Ask Vir Ask Vir

The self-perpetuating legend of Modi’s invincibility

Something strange usually happens when you talk to people about the current round of assembly elections.

When you ask who will win, you first get the predictable responses.


Nobody knows too much about Mizoram so you rarely get many predictions. But they seem convinced that the Congress has an edge in Chhattisgarh. Telangana, they say, should have been easier for KCR to hang on to but it looks like the Congress will now win. In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP is on the back-foot, partly because of anti-incumbency but also because people feel that the Congress was cheated out of the victory that was rightfully its own when the party split and many MLAs joined the BJP, bringing it illegitimately to power. In Rajasthan, they argue, it has always been very hard for an incumbent government to return to office so the BJP will probably win.


   I have no idea how accurate these assessments are. But they seem to be the conventional wisdom judging by reports from journalists on the ground and the predictions made by opinion polls.


   This does not necessarily mean much. Many journalists toured Uttar Pradesh last time and reported that Akhilesh Yadav was winning when, in fact, the BJP was set to sweep the polls. And the pollsters mostly failed to predict that Mamata Banerjee’s TMC would win Bengal by a landslide at the last assembly election.


   The truth is: when it comes to Indian elections, nobody really knows anything. Surprises are common and predictions can be overturned by waves that journalists and pollsters failed to see coming.


   That’s not the strange bit though. Here’s the thing that I find most odd.


   Speak to the people who are predicting Congress victories in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Telangana and ask them what they think this means for next year’s Lok Sabha elections. After all, the BJP is largely a North Indian party. So if its hold on the Hindi belt is weakening doesn’t that suggest that it may face an uphill battle at the next general election?


   Well, no. Even the people who declare that the BJP will lose most states in this round of assembly elections seem convinced that Narendra Modi will be back for another term.


    What’s more, they no longer feel obliged to even explain why they are so sure that the BJP will return to power at the centre. They think it is self-evident.


   What explains this belief in the inevitability of a Modi victory? I can think of several reasons.


   Mostly it is because Narendra Modi has ceased to be regarded as an ordinary politician. People see him as a force of nature. No matter what goes wrong (demonetisation, the border stand-off with the Chinese, the mismanagement of various policies during the Covid pandemic, inflation, unemployment etc.) nothing seems to rub off on Modi.


   His failures are the fault of others. His successes are entirely his own. In some mysterious way he seems to have risen above the hurly-burly of everyday politics. No Indian Prime Minister since Jawaharlal Nehru (till the 1960s, at least) has enjoyed such an unchallenged reign at the top for so long. No matter what goes wrong, Modi is above it.


   "It helps also that Modi has been able to perpetuate the idea that there is no alternative to him." 

   Modi does not have the numerical support that Nehru had (in terms of vote shares) or the geographical popularity (the BJP remains largely a North Indian phenomenon with some outposts elsewhere) but like Nehru in the early days, Modi has come to be accepted as a fact of life. Even Indira Gandhi who, at her peak, was far more popular than Modi is today, never enjoyed as long an uninterrupted period in the sun.


   The inevitability of Modi’s everlasting rule has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because so many people think he is invulnerable, they do not take any alternative to him seriously. No matter what alternatives are offered, they dismiss them saying that no one can defeat Modi.


   Partly this is because Modi has benefitted from timing. All those who thought that the BJP was in trouble at the last General Election were swept aside by the wave of patriotism that followed the Pulwama massacre and the Balakot strike.


   Even this time around, memories of the mess the government made of its Covid strategy have faded to be replaced by a propaganda campaign that portrays Covid management as a triumph and misrepresents our vaccination campaign. (No, most Indians did not receive a invented-in-India vaccine. They received the AstraZeneca shot, developed by Oxford University which was given a new name in India).


   When the Pandemic was at its height, a pollster said to me that he doubted if the government could recover because “nearly every home has lost a family member or a friend”. I said then that he was overestimating the length of public memory. By the time votes were cast, the Pandemic would not be on anyone’s mind. This is pretty much what happened with demonetisation too: it was hardly remembered by the time the General Election came around.


   The self-perpetuating legend of Modi’s invincibility also stems from the undeniable fact that even people who vote against the BJP in state elections change their minds when it comes to voting for a Modi government at the Centre. Before the last General Election, the Congress won both Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. But when the Lok Sabha elections came around, the same people who had voted against the BJP changed their votes and said they preferred Modi at the Centre.


   It helps also that Modi has been able to perpetuate the idea that there is no alternative to him. He was helped in his first term by Rahul Gandhi’s inexperience, by the media’s relentless lampooning of Rahul and by the Congress’s strategic mistakes while formulating its electoral strategy.


   Much has changed since then: Rahul has got his act together, the electronic media still do as the government instructs but nobody really listens any longer and the Congress is far more focussed than it used to be.


   But it is not clear that this will be enough. All polls suggest that when voters are asked to choose between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, the majority always goes for Modi over Rahul. At one stage it looked as though this personality contest which Modi always wins could be averted if the opposition moved away from individuals and stood as a united block. I am not sure that has happened. The idea of the INDIA bloc has lost momentum in recent months and many opposition leaders prefer to fight with the Congress than oppose the BJP unitedly, perhaps because the Congress is a softer target.


   None of this is to say that the 2024 General Election is a done deal. The conventional wisdom is often wrong. Voters have a way of surprising politicians. Indira Gandhi called an election in 1977 because she was sure she would win. AB Vajpayee and LK Advani had such a low opinion of Sonia Gandhi’s vote-winning ability that they actually advanced the 2004 election. In each case, the voters told governments not to take them for granted and threw out the incumbents.


   So anything can happen at the next General Election. But I do find it strange that we have come to regard Narendra Modi as such a force of nature, that the conventional wisdom is predicated on the idea that even if the BJP can be defeated, Modi is unbeatable.



Posted On: 09 Nov 2023 10:25 AM
Your email id will not be published.
Security code:
Captcha Enter the code shown above:
Your email id will not be published.
Friend's Name:
Friend's E-mail:
Your email id will not be published.
The Message text:
This email was created by [your name] who thought you would be interested in the following Article:

A Vir Sanghvi Article Information

The Vir Sanghvi also contains hundreds of articles.

Additional Text:
Security code:
Captcha Enter the code shown above:

CommentsOther Articles

See All

Ask VirRead all

Connect with Virtwitter

@virsanghvi on
Vir Sanghvi