Modi: The phenomenon

Mann Ki Baat @100Modi: The phenomenon

Narendra Modi, since becoming Prime Minister in 2014, has built the ruling Bharatiya Party (BJP) into the powerful vote-getting machine that it is today. Under his leadership, it won a landslide majority victory in the 2019 parliamentary elections and seems confident to again win a majority in the 2024 parliamentary vote, and independent polls back up this expectation. The party now rules alone or in coalition in 17 of India’s 28 states and seven union territories, including Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. This includes the three northeastern states, with their large Christian populations, which went to the polls in early 2023. The Prime Minister thus seems in line to head the national government once again after the 2024 national polls. Polls suggest that Prime Minister Modi’s popularity is responsible for much of the BJP’s current electoral successes.

A young Narendra Modi as a tourist outside the White House in the US.

How to explain the Prime Minister’s successes? As Shubho Bhattacharya correctly wrote in these pages in his review of Ajay Singh’s brilliant analysis of Modi’s management strategies (The Architect of the New BJP), the party’s electoral successes extend beyond its adherence to Hindutva ideology and commitment to economic development, though these have contributed to its electoral attraction. Among the prominent factors contributing to the Prime Minister’s skill set have been his years managing the mobilization of voters, the practical details of running a campaign, and shaping policy.
Preparing Modi for his management skills is the practical training he received in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), whose daily meetings he joined at the age of eight. He was impressed by its focus on self-discipline and building a cohesive nation within a Hindu cultural context. As he grew older, his organizational skills were recognized, and he became a full-time RSS worker (a pracharak). A further recognition of his management skills was the decision to move him to the Centre in the late 1980s to assume party work. In this capacity, he helped in the early 1990s to organize the march led by BJP president Murli Manohar Joshi from Kanyakumari in the south to Jammu-Kashmir in the north and then the Gujarat segment of BJP president L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra. He also helped organize state BJP campaigns in the vote-rich north. From that it was a logical progression for the party leadership to choose him in 2001 to become the BJP’s choice as Chief Minister of Gujarat, his home state, a position he held until 2014 when he shifted to the Centre as Prime Minister.
As Ajay Singh points out, the RSS—and then the BJP—became a kind of surrogate family to which Modi devoted himself full time. Modi has written that working on a full-time basis in these linked organizations was a way to express his devotion to Bharat. He remained for all intents a bachelor, as are most RSS pracharaks. This RSS background not only provided him practical training at mobilization and policy making, but also provided him with the strong support of the RSS membership. As Shridhar Damle and I pointed out in our study of the RSS, the RSS membership prior to the 2013-2014 election cycle indicated their strong support of Modi assuming the prime ministerial position. A key element of the operational style of the RSS is something which it calls “character-building”, and Modi learned from the RSS and its affiliates that a major reason for their cohesiveness was the choice of a decision-making system relying on organizing secretaries, most of whom are recruited from the RSS. In addition, the foundation for Modi’s RSS experience was his pious lower middle-class Hindu household that shaped his youth. It was a family that valued hard work (Modi worked from a young age at his father’s tea stall by the local railway station, where they found their clients), and honesty (there is no credible evidence of his family members taking advantage of Modi’s political position).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi interacts with students on board the Vande Bharat Express after flagging off the train from Thiruvananthapuram Central Station in Thiruvananthapuram on 25 April. Also seen behind the PM (L-R) Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, Kerala Governor Arif M. Khan ANI

Still another element of Modi’s success has been his close association with Amit Shah starting in 1982. Shah, from a successful business family in Mumbai and an RSS member, is loyal to Modi and brings to the relationship a tough-minded pragmatism that political leaders often rely on to carry out difficult campaign and personnel choices, often cracking down on dissidents and opponents. Throughout the four decades of their working together, Shah has remained at Modi’s side, and, having assisted him win two national elections, he now serves in the cabinet with the critical position of Home Minister.
Successful politicians in India are skillful public speakers and Modi is among the best, which is why he is in such demand at both the state and national levels. Among these speaking opportunities at the national level are his Mann Ki Baat (“inner reflections”) talks which have addressed a wide variety of national topics—from health to education, culture, space, solar energy, and sports. These have provided an opportunity to propose innovative solutions to long-standing and often controversial issues such as agricultural and labour reforms. They also provide an opportunity to connect with marginalized groups whose interests/views (e.g., rural Dalit and tribal women) are often overlooked in the political arena. The 100th “inner reflection” is scheduled for 30 April 2023 to be broadcast internationally to underscore India’s standing on the world stage and will also focus on people who have been recognized for contributions to Indian society. The BJP is planning dozens of sites for people to gather for this commemorative “inner reflection”. With national elections only about a year away, these “reflections”, somewhat analogous to President Franklin Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” broadcast by radio in the 1930s, is clearly an attempt to mobilize electoral support.
While Modi’s personal popularity strengthens his ability to centralize power and thus implement sometimes contentious policies, this apparent asset could at the same time undermine India’s democratic process by weakening legitimate opposition, a dilemma that also faced India’s immensely popular first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The democratic process relies on a political balance of power. So far, Prime Minister Modi seems aware of this issue, though the real threat to this balance will probably come from elements in the ruling party who push to remove obstacles to electoral victories. The coming national elections will test the ability to maintain this balance.
*Dr Walter K. Andersen has been Senior Adjunct Professor of South Asia Studies at Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. He, with Shridhar Damle, has written two books on the RSS, The Brotherhood in Saffron: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Revivalism (1987); and The RSS: A View to the Inside (2018).

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