What works for Modi in polls: ‘vikas’ or Islamic terrorism? An analysis of his 2014 campaign holds definitive clues

The Algebra of Warfare-Welfare
A Long View of India’s 2014 Election
Book Excerpt 

[Excerpted from Manisha Sethi’s essay ‘Modi and the spectre of terrorism: Crafting the Hindutva icon’]

Strong and charismatic leaders—from Nehru, to Indira Gandhi, to BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee have always dominated post-Independence electoral politics and campaigns. The BJP’s catchline, ‘Abki baar Modi Sarkaar’ (this time, Modi government), for the 2014 general elections was hardly novel or different from Congress’ ‘Jab Tak Suraj Chand Rahega, Indira Tera Naam Rahega’ (Indira shall live on, till the end of eternity) or even the BJP’s ‘Ab ki baari Atal Bihari’ (This time it is the turn of Atal Bihari). And yet, the rise of television news, social media, and new technologies, and the effective harnessing of these by Modi’s election team—for example, all of Modi’s election speeches were telecast live through a feed provided by the party and the use of three-dimensional (3D) hologram, which allowed Modi to ‘magically’ address multiple rallies simultaneously, a first for election campaigning anywhere in the world (Telegraph, 2 May 2014)—turned the 2014 elections into more quasi-presidential than ever.

The 2014 general elections—analysts and commentators told us during and after the campaign were primarily about ‘development’ … However, beneath and alongside the development talk was a deliberate and unrelenting invocation of ‘vote banks’, biryani,1‘PM Invites Sharif and Modi Slams “Chicken Biryani” Politics’, 13 May. Available at http://www.ndtv.com/video/news/news/pm-invites-nawaz-sharif-narendra-mod... last accessed on 5 January 2016. Pakistan, pink revolution—standard code words, all for elliptically raising the issue of ‘Islamic terrorism’. It was also directly referred to in speeches by Modi as well as by others. It is to be noted that the general elections were not taking place against the backdrop of any major or spectacular violent event, so the emotional register that the campaign around terrorism deployed was different from merely the fear appeal. Appeals about terrorism were part of the larger politico-ideological constellation that comprised of militarized, muscular nationalism embodied by Modi, as well as ideas about citizenship and exclusion.

The issue of beheading of an Indian soldier by Pakistani combatants in January 2013, when the election season was heating up, enabled the BJP to excoriate the UPA’s ‘weak’ national security policy, especially its defence minister, A.K. Antony. The first public address by Modi, in a careful choice of symbolic posturing, after the formal announcement of his nomination as the PM candidate was at a rally of ex-servicemen in Haryana, where he touched upon his themes of national security, Pakistan, and terrorism.

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The blasts at Modi’s Gandhi Maidan rally at Patna (27 October 2013)—and at the Bodh Gaya temple before that—provided fodder to Modi and his campaign team to assert how ‘vote-bank’ politics had turned the pseudo-secularists effete and pusillanimous, and, in fact, hand in glove with the terrorists. Modi alone could be counted upon to deal with terrorism. In his Bodh Gaya speech (27 March 2014), he said:

On this land, which gave the world the message of peace, which lit the lamp of mercy and compassion, the enemies of our country chose this land to carry out terrorist attacks. They shed blood on this land. But brothers and sisters, the government here [of Bihar] is not at all worried about this. All that worries them is that their vote bank should not be threatened. Let the bombs explode, let people die, let terrorism spread its tentacles—I should retain my power. These people have ruined Bihar. They have also ruined the country. You tell me, brothers and sisters, should not terrorism be ended in this country? Should not terrorists be punished? Should not we free our country of the scourge of terrorism? Can those sitting in Delhi attain this? Can those sitting in Patna do this? Who can do this? Who can do this? Who can do this?2‘Full Video of Rally at Gaya (Bihar)’, 27 March. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzvfM1BsAwg, last accessed on 20 May 2016.

The crowds exulted: ‘Modi’.

Modi constantly projected other parties and leaders as hand in glove with the enemy, that is, Pakistan. In many cases, he hinted that they suffered from feeble loyalty because of their non-Hindu religious affiliation. In his Jammu rally (26 March 2014), playing upon words, he said Pakistan had found reliable friends in three ‘AKs’: the first was the AK-47 gun; the second was A.K. Antony, the then defence minister; and the third was AK 49, alluding to Arvind Kejriwal whose government in Delhi lasted 49 days and who was contesting against him in the Lok Sabha elections on the Varanasi seat. Modi alleged that Kashmir was missing from the map of India displayed on the website of Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).3‘Full Video of Rally at Jammu’, 26 March. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kP1z8tf4MhU, last accessed on 20 May 2016.

Having dispensed with his opponents thus, he tweeted a photograph of himself atop a horse with the caption ‘Jai Mata di’ (Glory to the mother goddess), again making the link between religion and nationalism. While it was easy for Modi to gesture towards A.K. Antony’s alleged Pakistan love, Kejriwal, a caste Hindu, presented a different problem. Nonetheless, Modi’s local supporters, taking a cue from Modi’s AK 49 speech, circulated images of Kejriwal morphed as Osama bin Laden (see below).


