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Why Congress failed to gauge mass appeal of Modi's 'bolstered' superhuman image

By Ravi Kumar* 

The prophecies of Congress victory have been shattered. The analysts talking about anti-incumbency of 18 years in Madhya Pradesh, great work of Congress government in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, all failed to generate a mass support for the party. The long queue of people emotionally marching along with Rahul Gandhi in Mizoram also did not materialise.
The assembly election results seem to belie all logic. In places like Telangana, Mizoram, Chhattisgarhq and Rajasthan the logic of anti-incumbency works and in a state like Madhya Pradesh it does not. The charges of corruption against state government as well as the central ministers have not shaken the belief of people in BJP.
The uniqueness of Rajasthan’s Chiranjeevi Swasthya Beema Yojana, despite people taking advantage of the scheme in massive numbers as shown by data, its status of being the only state to have enacted a legislation for Right to Health or the first state to go back to the Old Pension Scheme nothing could salvage it’s massive defeat.
The Bhupesh Baghel government in Chhattisgarh had been buying cow dung from cattle owners spending around Rs 247 crores in three years; the paddy procurement was at a higher MSP than other places and even minor forest produce was bought at a minimum support price. Nothing seems to have convinced people to vote despite these welfarist schemes.
In fact, the Congress Party seemed to play the welfarist card knowing very well that there is massive inequality and lack of access to basic facilities. Hence, what Congress research department needs to explain is why people did not vote for them despite all these unique schemes and provisions and why would they do for BJP.
At the end of the day, a historic exercise in electoral democracy has taken place and has yielded an unprecedented victory for BJP. The task for the Congress is to find out what is there in BJP which makes it a popular choice for people.

Narendra Modi remains the face of the party

BJP decided not to project a chief ministerial candidate in the assembly elections and talked of a collective leadership. Narendra Modi also kept asking people to choose the lotus symbol. For reasons of rhetoric one would look at the recent victory as that of BJP but deep inside it is the victory of a party led by Narendra Modi.
Over the last two decades, as the borderlines between the party and the government became fluid, along with the emergence of a tall image of the Prime Minister, there have been hardly any elections where indispensable presence of Narendra Modi has not been felt. His presence is invoked even in municipality elections.
It would require a separate analysis to show the power of image and the way it holds sway over every other thing apart from the repercussions it has for democratic polity. The truth today is that in these assembly elections it is the victory of Narendra Modi as a mass leader complemented by the tireless work of the RSS.
The media, and especially the alternative media, had built arguments of how Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Vasundhara Raje Scindia and Raman Singh were not given the kind of importance that they needed. But the election results have shown that even with lessening role for these llonstanding leaders the party can emerge victorious.
When Modi said that the vote should be for lotus he was making a wider point. It was an indication that the party is bigger than these regional personalities. These elections were also a testing ground for him for the forthcoming 2024 general elections. If he could manage to score such a massive victory through a combination of overt physical presence and the omnipresence of his images, everywhere he can be rest assured of his forthcoming victory as well.
With these victories the power of his image has been further legitimised. What is discounted in analysis is the way an image has been nurtured over last ten years. It is the image of a masculine, powerful leader who can give a phone call to anyone and stop a war, even if briefly. His masculinity is combined with an intellect that could explain the connection of weather and military warfare or about how gutter gas can be used for cooking.
His image through its omnipresence also tells people how everything that they get in their lives comes from him, as he also recently testified at a public rally. There is a realisation within the party that a larger than life image is what appeals to the people. This was established when a leader calls him 11th avatar of Vishnu or another one called him a life-giving god. His image gets bolstered through these imageries which have attracted a huge appeal in North India.
The project is to homogenise the beliefs, festivals, rituals etc., but it will take some time. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister gets equated these gods. Combined with a carefully nurtured image of a magical superhuman, he has the party which pushes towards reframing a consciousness in their own colour and they can do so through an ideological principle and a structure, which does not give space for dissent and difference.
Narender Modi, amidst all this nurturing of his image, does not forget the ideology he represents and with which he grew up and reached where he is now. It is not really significant how he expresses it. What matters is that the ideological moorings of the party, the mentor organisation (RSS) is implemented by the political leader.
He has been able to take control of state institutions through officials and academic bureaucrats who implement what he and the party desires and has managed regional parties fairly well to his advantage to get through legislations.
The masterstroke of a leader is such that he manages to change demographies of universities and brings in unprecedented ideological changes within these institutions. To ensure that the party ideology has a long life he has ensured, through exercises of image building and reaching out to the deepest corners of human society, that the ideology of the party makes long lasting impact.

