A large section of India will probably never vote for the BJP. An even larger section holds the RSS in contempt. That’s the disadvantage with which Narendra Modi took over as Gujarat Chief Minister in 2001.
Then Godhra happened in 2002 and Modi’s image was tainted forever. There has been such a vicious and unending campaign against him that it’s a wonder how the BJP declared him as their Prime Ministerial candidate for 2014.
However Modi is a shrewd politician and has been able to build up a consensus thanks to certain unifying themes that he has used consistently.
Theme 1: Development.
When Modi was re-elected in 2002, critics saw it as a polarized mandate and expected Modi to emerge as a hardline Hindutva leader. Instead he decided to focus on development. If you look at his speeches in the last odd decade then you’ll find very little of religion and most of it on development.
Critics immediately dubbed it the “Gujarat model” and rubbished it. However, he has won two mandates on that model while middle class India believes in the State’s growth story as do industrialists and NRIs.
The crux of the issue is that no matter how much you rubbish the Gujarat Model there’s no way you can rubbish a platform of development and that’s where Modi has scored.
Theme 2: Neutral icons.
Sardar Vallabhai Patel is a universally admired personality and he’s a Congressman to boot. Nobody is rubbishing Patel, but only rubbishing Modi using Patel’s name. That is downright silly because the history of the world is littered with greats and anyone is free to take inspiration from any of them.
The other icon Modi uses freely is Swami Vivekananda. That’s another respected figure and what’s more he is closely associated with Hinduism. That’s like having one’s cake and eating it too.
The third icon is Mahatma Gandhi, who also happens to be a Gujarati like Patel. This subtle use of neutral icons has greatly helped Modi gain widespread acceptance.
Theme 3: Cyberspace.
Mainstream media, civil society and NGOs are so against Modi that it’s to his credit that he didn’t even try to win them over. He began on a clean slate in cyberspace which is a humongous medium that no-one can control.
That’s where Modi began early and has retained a stranglehold in social networking. Netizens seem united behind Modi. This was shown in great contrast in an online poll conducted by a TV news channel where lakhs of people participated.
61% said they would vote for the BJP and just 5% Congress. Modi has a big hand in that.
Even if Netizens form a fraction of voters, the online world has greatly influenced the dealings of the Congress, media and civil society. The indirect influence is simply huge.
Theme 4: Anti-corruption.
Everybody wants to fight corruption and present a united stand against it. The BJP struggled to do that under the presidency of Nitin Gadkari because of the focus on his Purti group of companies. His exit has put Modi totally in command. (Gadkari may still campaign, but he is totally under Modi’s shadow now)
There have been no major scams coming from Gujarat post-2001 and that’s something that millions of people all over India appreciate.
Theme 5: Economy.
If you look at the history of the modern world, then more governments have been voted out due to a bad economy than anything else.
The Congress have tried to portray Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the old order and heir apparent Rahul Gandhi as the new order that will usher in a change.
That hasn’t worked in part due to the inability of Rahul and part due to the fact that Modi is a viable alternative.
Modi’s governance and administrative acumen in Gujarat is something that many Indians want replicated at the national level.
Theme 6: Polarization.
This one is pretty ironic. In the 2002 polarization, most of the country was against him.
So how is the one of 2014 different?
Well it’s simple. In 1967, the theme of the elections was anti-Congressism. In 1977 it was anti-Indira. In 1989 it was anti-Rajiv. That way all the Opposition parties bore equal dividends.
2014 should also have been fought on anti-Congressism thanks to the bad economy, multitude of scams and party arrogance. However Modi has become the sole theme of 2014.
What that means is that the Congress and all other Opposition parties are on one side and Modi on the other. Anti-Congressism will be only the theme where the BJP has no presence. In States with a BJP presence, the saffron party could win big.
For example the DMK is seen too close to the Congress and SP and BSP parties which always bail the Congress out. That may hurt their electoral fortunes.
The best example is Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar who was at a high till he accepted a special package from the Centre for his State. More than his split with the BJP, his perceived closeness with the Congress is hurting his image more than anything.
Modi is set to singlehandedly reap a huge chunk of the anti-Congress votes.
Theme 7: Language.
Many people used to see the BJP as a high-caste party from the Hindi heartland. Modi is not only of a lower caste, but uses language effectively wherever he goes. You can get his Twitter feed in various regional languages.
In Orissa he spoke in Oriya and in Hyderabad, he began the speech with Telugu. In Trichy which saw a crowd of 3 lakh (unheard of for a BJP leader) the Tamil translation followed after every para. What’s more, many a time the crowd started after he finished a Hindi segment without waiting for the Tamil translation.
Of course his Hindi rallies are also a huge hit as seen by the Patna one which may have touched one million.
A lot of Modi critics bemoan his lack of English speaking skills but what they don’t realize is that regional languages are much bigger unifiers across India than English can ever hope to be.