Modi’s speech at Bodh Gaya (given earlier) also highlighted a communication strategy deployed by Modi’s campaign, that is, to create a seamless link between terrorism and other issues. In Gaya, he linked it to ‘rozi roti’, that is, issues of livelihood and survival, by reminding the voters that an attack on the famous pilgrimage site would ruin the tourist trade and rob the locals of the means of employment.

Again, in Punjab, he forced drug menace—the single most important poll issue—into the terrorism frame by calling it narco-terrorism. ‘The people who cannot defeat us in wars, those who cannot destroy us by the bombs and bullets of terrorists, those who fail to break our country internally, such inimical forces have now taken to new route, which is very dangerous, and that is narco-terrorism,’ he said at an election rally at Gurdaspur (Indian Express 2014c).

Similarly, Modi’s campaign attempted to weld together corruption—an issue already in popular currency through the protracted anti-corruption movement and its domination in the media—and terrorism when he mocked that Indian Mujahideen (IM) and the CBI would fight the elections on behalf of the Congress.4Girri, Maheish. 2013. ‘Vote Bank Politics Assumes a Jehadi Avataar’. IBTL, 14 November. Available at http://www.ibtl.in/column/1394/vote-bank-politics-assumes-a-jehadi-avataar/, last accessed on 5 January 2016.

For the first time perhaps, a political party put up election posters at the Indo-Pak border at Wagah. The BJP put up posters with the tag line: ‘Dehshat ko denge jad se ujaad, ab ki baar Modi sarkaar’ (We will root out terrorism; this time Modi government), with Modi’s finger raised in imaginary warning to the neighbours.5‘Modi Carries Warning to Pak Border’, 29 April. Available at http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/modi-carries-warning..., last accessed on 10 January 2016.

He himself boasted in his Silchar rally: ‘The whole of Assam is disturbed because of the Bangladeshis. And on the other hand, the whole of Pakistan is disturbed because of me.’6‘Full Video of Rally at Silchar’, 22 February. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=973fB6fD1Bo , last accessed on 20 May 2016.

Modi gave interviews to news channels detailing his plans to bring back the underworld lord Dawood Ibrahim from Pakistan, which so far—he was at pains to emphasize—other governments had failed to do. Modi’s singling out of Dawood Ibrahim amongst the other underworld figures—say, Chota Rajan, once Ibrahim’s trusted lieutenant before he branched off on his own and the two became sworn enemies—is not difficult to understand. Ibrahim, a Muslim, is said to have funded the serial blasts in Mumbai in 1990 and has been allegedly given refuge in Pakistan. Rajan, on the other hand, is projected as inhabiting ‘nationalist underworld’. Thus, discussions around Ibrahim travel comfortably between the frames of crime and terrorism.

His interviews became opportunities for further programming spin-offs, and this brief answer morphed into Modi’s ‘Operation D’ in the newsrooms, adding further to the persona of the omnipotent leader. One show on a news channel, known for its proximity to Modi and BJP, relayed how Dawood Ibrahim was reacting to Modi’s forceful enunciation of ‘Operation D’. Continuously, the anchor told the audience that Dawood, and indeed the entire underworld ‘from Karachi to Dubai’, was shaking in its boots at the impending victory of Modi in the elections. It claimed that Dawood had set up a media-monitoring cell to track the speeches of Narendra Modi because Modi had vowed to strike a deathly blow to Dawood’s dirty business. The channel was convinced that the fate of Osama bin Laden awaited Dawood under Modi’s coming reign: ‘Dawood is watching Modi’s interview repeatedly, Dawood is trembling with fear at Modi’s determination and intent, and, Dawood is glued to Zee News’.7‘Will Nab Dawood Ibrahim When I Come to Power: Narendra Modi’, 26 April. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bMsBO3zdsbY, last accessed on 22 May 2016.

In another studio interview, asked how he would have responded to the 26/11 crisis were he in charge, Modi had this answer:

First, I would have done what I did in Gujarat. It wouldn’t have taken any time for me to do that. (Applause)
I say it even today, Pakistan should be responded to in its own language. What is this business of writing love letters that has been going on. This should be stopped immediately. (Applause)8‘Modi and Rajat Sharma in Aap Ki Adalat’. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vJT42Ng520, last accessed on 10 January 2016.

Modi was able to skilfully establish the outgoing UPA government—indeed, all the secular parties—as comprising impotent, spineless sissies, and himself as a strong, decisive leader devoted to the security of the motherland, who was striking fear in the hearts of Pakistan, terrorists, and anti-national gangsters.

However, Modi’s decisiveness, strength, and capacity derived from the fact that, unlike his opponents, he was unencumbered by the demands of secularism. Even the names of his rallies had the resonance of drumbeats in a holy war: the rallies in Uttar Pradesh (UP) were called ‘Vijay Shankhnad’ (blowing of conch shells to announce victory).

Not only did he represent the Hindu nation and would undertake everything to defend it, he claimed to represent Hindus everywhere—a transnational Hindu community, whose homeland was India.

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