NEW DELHI – Last weekend, electronic voting machines hummed in the large Indian states of Haryana in the north and Maharashtra in the west. Just as in the national elections of May, they delivered numbers that offered irrefutable evidence of “the Modi effect.”
Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party registered vast gains in both states after carefully conducted election campaigns in which the prime minister played a prominent role and the state units did not offer candidates for chief minister. Instead, local politicians in both states promised, in the words of the Mumbai politician Kirit Somaiya, a mini Modi government to replace the relatively undistinguished governments seeking re-election.
Modi himself campaigned extensively in both states, addressing an astounding 38 public rallies and cajoling voters to deliver a clear verdict for his party, as he did for the country in May. Voters found being a part of a sweeping change in Indian politics irresistible, ushering in record numbers of legislators for the BJP in both states (though in Maharashtra, they did not deliver an absolute majority to the BJP, as it had hoped). The result was yet more evidence that the difference between the BJP and all other major Indian political parties today can be boiled down to one man’s energy, charisma and political capital.
But does the Modi effect work in just one direction, a magic potion poured by a rhetorically gifted and visionary prime minister upon the masses? Or is there also an invisible face to the Modi effect, just as one side of the moon is always hidden from view?
The less-remarked-upon aspect of the Modi effect is not that of Modi on India, but of India on Modi. It’s the effect of him trading in, over the course of the past year, the leadership of the state of Gujarat — where he both embedded himself in the Indian imagination and embarrassed himself indelibly over the course of more than a decade — for a much more challenging and yet liberating position: that of prime minister.
Breaking free of Gujarat has made a new man of Modi. It also has allowed him to leave behind the stigma of his nebulous role in the religious violence of 2002, when he narrowly escaped being removed from his post by then-Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, which would have ended his political career. As he has left behind his sycophantic following and attempted to forge a new compact with a demanding pan-Indian audience, the strange alchemy of Indian democracy has proved to be a tonic for his language and conduct, so frequently churlish and self-aggrandizing in the past.
Where’s the evidence of this aspect of “the Modi effect”? Let’s contrast two moves, three years apart, in which Modi linked himself to the body politic.
In 2011, the Supreme Court of India delivered a judgment that seemed to clear him in one of the most serious cases of violence in Gujarat in 2002. Although the only person who stood to gain from this was himself, Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, immediately published an “open letter” in many Indian newspapers alleging that “for the past 10 years, it has become fashionable to defame me and the State of Gujarat,” as if there were no difference between the two.
At that point, the future prime minister saw himself inextricably bound to the people he represented, but there was something terribly defensive and desperate about his allegation of mass defamation. He had much more difficulty aligning himself with 60 million Gujaratis then than he does to 1.2 billion Indians today.
Modi followed this up with a vast, cynical pageant in his own honor. Dozens of top party leaders arrived from all over the country to sing his praises, while Modi sat smugly to one side like a potentate in a medieval durbar, accepting felicitations from delegations of carefully selected groups from different religions and sects. “The trouble with the show is that it is too organized,” Shiv Vishwanathan wrote then. “This is not a crowd, it is a tableau and he is the director.”
Contrast this to more recent times, both in his speeches to the Indian diaspora (as at New York’s Madison Square Garden in the last week of September) and at home. He now makes a habit of saying, elegantly, that the luster that has newly attached itself to his name around the world is actually a reflection of the accumulated power and potential of 1.25 billion Indians, who have long been denied their rightful place on the world stage. This trope is not at all insincere; it has touched many people, and it brings them to Modi’s events everywhere. At a recent rally in Mumbai, he was only halfway through this thought when hundreds in the crowd piped up with chants of “1.25 billion people” before he could finish.
Isn’t it a long journey from staging the public to projecting one’s own real achievements onto the public today? The Modi effect has worked its magic on millions, but the numbers are only one side of the story. The other side — one that the prime minister, a man with a most complex psyche, will never bring himself to admit — is the effect a new political canvas and a new position have had on his own self. One might grant that the Modi effect has been good for India, and at the same time perceive that it has had the best effect on Modi himself.
Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel “Arzee the Dwarf” is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.