The power of organisation and ideological commitment

What these elections have demonstrated is the power of organisation and the skill that BJP/RSS has in running and managing the organisational aspects. Despite rebellions within the party for election tickets or discontent against ministers and local leaders BJP managed to wade through what analysts called around two decades of anti-incumbency in Madhya Pradesh BJP managed to keep the party in a winnable position.
The same is not true of the Congress, as one could see the difficulties in choice of leadership it faced in Rajasthan or Karnataka. Internal contest for leadership is not necessarily a sign of democratic organisational structure. Democratic structure implies that overt desire of an individual to become leader becomes subservient to the collective decision of the organisation. How far that happens in BJP/RSS is a separate question and how democratic is its organisational structure is also questionable.
The Congress needs to have a clear ideological position on each and every issue, which should become a ground for mobilisation. While images of Rahul Gandhi in Kedarnath might offer a different, more spiritual way of engaging with the religious sites and beliefs, the chief ministerial candidates prostrating before a godman does not offer an alternative vision.
What the Congress fails to realise that playing on the turf of BJP will only make them lose the battle because they have an old, consistent ideological commitment to what they do. The Congress will have to have a chintan shivir firstly to decide what are its ideological positions on different issues and how are they different from what exists.
There are two important ideological/organisational aspects of the BJP/RSS: firstly, they are unambiguously vocal about their ideological beliefs, and secondly, they have a long-standing committed cadre base. 
Congress' seasonal political activism cannot counter BJP politics that Modi is playing 24x7
If the Congress is to compete with them it will have to compete on these two aspects, taking these two aspects to the ground, and Rahul Gandhi cannot be expected to reach out to every Block and Panchayat level Congress cadre, if any, to spell this out. Can the Congress do it is a serious question, given that it is still to shed its older organisational aspects and inter-personal relationships between cadres and leaders.
BJP has been able to rely on a power source that has been shaped for around a century: a meticulous and committed cadre base of RSS. No other political force has that kind of organisational strength. The Left had it but they have been on decline. If the Congress wants to provide a counter-narrative, it needs to move towards a cadre based organisation.
Seasonal political activism cannot counter a politics that is playing 24x7. This politics also allows for better interaction of masses with the political parties. Rahul Gandhi’s growing popularity may be used as an impetus to push through a transformation in the organisational structure and function which is alien to likes of Kamal Nath and many others.

Political battle of transforming consciousness

What does BJP do when it comes to power? It tries to shape everything in its own image. Every political formation tries to do so, otherwise it would not exist. This shaping of the world in its own image extends from the shaping of administrative machinery to the ways of thinking. 
This is precisely why RSS stresses so much on education and other forms of pedagogical methods. The Annual Reports of the organisation are a clear indication of their consistent work in different arenas. What this consistency does cannot be matched by a seasonal campaign.
The chain of schools run by the organisations, the campaigns of different kind year round topped by the curricular programme of the state and its campaigns, and the use of symbols from its ideological repertoire build a robust consciousness.
When elections arrive, this already formulated consciousness begins to work – becoming transmitters of political ideas to convince masses that the capturing state power is must in order to live a particular kind of life. The ideological expressions have evolved over a period of time. They are no longer same as they were around a 100 years back.
The emphasis of state/RSS/party on targeting the educational institutions and processes as significant tools of politics become clear when not only changes in curriculum and pedagogy become important but there is a direct participation of RSS in university seminars and training programmes and government institutions give advisory/directive to colleges and universities laced in their ideological colour.
The liberal ploy to not let ideological positions determine actions of the state is a misnomer to begin with and if they are in power in Karnataka, Himachal or Telangana they will have to project what is their alternative. Mohabbat ki Dukaan can be an appealing slogan but its constitutive contents are unknown. Till those contents are known it remains rhetorical.
None of the non-BJP State governments are very serious about the content part of their vision. They implement what centre asks them to when there is a possibility to show the world that there can be an alternative imagination of education, health and development as a whole. The same is true of the idea of social justice.
While it is being pushed through the idea of caste census, it will require parties to understand where does the OBC, SC and ST population stand vis-à-vis the issue of reservation in this neoliberal order. How would they imagine a socially just order within neoliberalism is the real challenge, otherwise not much benefit in long run or even short run will be possible.
---
*Teaches sociology at South Asian University. His recent works include "The New Republic: Populism, Power and the Trajectories of Indian Democracy" (co-edited, 2022). Views are personal

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