After the 2009 general election, I spoke to many politicians (both winners and losers) about the changing nature of campaigning. Most seemed to agree on one point: that the age of mass meetings, drawing lakhs of people, was coming to an end. In normal circumstances, it seemed that a crowd of 3,000 people would be tantamount to a successful meeting, with a star speaker drawing anything approaching 10,000 listeners. No doubt there were exceptions — as in West Bengal and Bihar — but overall it seemed that in 20 years time, election meetings in India would have to be conducted inside halls, as happens in the West. With rising media exposure, electioneering would have to be done primarily through television.
In 2013-14, Narendra Modi proved us horribly wrong. Ever since he was anointed the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate on September 13, 2013, Modi has spoken at mass rallies at over 450 places in India with average attendance approaching a lakh of people. Moreover, those who physically attended the rallies constitute a small chunk of the audience: live broadcasts have ensured that Modi actually spoke to a far larger audience.
It is this use of the media as a force multiplier which has ensured that in just eight months the Gujarat chief minister has become a recognizable name all over India, including places where the BJP has no worthwhile presence. In the past, the Gandhi family was the only all-India political brand; in just eight months and after a punishing schedule that should leave most individuals physically drained, Modi has established himself as an alternative icon. The only casualty has been his voice, which is getting hoarser by the day.
Throughout the election campaign that began in April, Modi has been criss-crossing the country and speaking on an average at four rallies each day. What is more significant is that unlike most politicians he has not been delivering the same template speech at each gathering. Each Modi speech has content tailored to the constituency he is addressing. The national message is invariably twinned to local issues — a technique that has ensured that the media cannot ignore him on any given day. Those detractors who insist that the euphoria around him is all a media creation are right: Modi has ensured he cannot be ignored. The media have been confronted with a choice of doing their duty or practising political untouchability. Despite the misgivings of the editorial classes, they have travelled along the professional route. If only the Congress and other regional players had devoted as much time to preparing their message, they may not have felt so disadvantaged. Nor would they have had the occasion to spin fanciful conspiracy theories about India Inc manipulating the gullible.
Regardless of the final outcome, the 2014 general election will be remembered as the NaMo election. Part of this owes to the fact that the BJP used the techniques associated with a presidential election and applied it to a parliamentary election. This does not imply that candidates have ceased to be important and voters are only choosing between Modi and anti-Modi. It means that in the basket of issues and perceptions that shape the voting preference of individuals, the question of India’s national leadership has acquired greater importance. If the opinion polls are suggesting that a significant chunk of voters are defying the call of caste, the construction of Modi as a towering leader has played a seminal role in making this happen.
Of course, this dilution of traditional allegiances is not universally true. Thanks to the demonology associated with Modi, this election may well demonstrate a gritty determination of India’s Muslims to vote against Modi quite decisively. Although the strategic impact of this anti-Modi vote may well be seriously diluted owing to the fragmentation of the so-called secular alternative in both constituencies and states, this exceptional deviation has to be noted. But the Muslim aversion to Modi does not necessarily mean that the 2014 election is being fought on sectarian lines. It merely suggests that Muslims are looking at this election very differently from others. There is definite evidence of an emotional gulf amid convivial neighbourliness.
The 2014 election will be remembered as an election where Modi rewrote many of the rules governing politics. If this has led to consternation in the punditry, it has disoriented the apparatchiks in the BJP no less. Take the final days of the campaign as an example. Conventional wisdom deemed that the star of the campaign should focus his energies in working up the crowds in constituencies where the party candidate was either poised to win or where the contest was extremely close. In geographical terms, the BJP has traditionally concentrated on northern and western India. Modi, however, has devoted as much energy to enhancing BJP prospects in Seemandhra and West Bengal as he has in Uttar Pradesh.
To many, Modi’s spirited intervention in the Gandhi pocket borough of Amethi appeared a case of misplaced enthusiasm. The final results may well confirm that suspicion. However, in getting a crowd of nearly one lakh and out-performing the Congress in terms of sheer visibility, Modi achieved two things. First, he bolstered the self-confidence of BJP workers in an area where the party has no worthwhile network. Having attended the rally, I can say with some certainty that by the end of campaigning on the evening of May 5, the local BJP believed that Rahul Gandhi could be unseated. Secondly, by putting the media attention on the Congress’s supposed vulnerability in Amethi, Modi was quite successful in both overshadowing Priyanka Gandhi and, more important, nudging her into a linguistic mishap over the “neech [low]” expression.
Likewise, there has been bewilderment in some BJP circles at the amount of time Modi has devoted to West Bengal where the party has traditionally been a bit player. In private conversations, Modi has been emphasizing the importance of Bengal, where the response to him has been far beyond the most optimistic expectations. As in Amethi, in Asansol, Bankura and Krishnagore, Modi has certainly motivated BJP supporters into believing that Mamata Banerjee can be successfully fought and even vanquished in key areas. If the BJP and its allies manage to win at least 30 seats from non-traditional areas in eastern and southern India, the chances of a Modi-led government will be significantly enhanced.
By the evening of May 16, the campaign details of the 2014 election will become history. Presuming that Modi wins, the success may well be attribute to a ‘wave’ — a somewhat all-encompassing shorthand that serves to cover-up the shortcomings of the pundits. However, a significant shift in public opinion and even a modest breakdown of traditional voting patterns does not happen in a vacuum. The real success of a politician lies in detecting a trend, harnessing it with appropriate messaging, and multiplying its potential through intelligent marketing.
In the selling of Narendra Modi, marketing and brand-building were no doubt very important. But that success owed almost entirely to a groundwork built on old-fashioned political slog and a willingness to think big. If some of these principles can be applied to the more humdrum business of governance, the popular jingle, “achche din aane wale hain [good days are on their way]” can truly become a self- fulfilling prophecy.