declared the prime ministerial candidate of his party. That move scandalised his opponents outside the BJP so much that everyone started criticising him, facilitating unprecedented publicity and media exposure, in turn. Though he did not overplay the point, this adversity allowed Modi to present an image of someone cornered by opponents. While everyone was busy criticising Modi, he went ahead with slogans and banners that practically announced the arrival of a new messiah.
Second, listening to Modi’s speeches, one could not mistake the aggressive — even injured — tone. After winning the Gujarat assembly elections in 2012 and subsequently addressing students at a Delhi college, Modi’s speeches were less argumentative, more exhortative and cajoling. But once he sensed that the Congress party was on the back foot, he shifted to a more aggressive stance. His tone became more acerbic. He coined the moniker of “shehzada” for Rahul Gandhi, thereby referring not only to the hereditary element but also reminding audiences of the unstated charge of Muslim appeasement by the Congress. The swift transformation into an aggressive and confrontational mode of argument helped in building the image of a strong, determined leader ready to fight and remain in battle-mode all the time.
Third, like Indira Gandhi, Modi bypassed the party. The details are, of course, dissimilar: Indira Gandhi had to fight a drawn-out battle with those who then controlled the Congress and thought she would remain continued…