KS Dakshina Murthy

Modi ‘magic’ fell prey to law of diminishing returns

Modi ‘magic’ fell prey to law of diminishing returns
Over the last decade, it became a given that wherever Modi went the vote would swing the BJP’s way. | File photo

In popular lingo, it was always Modi who did this, that, etc., never the BJP government

In May 2023, Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprised, nay, stunned Bengalureans by doing a roadshow through some of the innermost, generally-ignored residential areas on the eve of the Assembly elections. Modi was exuding his “magic” to clear any cobwebs of doubt among the electorate and to swing elections the BJP’s way.

A few days later, the results came in. They were shocking for Modi and the BJP. The party managed just 66 seats, a drop of 38 from its previous tally. This, despite all the exertions from the prime minister himself. It was probably the first inkling that the putative aura around Modi, the individual, was fading.

A year later, the latest Lok Sabha elections have proved that Karnataka was not an isolated indication. The failure of the BJP to get even a simple majority is a game-changer. For the first time since Modi came to power in 2014 a big section of the Indian electorate has politely and peacefully knocked off the halo around the prime minister’s persona.

Enduring narrative

Over the last decade, it became a given that wherever Modi went the vote would swing the BJP’s way. So much so, the prime minister even started to campaign in local body elections like the one in Hyderabad in 2020. There was no verifiable evidence to back the claim that Modi’s visit to any constituency swung the vote in BJP’s favour. Yet, this was the enduring narrative in the media.

Karnataka’s BJP leader BS Yediyurappa in 2019 was asked by reporters about candidate selections for the Lok Sabha elections. He simply said candidates did not matter. Modi was the ultimate candidate and everyone’s vote was for him.

Modi’s rise to power in Delhi was undoubtedly phenomenal. In 2014, the Congress-led UPA-II faced serious anti-incumbency and the BJP shrewdly used it to manoeuvre to power. The party’s fountainhead, the RSS, meticulously planned and marketed Modi, the then Gujarat chief minister, as the BJP’s new candidate for the top job. Whether it was the Modi effect or the anger against charges of corruption against the UPA, this worked wonders for the BJP in that election.

Modi, incubated by the RSS ecosystem, capitalised on the momentum and assured happy tidings, or achhe din that people were waiting for including the now-elusive and much-derided promise of Rs 15 lakh per person.

The UPA-II all but disintegrated and the Congress was left stranded like a car with its wheels off. Modi, and the RSS-BJP think-tank, promised the people what they wanted to hear: Development.

That this turned out to be a Trojan horse, riding inside which was a communal agenda, was revealed a little later.

Image makeover

By then, a large section of people were sold on the Sangh Parivar narrative that India was on the way to becoming a superpower, that the world for the first time recognised India’s greatness, Indians abroad were being treated with a new respect and under Modi’s leadership “real” development was finally about to happen within the country.

Politically, the narrative clicked for the BJP and its mascot prime minister to the extent where Modi was allowed a wide berth by voters, particularly those unattached to any particular ideology or political party.

From the “humble son of a tea-seller” to a successful chief minister and as the architect of the so-called “Gujarat Model” to being a simple “chowkidar” in the service of the country to being an invincible ruler reorienting the secular Indian state into a Hindutva-driven nation and finally emerging as a “God-like” figure “sent by divinity to serve the nation” Modi has tried it all, most of them with enviable success.

Probably carried away by his own success and the visible adulation by a compliant media and his vast retinue of supporters, the otherwise politically savvy prime minister seems to have failed to fathom the resentful mood of the unattached voter who patiently waited for a decade to see the promised changes.

In the image makeover process, the Modi-figure became so overwhelming that the BJP was all but eclipsed. In popular lingo, it was always Modi who did this, that, etc., never the BJP government.

Controversial campaign

While other parties like the Congress came out with party manifestos for the recent elections, the BJP produced “Modi’s Guarantees” that were splashed across the country. The party think-tank must have believed that having Modi’s assurance was enough to take the BJP across the finish line, not to forget with 400-plus seats in the pocket.

But an array of controversial election speeches in various parts of the country may have worked to dilute or even neutralise whatever goodwill Modi might have had left in him among a large section of voters.

He invoked the Hindu-Muslim binary, cast aspersions on the integrity of the Opposition, including the Congress and AAP, warned voters that the Congress would snatch women’s “mangalsutras” and hand them over to Muslims, that SC/ST and OBC reservations would be given to Muslims, and undermined even icons like Mahatma Gandhi.

The impact of these remarks on the voter’s perception couldn’t have been flattering for the prime minister. Moreover, the over-leveraging of the Modi persona by the Sangh Parivar is turning out to be an exercise in the Law of Diminishing Utility – for an over-exposed leader with repetitive messaging political returns are bound to diminish over time.

Somewhere, sometime in the last five years Modi’s persona appears to have started to slip and lose the triumphant edge which went largely unnoticed -- until June 4, when it upended the BJP’s dream of crossing 400 seats.

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