Author : Harsh V. Pant

Originally Published 2019-05-23 05:59:22 Published on May 23, 2019
The Modi phenomenon

As the nation gets ready for a new government, it is perhaps time to assess the five years of the Modi government in so far as its impact on Indian politics is concerned. While the critics have found little to celebrate about the government of the past five years, the people of the country seems to be giving a different verdict if the exit polls are to be believed. Of course, it is possible that a surprise awaits us in the final outcome but never before has the gap been this wide between a tiny but powerful intellectual elite and the wider public.

From the time Modi arrived on the national stage a few months before May 2014 elections, there has been a unique desire on the part of liberal elites to see everything wrong with the man. He was considered misfit for the national office despite having been a three-term chief minister. It was suggested that the BJP would face national disaster if he were to be its national face. Once he was named the Prime Ministerial candidate of the party it was suggested that the BJP would not be able to win a majority and that he would make it difficult for the BJP to find allies. Modi proved every assumption wrong and became the Prime Minister with a thumping majority.

But immediately after another round of criticism started. He was blamed for everything, even for routine law and order problems. Every utterance of every nutter was laid at Modi’s doorstep and he was berated for not responding ‘appropriately.’ Every election, including to those of student bodies, became a referendum on Modi and his policies. Two bit leaders were propped up as alternatives to a politician who had won one of the most resounding mandates in recent Indian electoral history.

Modi, of course, turned all this to his advantage and his ability to connect with the aspirations of ordinary Indians remains unmatched. Indian polity, unable to comprehend the Modi phenomenon has been at a loss in its response. The opposition has tried their gathbandans and mahagathbandans, they have tried their caste calculations, they have rehashed their standard lines of attack but nothing seems to have worked. Unable to comprehend the shift in the underlying dynamic of Indian politics, the opposition has fallen back on the ‘EVM problem’ – if you can’t  get your politics right, blame the technology seems to be the mantra now!

What has been curious in the last five years is how as Modi continued to evolve as a politician and a leader, the opposition and the liberal intelligentsia continued to be cut off from the ground realities. Anyone travelling around the country would have recognised that not only was there no anti-incumbency in these elections, but the Modi factor had also remained intact and its potency had even increased. Modi’s popularity has hardly been dented by the relentless opposition onslaught and liberal chest-thumping. Instead of reasoned debate on Modi and his policies, an obsession with bringing Modi down has ensured that Modi’s personality continues to define Indian politics.

Irrespective of the poll outcome, there are some fundamental ways in which Modi has changed Indian politics. He has made the BJP the central pole of Indian polity. It is the BJP’s narrative, so reviled by the liberals, around which Indian politics is likely to revolve for the foreseeable future. Modi has expanded his party’s base both territorially and across communities. The BJP is the only party which is growing, the rest all are shrinking.

Modi has given a new grammar to Indian politics. Parties which till 2014 were only looking at caste arithmetic to win votes are now being forced to talk of governance issues. The Indian voter is increasingly demanding more of its politicians and this awareness has a lot to do with Modi’s high-voltage campaign in 2014 and in subsequent elections. There is a reason why the young voter is a big Modi vote bank because no Indian politician speaks the language of aspirational politics better than Modi. He has tapped into the aspirational instincts of Indian hinterland.

Modi’s politics has also exposed a number of hypocrisies which we as a nation were reluctant to confront. The misuse of secularism by the Indian political class is the most vivid example. Asking votes in the name of a community (other than Hindus) was considered a strength of Indian democracy. Modi has challenged that assumption frontally. He has also given a key voice to the Right in Indian socio-political discourse. Today, mainstream media is forced to give space to voices which in the past were deemed unworthy of even acknowledgement.

Modi has brought India’s East and Northeast to the centre of Indian political consciousness. For long, this region was cut off from India’s centre of power. With his relentless push into the country’s northeast, he and his government has finally ‘normalised’ this region’s engagement with the rest of the country.

It is not important to like Modi but it is important to acknowledge that he has already changed Indian politics in some fundamental ways. He may not be the country’s Prime Minister post-May 23 but that won’t change the underlying shift he has helped usher in the Indian polity. This is not to say that Modi’s record is perfect or that it should not be scrutinised or debated. But there’s a reason why India’s liberal elites are crying in the wilderness today. They created controversies where none existed and in the process diminished their credibility to a point where they are hardly heard beyond their echo chamber. Debate Modi by all means but that debate can only begin with an acknowledgement that Modi has been a far bigger force than most of his critics would care to accept!


This commentary originally appeared in Mail Today.

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