It was one of a zillion zany moments in India’s frenetic election season. In April the country’s Electoral Commission shelved the release of a biopic film profiling Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after opposition parties claimed it would give him an unfair electoral advantage. But despite its delayed unveiling until after polling closed, Modi was still able to broadcast a captivating production of his own to the Indian people.
That production was his theatrical campaign, which ultimately won him, and the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), another five years in power. It resonated with so many that it created a cult-like buzz around him that is normally reserved for India’s Bollywood stars. While the opposition, including the increasingly stale Indian National Congress (INC), offered little fight, Modi was able to absorb the population in the same way the country’s billion-dollar cinematic industry has been doing for decades.
At the heart of his campaign was a simple plot line. The BJP played up INC president Rahul Gandhi’s dynastic background, masterfully contrasting his elite status – as scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family that ruled India for decades after independence – against the more modest Modi. Echoing Bollywood’s often aspirational plots, the prime minister was again able to sell his own life story effectively as a former chaiwala overcoming all obstacles, including wealthy elites, to gaining India’s top job.
Yet a good storyline is nothing without pomp. Modi brought that in abundance with several charismatic speeches displaying his full oratorical range. At a huge rally in the capital New Delhi in May he demonstrated this perfectly, when he wowed audiences with an onslaught of rhetorical devices. “You have to blossom the lotus on every polling booth,” he said (the lotus is the BJP’s symbol), before ending characteristically with loud chants of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” (hail Mother India).
Indeed, nationalism was just one of a mix of poignant themes Modi expertly weaved together in order to tug at voters’ emotions. The BJP tapped into rising nativist sentiments, blending a nostalgia for a Hindu golden age with a fear of outsiders. On Pakistan, a major issue for the electorate, the prime minister was able to cultivate the image of a strongman able to stand up to intimidation from its noisy neighbors.
The BJP’s clear passionate messaging, touching sensitive topics, was also industrially disseminated across the country’s 900 million voters. Modi is the world’s second-most-followed current political leader on Twitter (Donald Trump is first), and has used the platform, alongside Facebook, to push his message and persona to all corners. However, this election was also about WhatsApp. With cheap data rates enabling access for 300 million users in India, the BJP purportedly had some 74,000 volunteers spreading their message via the app.
In evaluating their losses, India’s hodgepodge of left, center and anti-establishment parties may be tempted into thinking they ought to echo the BJP’s divisive rhetoric. That would be a misdiagnosis. While nationalism certainly had appeal, the opposition ultimately failed to offer a clear alternate narrative, create an aura around its leadership, or dent the ruling party’s hold on social media. The INC even admitted it had a flawed communication strategy – unable to garner attention for its flagship proposal to provide a universal basic income for the poor.
Indeed, with economic growth slowing, poverty still rife, and Modi failing on his key promise to bring unemployment down – alongside a widely documented and disastrous demonetization policy – the opportunity to energize a new feel-good vision for the economy was largely missed. Better job opportunities were voters’ top priority according to a survey of more than 270,000. But without being effectively challenged by the opposition on mismanagement, on a key concern of the electorate, the BJP was able to position the election as a referendum on Modi’s conservative leadership style, and turn the world’s largest democratic exercise into a personality contest.
In the end, many voters simply preferred Modi over the unclear and uninspiring gaggle of alternatives on offer. In order to change that, the opposition parties will need to develop a flair for simple messaging, nurture leaders with gravitas, expand their social-media presence, and develop a compelling plan to drive prosperity across the electorate, from what will soon become the world’s fifth-largest economy. And they would certainly need to create stronger coalitions in order to do that, to match the BJP’s now expansive apparatus. Otherwise, the next half-decade will certainly not be the last of Modi’s fiery politics in India.