BJP’s campaign managers brilliantly mobilized Indians around a belief in a piece of land and a deity, i.e, Gujarat and its presiding deity Modi – not unlike Ayodhya and Ram. (AFP PHOTO)
As the dust settles on one of the most audacious election campaigns in India, we can now unpack some of the strategies that the BJP and its supporters deployed in creating the spectacular and untiring mythology of Narendra Modi.
Analysts have declared the past few elections in our country as Bijli-Sadak-Pani verdicts. When development is delivered, voters reward the politicians.
But the the Bijli-Sadak-Pani issues played out quite differently in the 2014 elections. The three issues got mythologized this time. It was not so much about what the local candidate had done or not done for the voter; but this campaign had more to do with what was done in a faraway land called Gujarat -- projected in the voters' minds as the land of milk and honey, an earthly paradise, a Shangri-la of sorts where there are jobs and electricity for everybody, farmers live blissfully in a subsidy-less existence, highways that match the best in the world, and a place that is untouched by the epidemic of corruption.
Every supporter of Modi that I interviewed told me, 'Look at what Modiji has done in Gujarat."
Most of them had never visited Gujarat but were beginning to imagine and yearn for an India that resembled Gujarat. Those who had not visited the state almost always said they knew someone who had visited the holy land of 2014 campaign. Or that they had heard from others and read somewhere.
The yearning for Gujarat was carefully constructed through the stories and images created for the voters. After all, the most powerful mythological stories that we believe in are not often the ones that we have actually witnessed but the ones we have been repeatedly told.
In fact, the branding of Gujarat began even before the election campaign when Modi roped in another enduring icon, Amitabh Bachchan to act in an advertisement campaign in which the star tantalisingly invited Indians to visit the state, at least for a few days. Come, see and be conquered by the magic of Gujarat, the ad promised.
During a door-to-door campaign in north Delhi this year, cheery Modi-volunteers approached middle-aged women and told them tales about how Gujarati women laden with gold jewelry could stroll on the Sabarmati riverfront at night without fear of being robbed; about buses with women conductors that kept female passengers safe.
To the elders, volunteers read out Swami Vivekanand quotes from Facebook pages of their Android phones predicting the rise of a messiah in the 21st century. This could be Modi, they helpfully informed voters.
Have you ever met a beggar or a manual labourer from Gujarat in Delhi, one man asked me. The question was rhetorical, he did not wait for my answer.
The Gujarat-shining mythology was systematically built with the help of digital platforms, advertising campaigns, political speeches and volunteers' word-of-mouth. Many voters who had never visited Gujarat conducted calm, lengthy and passionate discussions with me about development in that state. Such blinding belief was astounding. It was the stuff of religion. The slogan of 'har-har Modi' moved him only closer to that rarified realm.
Back in 2004, BJP’s India-Shining campaign made the mistake of telling voters that they have it good. Gujarat-Shining campaign tells the voters, you are not there yet, but you can become Gujarat, but only if you hold Modi’s hand.
Two decades ago, the BJP-narrative was entwined in another mythology – the kingdom of Ayodhya, the birthplace of the ideal king Lord Ram.
This time too, the BJP’s campaign managers brilliantly mobilized Indians around a belief in a piece of land and a deity, i.e, Gujarat and its presiding deity Modi – not unlike Ayodhya and Ram. They constructed an aspirational frenzy around Gujarat and Modi in a manner that coalesced with the massive anti-Congress wave across India.
Mythologies are fluid and ever-growing. The Modi-folklore is no different.
Here is a man with a 56 inch chest, a frugal eater who needs less than 5 hours of sleep, and does yoga and meditation at 5am. As a young boy, the heroic Bal Narendra reunited a baby crocodile with its mother, and saved a bird caught in a kite-string. When he released the bird, it looked into Modi’s eyes with gratitude.
If opponents from the Congress party questioned Modi’s paradise, a counter was posed – how could Modi win three elections if he had not delivered? The Congress party raised issues like low levels of education, malnutrition, toffee model of land acquisition in Gujarat. But in a hotly contested election campaign based on belief, throwing diminutive, inconvenient factoids, pdfs and Excel sheets at a towering larger-than-life figure often misses the mark.
Rahul Gandhi told citizens not to wait for a man on a white horse. A few months later, Modi reached a holy shrine in the Himalayas on a white horse, generating countless memes online.
But perhaps the most effective and enduring imagery in the 2014 campaign was that of a humble tea-seller who set out to take down the ma-beta citadel, portrayed as a corrosive, feudal empire.
In almost every stump speech, Modi dished out trend-worthy hashtags to his online devotees and offering fodder for the daily, gladiatorial TV prime time debates.
As the election ended, the media was supplied with a data-sheet of his indefatigable nine-month election pilgrimage – traveling over 300,000 km, participating in 5,187 events, addressing 440 public meetings.
The mythology was complete with the testosterone-inducing exit poll results this week.
A day after, a joke began surfacing on Facebook.
“Modi takes over. Buys Russia on day 1. Ukraine crisis over. Boko haram returns the girls and joins RSS.”
Is the popular iconography of Modi beginning to sound like the other invincible mythic hero of our times, Rajnikant?
(Rama Lakshmi is the India correspondent for The Washington Post. She is based in New Delhi)
- Rama Lakshmi is a correspondent for The Washington Post, and has studied visual culture and museums. She wrote this blog post exclusively for ABP Live.