How Narendra Modi uses narrative as a political tool to retain his voters and win over new ones

(This essay has appeared in the July 2019 issue of the journal ‘Seminar‘ under the title ‘Modi was the message’.)

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Narendra Modi’s use of narrative as a political tool is akin to how a versatile batsman plays cricket. He can deal with any kind of ball thrown at him, exploiting opportunities to score sixes and warding off threats to remain on the pitch.

All political parties and candidates give voters a story about themselves. Voters process these and form their own story – the ‘public opinion’, and vote accordingly. Incredibly, travelling in the 2019 election, one finds that voters have a coherent, uniform story that favours Narendra Modi. This essay seeks to understand Modi’s story-telling on the ground, and why it succeeds like hitting a fixer on every ball.

To be sure, the use of narrative is not the central reason why Modi wins. He wins because voters have developed a strong emotional attachment to him, giving him their faith and trust. This attachment does not come from Hindutva, though a Hindu appeal is no doubt a part of it. The faith in Modi is similar to the attachment people develop towards leaders across ideologies: Indira Gandhi, Jyoti Basu, Naveen Patnaik, Arvind Kejriwal, J. Jayalaithaa, NT Rama Rao and Nitish Kumar are some non-Hindutva names that come to mind.

Modi’s use of narrative makes sure people sustain this faith over a period of time, from one election to another. The use of narrative makes sure that when reporters land up in the districts and ask people why they are voting for Modi, people have a reasonable-sounding answer

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One of the challenges Modi faced in this election was the pre-poll alliance in Uttar Pradesh between the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal. This Gathbandhan had formidable caste arithmetic on paper, and had shown it to be a successful formula. The unlikely coming together of erstwhile arch-rivals Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had defeated the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Gorakhpur, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s home turf and a Hindutva bastion since even before the Babri Masjid demolition.

Travelling in Uttar Pradesh this election, I found people who had voted for the BJP in 2014 and 2017 were mostly unwilling to change their vote. The Gathbandhan had shown it was now in a position to win seats, and would not lose seats to low index of opposition unity. Why, then, would they not consider the Gathbandhan?

There could be many answers to this question. The most obvious would be that people like Narendra Modi as prime minister, and they did. Another could be that they didn’t liked the alliance, its leaders, ideology, opportunism or promises. Yet I heard one uniform answer in different parts of the state, from March to May. ‘Look,’ people would typically say, ‘even if the alliance wins all 78 seats it is contesting in Uttar Pradesh, would they be able to form government at the centre? India is a huge country and there are so many states…’ People would go on and on and explain to me, at some length, the logic of a national election. The SP-BSP are mere Uttar Pradesh parties.

People in different parts of the state, or country, don’t come up with the exact same reasoning of voting for Modi on their own. It seems organic, but was not. Workers of the Bhartiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, along with countless pro-BJP Whatsapp group voters are unilaterally added, to give people a certain narrative. This propaganda often seeks to answer questions people might ask, the criticism they might have. It is not framed in the way that an official BJP spokesperson might. It is framed in the language of common people, thus appearing as though it is coming emanating from the masses rather than the party.

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The same narrative of rejecting regional parties in a national election could have been used, for instance, by the Congress party in the coalition era over six general elections from 1989 to 2009. But the Congress or the BJP of Vajpayee and Advani did not do so. The Indian polity in this period had come to a consensus that the Lok Sabha election was always going to be a ‘sum of the states’, that coalition politics was a given in a country the size of India, and that the one-party rule of the Congress until 1989 was an aberration, a hangover of the freedom movement. Modi has used the power of narrative to change that. From Ladakh to Lakshwadeep there is a sense of a country called India, and it seems obvious that this national imagination could be easily harnessed for a national election.

If you travelled through Uttar Pradesh in December 2018, you would have thought the BJP was in deep trouble. Everybody was complaining about the cattle let loose across the state, thanks to state sanctioned cow vigilantism. The lower OBCs had begun to be disenchanted with the BJP, as they felt the fruits of power were being disproportionately enjoyed by the upper castes, especially the Thakurs. The BJP gave people reasonable-sounding arguments against these grievances through door-to-door campaigning and through Whatsapp groups. In Gorakhpur in May 2019, a BJP worker told me, ‘hum logon ko yeh keh rahein hai ki caste-waast choro, desh ka socho. Yogi ka gussa Modi pe kyon nikaal rahein ho? Local issues ko 2022 main dekhna. (We are telling people to forget caste issues and think about the country. Why punish Modi for Yogi’s failures? Those should matter in the 2022 Vidhan Sabha election.’ It is counter-intuitive that party workers should go around undermining their own chief minister to help the prime minister win, but such risk is taken to make the answers sound convincing and persuade voters.

