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Politics is all about personality and perceived performance

opinionPolitics is all about personality and perceived performance

Starting from Narendra Modi at the national level, Indian politics is more and more about personality cults.

The first phase of voting is already over and the proverbial fate of 102 candidates has been sealed. Almost all opinion polls including the flagship poll of CVoter for ABP News project a comfortable victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party-led alliance. There is a lot of debate over the actual number of seats that the BJP will get when the votes are counted on 4 June 2024. The lead author has been taught one lesson over three decades of surveys and polling: it is relatively easy to project the vote share of parties and alliances. But in a first past the post system with multiple candidates in each seat, it is well-nigh impossible to accurately forecast the exact number of seats that a party will win. Given this caveat, one can say with some degree of confidence that Narendra Modi will equal the record set by Jawaharlal Nehru of winning three consecutive Lok Sabha mandates.

The other debate that has been once again “manufactured” by a section of “liberals” is over the “independence” of the Election Commission of India and the reliability of EVMs. The authors have deliberately used the word “manufactured”, as it is a whole lot of nonsense. They still remember the “surreal” press conference organised in London and attended by then Congress leader Kapil Sibal, where some shadowy and anonymous chaps claimed that the Modi government had not only “hacked” the EVMs but also killed a whole bunch of Indians who wanted to “expose” this scam. How some gullible Indians infected with an ailment called the Modi Derangement Syndrome believed such balderdash is a mystery. But let’s ignore that and focus on two key factors and trends that have emerged in Indian politics in the 21st century: the power of a personality and the influence of perceived performance.

There is little doubt that Indian elections have become increasingly “presidential”, with personalities overshadowing the political. If you think the rise and rise of Narendra Modi is the sole reflection of this trend, you have got it wrong. Think Pinarayi Vijayan, who belongs to the CPI(M), an ideologically driven cadre-based party where personalities and individuals are supposed to be subservient to the party. In 1996, after Atal Bihari Vajpayee failed to cobble up a majority, the name of West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu was proposed as the coalition Prime Minister of India. The Congress was game to give him “outside” support. But the party apparatchiks vehemently vetoed the idea. It is still called a historic blunder by the CPI(M).

What about the 21st century? In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Indian voter once again resoundingly rejected Rahul Gandhi who proved to be no match for the personality and popularity of Narendra Modi. He even lost the dynasty bastion Amethi to Smriti Irani. But consolation came from Kerala. Not only did Rahul Gandhi win the Wayanad Lok Sabha seat with a massive margin, but the Congress-led UDF decimated the CPI(M)-led LDF by winning 19 out of the 20 seats on offer. All eyes were on what would happen to the Chief Minister of Kerala Pinarayi Vijayan. This was humiliating at a personal level for him. The pundits declared in 2019 itself that Vijayan will badly lose the 2021 Assembly elections and become history. In any case, voters in Kerala had been throwing out incumbent state government during Assembly elections for about five decades. There was even talk of the CPM politburo replacing him. But this CPM is a pale shadow of what it was in the 20th century, with Kerala being the only state where it ruled. It is Vijayan who lords over the party in Kerala and the “national” leaders had no choice but to watch from the sidelines. Uncharacteristically for a Communist leader, Vijayan made the 2021 Kerala Assembly elections all about himself. His photos, his posters and his words were plastered all over the state. And the pundits were shocked when he managed to reverse the five-decade old trend of incumbent parties losing the Assembly elections. In fact, the LDF returned to power with an even bigger majority.

Vijayan is not an exception. Starting from Narendra Modi at the national level, Indian politics is more and more about personality cults. In fact, the personality cult factor dates back to Jawaharlal Nehru who towered over everyone else like a colossus. So did Indira Gandhi who earned the rather sexist sobriquet of being the “only man in the cabinet”. Narendra Modi, according to many analysts, is mirroring the persona of Indira in a 21st century digital avatar. Across India, it is personalities rather than parties that matter. The co-author has been travelling across India for about three months now, meeting and talking to ordinary people. In dozens of places, the BJP MP is not a very popular figure because (s)he hasn’t done much for the constituency. In all these places, ordinary folks say that they are voting only for Modi this time and not for the candidate or the party. That, in our opinion, is the pinnacle of a personality cult. Heathy or not is for more opinionated pundits to debate.

Tamil Nadu is yet another example of how important personalities can be to electoral fortunes of a party. Till J. Jayalalithaa was alive, the AIADMK almost always had an edge over rival DMK. Despite some internal squabbles after the death of her mentor and Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran, Jayalalitha was the unquestioned boss of the party since the late 1980s. Despite being convicted for corruption, Jayalalithaa led her party to an unexpectedly famous repeat victory in the 2016 Assembly elections. But she died in 2017 and the party has been slowly fragmenting into factions since then. The cadre is still there. But without a charismatic face or “personality”, AIADMK looks set for yet another drubbing in the Lok Sabha elections.

Personality cults have been built around many political leaders. Some endure while others fade away into near oblivion. To the second category belongs the BSP supremo Mayawati. There was a time when many thought Mayawati could be the Prime Minister of India leading a coalition government. Today, she is struggling for political relevance and survival. Arvind Kejriwal is yet another case of building a successful personality cult. Since the days of the India Against Corruption movement launched by Anna Hazare in 2011, Kejriwal has built a cult of being an anti-corruption crusader. At the moment, he has been arrested by the Enforcement Directorate on corruption charges and has failed to secure bail even from the Supreme Court. Yet, die-hard fans and supporters of Aam Aadmi Party insist this is all a conspiracy by the Narendra Modi government as they are scared of Kejriwal’s rising popularity across India.
What about perceived performance? Our column next week will delve into that.

Yashwant Deshmukh is Founder & Editor in Chief of CVoter Foundation and Sutanu Guru is Executive Director.

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