Modi’s careful image cultivation

    Modi’s rise has deepened cleavages in Indian society and entrenched Hindu nationalism with dire consequences for minorities.

    As the world focused on the aftermath of 9/11, Narendra Modi rose as the chief minister for the state of Gujarat in India. He belonged to the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), a party whose origins lie in the hardline Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). While during his tenure Gujarat became a developmental success, it also became known for its pogrom against the Muslim minority, leaving thousands dead.

    As Hindu mobs rampaged through the streets turning Gujarat into a slaughterhouse, Modi remained silent. Yet as the years passed it had little effect on his meteoric rise, eventually paving the way to becoming India’s prime minister in 2014. 

    Modi projected a mythical political persona and fables of developmental progress, promising to “make India great again.” His soaring rhetoric drew thousands, so much so that today his staunch supporters even tattoo his face on their backs. 

    Human rights watchers, economic analysts and outsiders sometimes scratch their heads and wonder how Modi swoons the crowds around him. Critics have said that the Hindutva sentiment that Modi cultivates has been a major source for his success. This is only partly the answer. So what has made Modi so different from his predecessors?  It’s the persona more than the party.


    Modi stands out as a vivid political personality in a culture of far-right and populist revivals around the world. One can observe this while he was contesting for previous elections. He portrayed himself as a peoples man against the dynastic prince of the ruling congress, Rahul Gandhi. 

    It’s worth mentioning the quirky public appearances which he embraces while on the podium. Which far-right leader in the world today would wear peacock feathers on his head during election rallies? None other than Modi, of course. 

    People love him, the rallies he addresses are all painted saffron with support, and he knows this. Modi has successfully revived the Hindutva sentiment—that of India being a Hindu nation. His political cunning, oratory skills and populist rhetoric wins crowds and supporters.  And in constructing his persona, the use of social media has also played a big role.

    Modi did not forget to implement and build a social media personality for himself. An online avatar, if you will. So far, Modi is one of the first Indian leaders who has used social media to mould his personality in the public’s image. 

    According to twiplomacy, Modi stands at number one amongst the most liked and effective political leaders on twitter. When his critics are tweeting out flaws of his party and him, Modi’s tweets consist of selfies with world leaders, thanking his people and lest not forget, the animated yoga videos for a #FitIndia.

    Likewise, social media is not the only space where the prime minister speaks out. He even has his own radio show “Mann Ki baat” . Through the show he discusses a topic once a month, whether it’s exam stress or policy making, Modi doesn’t fail to reach more than half of his population by using the medium of radio. His supporters feel connected to him, and they don’t need to be tech-savvy to receive radio signals. 

    Fanaticism and loss of autonomy

    But what has Modi really done to the largest democracy in the world? The pace of economic growth under Modi has been meek. His policies have resulted in a faltering economy and an increase in unemployment.

    Alongside the anaemic economic progress, Modi has delivered on fanaticism, identity politics and communal violence – some of the worst since India’s independence in 1947. 

    According to Amnesty International, between 2017 and 2018 the country has witnessed great divisions along caste lines and religious groups. Human rights defenders have faced hostility from authorities, mob violence has increased and freedom of speech has taken a hit.

    Sectarianism is rising and the century-old project of the RSS has been accelerated. Muslims are openly lynched in public by vigilante groups. The hegemony of the ruling BJP has meant that it now openly ignores the Muslim vote, along with their commercial beef businesses being disregarded from the Indian economy.

    There is a striking parallel with the British policies during colonialism of categorising communities along the lines of caste and race, resulting in a volatile environment of subversion. Even though Modi may have failed to bring about economic reform, his popularity and support can be attributed to the policies of divide and conquer. 

    The ones who are subverted due to Modi’s Hindutva realpolitik seem to be out on the streets: the farmers, Dalit’s, journalists and job-seeking youth retaliating against false promises and BJP’s dishonest manifesto of “India First”.

    Modi has intelligently and creatively paved the way and is painting India saffron. If Modi remains as the prime minister of India after the 2019 elections the country will face expanding divisions within the society. There will be an increase in tensions within different religious groups along with a disintegrating economic situation.

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