The BJP propaganda machine, massive as it is, similarly undermined the Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia. In Madhya Pradesh, the power of narrative was used to protect the image of not just Prime Minister Narendra Modi but also Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan. Whether you went to Gwalior or Indore, you could hear people say that the party workers and MLAs had become arrogant, steeped in corruption.

As Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014, he had the problem of managing expectations. His 2014 campaign had set the bar high, promising people the moon. Against the backdrop of a UPA-2 government known for ‘policy paralysis’, Modi was promising people the good days, ‘achche din’. It was obvious that people would soon start asking if the good days had arrived, or when they would arrive. The inability to turn his tall promises into reality could have cost him not only the 2019 general election but also the many state elections in between. The risk was exemplified by the word ‘jumla’. During the 2014 campaign, Narendra Modi had said there was so much Indian black money stashed abroad that if brought back, every citizen could get Rs 15 lakh each. An interviewer asked Amit Shah about this, and Shah replied that Modi’s words were a ‘jumla’, a manner of speaking.

Be it bullet trains or the Ganga river cleaning or bringing back Indian black money from abroad, most of his 2014 promises did not come to fruition. The opposition could have painted the Modi government as a ‘jumla’ government, one that had failed to deliver on its promises. Modi handled this risk primarily by changing the narrative when he needed to. The Modi government celebrated every anniversary of its 2014 victory with a small campaign, encapsulating it in a slogan. The Modi government’s first year anniversary in 2015 had two slogans. There was ‘saal ek, kaam anek’ (Year one, accomplishments many), and ‘Modi sarkar, kaam lagatar’ (The Modi government, working non-stop).

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The second year slogan in 2016 was ‘Saath hai vishwas hai, ho raha vikas hai’ (Together with trust, development is taking place). The third anniversary slogan in 2017 was, ‘Mera desh badal raha hai’ (My country is changing), and the English slogan was, ‘Transforming India’. There was a song set around the slogan, with the sort of background score you hear when the hero has just begun to come out of trouble. ‘Dekho aasmaan se sooraj nikal raha hai/ desh ka parcham ab ooncha ud raha hai/ Varshon ka andhera roshan ho raha hai/ Gareeb ki rasoi se dhuan uth rahan hai (Look at the rising sun in the sky/ the national flag is flying high/ the darkness of years is giving way to light/ the smoke is disappearing from the hearths of the poor). The fourth anniversary slogan in 2018 was, ‘Saaf Niyat, Sahi Vikas’ (good intent, right development).

A common theme in all of these was the suggestion of an ongoing process. Modi never even hinted that he had achieved his ‘achche din’ goals. The journey of five years, seen through his slogans, suggests a calibrated approach at lowering people’s expectations, showing ‘work in progress’ before voters could ask for the deliverables.

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There was one slogan Modi came up with out of the blue in 2017, soon after the UP election results: ‘New India 2022: Sankalp se Siddhi’ (attainment through resolve). Even though the BJP swept UP, Modi knew his government’s performance on the economic front was on a downward slope given the abject failure of demonetisation. The government had hoped to mop up 3.5 lakh crore rupees through demonetisation – it told the Supreme Court as much – but ended up with loose change and an economic slowdown. As Modi feared the consequences of the failure of demonetisation, he started harping on 2022 as a new deadline for everything that he wanted to achieve. If voters were to turn against Modi, they would be de-railing the processes he had undertaken. After winning the elections, Modi has started shifting the deadline from 2022 to 2024. These days we are hearing, ad nauseam, about how he wants to make India a ‘five trillion dollar economy’ by 2024.

The constant stalling and postponing of the due date of achche din is in contrast to Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 2004 campaign, ‘India Shining’. That slogan carried a claim of achievement, whereas Modi’s sloganeering is often about showing people the future. If Narendra Modi was a scriptwriter, he’d prefer to write episodic serials, with an element of suspense at the end of every serial so that you cannot wait to see the next one to find out what happens. He is afraid of writing film scripts because a stand-alone film has an ending, and in the end people get up and go home. Modi weaves a story of suspense, always making one expect a surprise, and every surprise has one hungry for more. He makes one stay with him.

