Electoral Bonds One of Many Allegations. Yet, 'Teflon' Modi Eyes Election Win

Issues raised in genteel forums do not emotively connect with the dominant demographic in a frenetic democracy.

6 min read
Hindi Female

Pathankot. Demonetisation fiasco. Confusion over GST. False promises. China border giveaways. Rafale deal payoff allegations. A U-turn on farm laws. Manipur muddle. Unemployment. And now, accusations of extortion through electoral bonds.

If anybody thinks that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP government have not faced criticism, accusations, and opposition ballast in his decade in power, they are quite wrong.

But it is equally true that every opinion poll and most electoral outcomes suggest that his image is unshaken, his popularity is barely blemished, and his personality remains largely unscarred.

What's going on?


'Teflonbhai' Modi

This is, after all, the land that shook up Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who held a four-fifth majority in Parliament. The Opposition rattled him and the media bludgeoned him over everything from reversing (legislatively) the Shah Bano judgment, opening the gates of the disputed Ram Mandir site at Ayodhya, covering up payoffs in the Bofors arms purchase scandal, or being a silent party to Congress leaders accused of leading violence against the Sikhs in Delhi when his mother Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984.

This is also the country in which the Cambridge-educated, soft-spoken, academically inclined technocrat Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was accused of being a party to the 2G spectrum auction scandal and standing a mute witness to the Commonwealth Games scam that shook India in the new millennium.

Compared to all that, Modi seems to have not just survived but in effect surfed smoothly through waves of protests and tides of scandalous accusations. There is one historical figure that he may be compared to, and that is former US president Ronald Reagan, who was called Teflon Reagan because most of the criticism he faced seemed to bounce off his skin.

We might then jocularly describe the man who is eyeing a third successive general election victory in India as Teflonbhai Modi.


The Social and Demographic Context in Which Modi Has Had a Political Bull Run

How does one explain this phenomenon? Four factors might help us understand this, with some rhyme and reason: Machinery, Oratory, Delivery, and Imagery. Those words, amazingly enough, form an agreeable acronym: MODI.

However, for our purposes, we need to flip the letters and consider them in order of Oratory, Imagery, Machinery, and Delivery. The last is one on which his faithful followers would jump for joy, while his critics are more likely to agree on the first three. To all this, the discerning analyst may add a fifth factor: the social and demographic context in which Modi has had a political bull run.

Modi's oratory is now legendary, not just for what he says and how but also for the sheer stamina he displays. He appears to be in a campaign mode all the time. He is on radio, television, conferences or poll platforms. He talks to army soldiers, schoolchildren, examination writers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, and global leaders.

With speeches designed for empathy, encouragement, motivation, grandstanding and actionability. He knows who he is talking to. His brand is enhanced by his tireless and frequent reference to himself in the third person. Modi Ki Guarantee is only the latest epithet which shows that he is conscious of himself as a brand.

If oratory is one thing, the imagery built around Modi is one of a man who gave up his family to make the whole nation his offspring. His publicised low-sleep routine makes him a hard worker. His frequent reference to religious and cultural symbols, history or civilisational glory gives a feel-good kick among vast hinterland audiences. His visibly meditative worship in temples charms the pious Hindus. His geopolitical confidence charms elderly uncles.


His Oratory and Imagery Are Fed Into a Massive Organisational Machinery

When he led the consecration of the Ram Lalla temple at Ayodhya, the seer standing next to him compared Modi to Maratha emperor Chhatrapati Shivaji and at least one viral video saw a woman seeing him as a reincarnation of Lord Rama himself.

But more than that, what Modi has done is to repackage a divine figure like Rama as an ancient king of virtue and built him as a nationalist icon for a modern republic to emulate. He has thus tapped into an existing mass consciousness built over centuries while linking his own persona to the epic figure by association. To understand Modi, you need less Marx and more Pavlov.

Both his oratory and imagery are fed into a massive organisational machinery that amplifies, glorifies, supplements and complements his much-honed skills. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP's ideological parent, the party's dubiously famous IT (social media) cell, and Modi's faithful party cadres are oiled by mammoth rounds of funds, now in the thick of controversy after reports that the BJP received Rs 6061 crore in electoral bonds, i.e., more than half of all donations made through opaque instruments.

Critics will include in Modi's machinery a welter of state-run companies that use corporate funds that display his portraits and government departments that advertise his schemes in friendly media outlets that employ admiring anchors and editors. Opposition parties question selfie-points with the leader's visage at railway stations and book fairs. Cynics will wonder if the machinery includes investigative agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate that add a dash of negativity to the opposition in contrast to the prime minister's positive bombast and ballast.

Modi's juggernaut leaves little to the imagination. Everything is in-your-face to boost his familiar face. Scientific research and advertising practices show that pictures and images create more impressions than the minutiae of extrapolations and spreadsheet deductions that may be confined to drawing rooms and courtrooms.

That brings us to the big D: Delivery. There is little doubt that glamorous infrastructure projects like airports, railways, new trains, wide highways and smooth urban metros are part of Modi's list of accomplished tasks. The opposition parties often harp on education, health, small businesses, and unemployment using elite yardsticks, pointing to things that Modi's decade in power seems to have been missed or under-emphasised.


But Then, Modi's Delivery Mechanism Has a Double Barrel

One speaks of muscular, visible projects and the other, clubbed under the umbrella of Garib Kalyan (Welfare of the Poor), encompasses everything from rural toilets and Ujjwala cooking gas cylinders to Drone Didis that blend modern high-tech with rural sisters running errands. The hard fact is that there is no significant statistical evidence to see how much the rollout of these schemes has really reached the poor and how many touch enough lives in a nation of 140 crore people. But there are enough opinion polls to suggest that the benefit of the doubt has so far been given to the PM because these are still works in progress.

To all this, we may add the context factor.

The median age of India is 28.2. That means about 70 crore people are younger than that age. Much of India's voter base has no memory of things like the industrial ventures in the public sector, higher education initiatives, the Green Revolution, the White Revolution and anti-poverty programmes that were spearheaded by the predecessor Congress governments.

Also, the younger populace increasingly discounts institutions like the media, the judiciary and the academia that offer eloquent or logical criticism. Who cares if Mr Modi has not held a single news conference while in power? Who cares if a party donation comes from a company accused of irregularities?

A lot of the issues raised in genteel forums do not emotively connect with the dominant demographic in a frenetic democracy. A certain section of the middle class that put Rajiv Gandhi or Dr Singh on the political mat is now overshadowed, and a huge chunk is happy with the way Modi runs things. This factor in itself may produce a few PhDs among political scientists.

An ancient civilisation full of innocent youngsters offers a fine white canvas on which Modi and his power-packed machinery have painted a few shades of saffron. The paint comes mixed with premium enamel and a generous dash of Teflon.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Electoral Bonds 

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