As victors of India’s state elections boast in celebration and political commentators clamor to analyze how the BJP’s defeat in assembly elections signal everything from winds of change in the Hindu belt to the anger of the farmers with the incumbent BJP and the shattering of Hon’bl Prime Minister’s vision of a Congress-Mukt Bharat, this might be a time to do a real pulse check on what it might actually mean on ground.
Yes, defeat in the state elections might come as a blow to BJP, but on the whole, it might have benefited Modi personally for the 2019 vision.
To understand why, let’s rewind the clock to three-months ago, before the campaigning for the state elections had started gaining real momentum. We are in an India where BJP is the dominant power, and although polls show that next year’s elections are going to be an uphill task, everyone still very much bets on a Modi victory, none more than the various fractured factions of opposition, be it a lost Congress or the various regional and interest parties.
In this India of three months ago, let’s ask: What are the threats to the cult of Modi? There are no obvious external threats. There’s no leader (yes, Rahul Gandhi, I’m looking at you) who comes even close to Modi’s national appeal. The only real threat to the Cult of Modi is internal.
Two reasons, first, BJP under Amit Shah has built perhaps the most complicated and effective campaigning machinery that the world has ever seen, which uses propaganda, technology, communalism and grassroots outreach to set the national discourse and political agenda. In nearly four years of kendriya sarkar and a growing state and local power, BJP has shown incredible restraint and influence in being able to drive the public discourse.
Second, although the details are tailored to suit perceptions and address the audience’s concerns, the central theme is to build a cult of Modi. From efforts to equal him with the giants like Nehru, to maintaining an unblemished reputation as a herald of progress, Amit Shah’s political engine sings one tune with incredible discipline, Narendra Modi.
It’s the cult of Modi, not the banner of BJP or the mission of the RSS that is the battle-cry. There are a plethora of articles which discuss how Modi is the balancing act between the RSS’ Hindutva, Atal Bihari’s pragmatism and the democratic realities of BJP, but Modi’s rise to power has also come at the cost of many of BJP’s leaders and factions, the most easily citable being Advani. For all his rhetoric against Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Modi is doing to BJP what she did to Congress: BJP is Modi, Modi is BJP. And that comes at the cost of ambitions of many within the BJP.
In the last Lok Sabha elections, people did not vote for the candidate, did not so much vote for the party, but for one man: Modi. Contrast it with the recent state elections: It was not an election for Modi, it was but a referendum on Shivraj Singh Chauhan or Vasundahra Raje. Yes, all the King’s horses and all the King’s men and the King himself threw in support, but the question was not if Modi is the best Prime Minister, but if BJP is a good party.
What these elections do is help Narendrabhai consolidate absolute power within BJP and RSS well ahead of the general elections. BJP, now humbled and shocked, can turn once again to their savior, to their ONLY beacon, the only route to power: Modi. The cult of personality was first sold to the country, now it is sold to BJP. Disposing internal rivals, even at short term political cost to the party is nothing new for Modi: from Haren Pandya to Vajpayee himself, Modi’s rise to power has no dearth of friendly fire.
The strength of BJP’s election machine is still very much there, with all its billions of rupees, its grand central yojnas and WhatsApp groups; only now it is sure to sing in complete harmony. While the popularity of BJP might have declined, the popularity of Modi is yet to be tested, and today’s results only make Modi more dangerous and potent, not just above scrutiny of the media and the courts, but also firmly above the scrutiny of his own party.
Reminds me that in the game of chess, castles, knights and queens are all sacrificed to make the king win.