In 2014, India got a hyper-communicative prime minister who spoke a lot, at length, and always seemed to be campaigning. He started a fortnightly radio show of his own, and went about launching government schemes through spectacular events and catchy branding. This was permanent campaigning, an idea so old in American politics that there are countless books about it. Modi campaigns all the time, and thus occupies our mind space constantly. When Modi doesn’t have anything to campaign about, he will produce visuals of himself doing things: exercising, for instance. This is why his voters say ‘at least he’s trying, ‘at least he’s doing something’, and ‘there is no alternative to Modi.’ Nobody is to be given the chance to wonder, ‘What is Modi doing these days? It is to capture the attention game that Modi gets himself photographed with Bollywood and sports celebrities, attending their weddings. The logic of permanent campaigning is to govern with a sense of public consensus, instead of seeking public approval just before the elections. By the time elections come, voters can’t say the leader started doing things only in the election year.

As Modi began his first term, he had a mandate making him India’s most powerful prime minister since Rajiv Gandhi in 1984. With such a mandate one would think Modi would not go back on his first major policy move. He wanted to amend the land acquisition law to bring more investments into manufacturing. A weak Rahul Gandhi, with just 44 seats in the Lok Sabha, said this was proof Modi’s was a ‘suit boot ki sarkar’ (a government of rich corporates). Modi went back on his move, swallowing his pride because he knew the risk of being branded pro-rich and anti-poor. This was a narrative that could have succeeded, even if farmers’ protests against land acquisition had been localised here and there.

That is an example of how Modi not only does politics by propagating a narrative, but also calculates what could become a counter-narrative for him. Around the time demonetisation’s failure was becoming clear, in late December 2016, Modi suddenly abruptly stopped using the word ‘mitron’ (friends) with which he addressed people in rallies. Using ‘mitron’ instead of the usual ‘bhaiyon our behno’ (brothers and sisters) was an attempt to stand out and be noticed. But the over-use of ‘mitron’ from 2013 to 2016 had made it a shorthand for Modi jokes. There was even a radio show called ‘Mitron’. Modi stopped it probably because he realised the power of humour and ridicule in destroying anyone’s image – Rahul Gandhi’s entire career has been demolished with one word, ‘pappu’.

Modi travelled to 92 countries in five years, some of them more than once. He has shown great interest in foreign policy, and his frequent overseas trips are a result of that. But they carried a domestic political risk. The opposition could have said, ‘He keeps roaming abroad and doesn’t do any work.’ Modi turned this risk into a political opportunity from day one. He used foreign policy for domestic messaging. The narrative has been that he is improving India’s stature in the world.

Modi’s excessive hugging of foreign leaders and his grand addresses to NRI audiences, are examples of this attempt. Over social media and WhatsApp messenger, photoshopped images travel, showing Modi speaking and world leaders listening in rapt attention. Whether it’s in Ahmedabad or Wuhan, Tel Aviv or Mongolia, Modi makes sure that his meetings with foreign dignitaries are held in scenic, photo-friendly backdrops. The idea is always to show how much foreign leaders respect Modi. The result is that even in the villages of eastern UP, one will find people saying Modi has taken India to world number three spot – whatever that means. Interestingly, if you followed the Modi campaign through the media, you wouldn’t realise that this claim was a central part of his pitch. Modi’s election campaigns tend to have a different pitch at different levels, and this word of mouth (and word of WhatsApp) pitch are often different from what Modi speaks in his rallies. The two compliment each other.

Yet another example is of Swachh Bharat. When the sanitation campaign was launched, it had many elements, from cleaning up streets to making sure no Indian defecates in the open. The campaign was launched with images of Modi cleaning the streets, and making his entire government and party do so as well, as did celebrities on Modi’s request. Swachh Bharat was very popular to begin with, but soon people started questioning the results. Why were the streets still dirty? Solid waste management, it turned out, was no easy task. So, at some point around 2016, the Modi government changed the complete focus of Swachh Bharat to building toilets. Today, if you think Swachh Bharat you’ll think rural toilets, whereas in 2015 you would have thought of garbage on the streets. This was a change in focus, driven by the fear of people saying, ‘But the streets are still dirty.’

The greatest gamble of Modi’s five years was demonetisation. His government may be divided in two parts: pre- and post-demonetisation. It is a post-facto myth that demonetisation helped the BJP win the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly election. The truth is that the BJP won that election despite demonetisation, not because of it. Launched on 8 November 2016, demonetisation may have helped freeze the finances of the opposition parties in the UP elections, but that’s all. It did not make the people vote for the BJP.

By the time the UP elections were held in February-March 2017, it was clear that demonetisation had completely failed. In fact, the failure of demonetisation was apparent in November 2016 itself, as black money holders had found various ways to exchange their currency notes without getting caught. An industry sprung up overnight to help them.

Modi, however, managed that risk with his typical strategy of stalling, and showing process to hide lack of achievement. As it became clear that nobody was losing their black money, the government quickly changed the narrative from ‘destroying black money’ to ‘cashless economy’. The opposition, by contrast, was demoralised when its initial protests fell flat. People were all for demonetisation in the beginning, as they felt it was hurting the rich. Faced with this, the opposition gave up on opposing demonetisation. It was unable to change its narrative, whereas Modi quickly changed the narrative from black money to cashless economy. When it was clear that demonetisation was failing on every front, one could hear Modi supporters say, ‘At least he has good intentions. At least he’s trying. At least he’s doing something.’ Such sentiments are spread by the party’s workers and its social media networks, especially WhatsApp.

In the 2017 assembly election in UP, the BJP campaign said very little about demonetisation, almost as though it had not happened. But the party neutralised the potential of backlash. When I asked party workers what they had been told to tell people in their door to door campaign, one of the points was that the benefits of demonetisation would soon come. So far so good, but then came the Goods and Services Tax. The GST worsened the slowdown in the economy. GDP numbers and other economic data started showing things were going downhill. From the peak of the UP victory, Brand Modi started taking a hit. The BJP retained Gujarat by a whisker, was unable to win a clear majority against the Congress in Karnataka, and began losing by-polls in traditional strongholds. The reality was catching up with Modi. Once again, he used ‘narrative’ to change the situation and prevent his ratings from sliding beyond a point.

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Narendra Modi’s 2014 campaign was largely positive: it stood out for the tall promises he made. He spoke more about the Gujarat model than of the failures of UPA-2. He raised people’s expectations rather than merely attack the Congress. But after the failure of demonetisation and the chaos caused by the GST, Modi took to negative campaigning. Speaking in Parliament in February 2017, he launched a surprise attack on his respected predecessor, Manmohan Singh. From then on there was no stopping his attacks on the Congress. From 1947 to 2019, every sin of the Congress party was counted. From Nehru to Rahul Gandhi, nobody was spared.

The point of this negative campaign was not simply to deflect from his failures. It was a much bigger narrative strategy, one of forcing people to contrast Modi with Rahul. In effect, Modi was saying, ‘I may have failed, but is Rahul a better option than me?’ This was a time when even BJP voters would quickly say, ‘Aur hai kaun?’ Who is the alternative? It was a strange time when even BJP supporters stopped defending Modi. The question ‘Aur hai kaun?’ that one could hear everywhere helped destroy any possibility of making Rahul Gandhi and Congress an option to consider.

Contrast, as a political tool, is under appreciated by students of politics. Modi makes sure he defines the opponent in his own terms to heighten the contrast between them. With his negative campaign directed at the Congress, Modi had consciously heightened the contrast between himself and his main rival. He had also deliberately set up a presidential campaign between himself and Rahul Gandhi, thereby underlining that this was a national election with little role for regional parties. There were political analysts who warned that the opposition should not fall into the trap of a presidential campaign and instead make it 543 local elections. However, with his Rafale campaign, Rahul Gandhi did just the opposite. He pitted himself against Modi. That is exactly what Modi wanted.

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And yet there was something missing in the Modi narrative. There was a lack of enthusiasm, exacerbated by the Congress victories in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh assemblies. Suddenly the Congress and the opposition had an opening. Rising unemployment, farmers’ distress and the feeling of alienation among the BJP’s core upper caste voters was palpable. Modi’s great talent of shifting the narrative to suit him was also his fatal flaw. Modi thinks he can sell anything with words, address any problem by drilling ideas into people’s heads through repetition. If Modi were a scriptwriter, he would focus on dialogue to the exclusion of action. ‘Narrative’ is considered an overused cliche of our times because it has been confused with spin-doctoring. These days people prefer a ‘story’ to a narrative. The stories that capture our imagination have more action than dialogues. There was a time when Modi seemed to be all talk and no action; he seemed to have run out of surprises.

Modi addressed the risks to his re-election. He announced a scheme to give farmers Rs 6,000 a month to alleviate their losses. He announced 10% reservations within the general quota to help the poor among the upper castes. Yet there was no emotional kick in the Modi narrative that could match the energy of Modi’s 2014 campaign. As a campaign by itself, 2019 was a poorer cousin of 2014, which was an electrifying one. Modi had managed to deliver substantially on housing, toilets, free gas cylinders, but these did not seem to be enough to create a wave.

As always, Modi had luck on his side, and he got the opportunity of a skirmish with Pakistan. The Balakot attack in response to the terrorist strike in Pulwama was just the sort of thing Modi needed to show why he matters. Many felt Balakot could turn the 2019 election into a national security campaign with a war-like mood. A nation under siege tends to back the government of the day. But 2019 was not a national security election. Balakot helped Modi in a different way: it showed Modi was willing and able to walk the talk. The phrase that embodied this sentiment was “ghus ke maara” (attacked the enemy in his house). This gave credence to the one of the slogans the BJP put out: ‘Modi hai to mumkin hai’ (‘Modi makes it possible’). From the lofty claims of Acche Din in 2014, Modi had made 2019 about mere possibilities.

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Rahul Gandhi spent most of 2018-19 with a negative campaign – alleged corruption in the acquisition of Rafale fighter planes. The Rafale campaign was well executed insofar as Rahul Gandhi finally learned how to make a point stick. But what people really needed from him was a positive campaign. People needed an opposition leader who could convince them s/he had the answers to India’s problems, and that these answers were better than the ones Modi had.

The only answer Rahul Gandhi had was the proposed NYAY (Nyunatam Aay Yojana) scheme to end poverty by making sure no family earns less than Rs 72,000 a year. NYAY was launched only a few days before the first phase of the campaign. While travelling in different parts of the country, reporters found many had not even heard of it. However, quite a few had heard of the promise of Rs 72,000 a year, but did not trust Rahul Gandhi or the Congress to deliver on it. Rahul Gandhi addressed corruption with his Rafale campaign, and poverty alleviation with NYAY. Neither of these addressed what was the top public issue: unemployment. In several weeks of travelling in Uttar Pradesh, I didn’t find one voter talk about either Rafale or NYAY.

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Rahul Gandhi’s persona itself was a major election issue. To make Narendra Modi look better, Rahul Gandhi had to look bad. Modi’s negative campaign against Raul Gandhi and the Congress had succeeded at many levels. Across the country, the most widespread piece of fake news was that Rahul Gandhi had claimed he could convert potatoes into gold using a machine. A video of him saying, that is how Modi fools people, was edited to make it appear that Rahul Gandhi himself was saying it. That is how Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Pappu’ image was reinforced. Profiling the Valsad bellwether constituency in Gujarat, I met adivasi voters in forest areas. This is deep tribal territory in Gujarat – traditionally a Congress stronghold. Many adivasi voters said they were voting Modi because they couldn’t fathom voting for ‘Pappu’ who thinks potatoes could be converted into gold.

Rahul Gandhi’s own poor messaging and his frequent goof-ups didn’t help. Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Pappu’ image was amplified by the Modi campaign in 2014. It’s unofficial campaign committee, the Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG), had a desk called ‘Pappupedia’. Its sole purpose was to create and spread ‘Pappu’ jokes on social media. With the ‘Pappu’ image, Modi had made sure he had defined his opponent so that Modi always appeared much better by contrast. (This is not to absolve Rahul Gandhi of the political responsibility to overcome his image trap.)

This is why people won’t trust Rahul Gandhi for his NYAY promise, or vote for the pan-India farm loan waiver promised in the Congress manifesto. When a reporter asked unemployed youth in Bihar why they were voting for Modi despite his failure to create jobs, they replied, ‘Do you think Pappu can create jobs?’ They went on to add that if anyone could create jobs, it will be Modi. The 2019 election was thus as much a vote against Rahul Gandhi as against Modi, and this didn’t happen without Modi steering the narrative towards this direction.

Rahul Gandhi’s central message this election was the slogan ‘Chowkidar chor hai’ – the guard is the thief. In his 2014 campaign, Modi had said he would guard people’s interests like a chowkidar. With the slogan ‘Chowkidar chor hai’, Rahul Gandhi was reminding voters that Modi likes to be seen as the guardian of national interest. It took a Balakot for Modi to turn this negative slogan upside down. The official 2019 Modi campaign slogan was ‘Main bhi chowkidar’ – I am also a guard.

That slogan does not aptly describe the 2019 election. It was the BJP-RSS’ unofficial slogan that was much more effective. It was: ‘Aayega to Modi hi’ (all said and done, Modi will be back). The slogan built a sense of inevitability about Modi winning the election. Surveys have shown that around 25% voters decide their vote in the last 48 hours, and they did so on the basis of an estimation of who is winning. These swing voters do not want to ‘waste’ their vote. This is why nobody was able to foresee the BJP crossing 300 seats. It is this slogan that helped do that. The 2019 election was not fought on policy or political issue – not corruption, not poverty, not employment, not Hindutva. The only issue in this election was ‘Aayega to Modi hi’ – Modi was the message.

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