Popularity is a fickle muse in politics. She doesn’t stay for long no matter how charismatic you are or how much you achieve. However, she seems to have found a permanent home with Narendra Modi. He served as Chief Minister(head of state) of Gujarat state for three terms during which time his popularity never waned. He then came to power as the Prime Minister of India. Over half a billion people voted in favor of Modi in those elections!
Certain sections of the media declared his election as the death of liberalism. Much to the chagrin of those sections of the media and to the amusement of voters like me, his popularity as Prime Minister increased over time instead of decreasing. The most significant of the polls was the Aajtak “Mood of the Nation” poll, which had declared Modi’s popularity to be around 71% right after India’s cross-border surgical strike back in September of 2016.
So, what makes Modi so popular? How has he been able to do what a lot of seasoned veteran politicians have not been able to do- win consecutive elections? What is his secret? Or is there a secret? Let us try to decode Modi and understand why he’s so popular among the urban and the rural voters alike.
The Formative Years
Modi became part of the RSS as a child. The RSS is a nationalist organization whose ideology is quite simple. It wants India to be strong and united. Since it aims to do that by providing physically sound and morally correct individuals based on a Hindu philosophy, the organization is called a Hindu nationalist organization. The RSS is usually the first civilian non-government organization to respond in times of natural calamity or distress.
It is the largest NGO in India and it is entirely self-funded by members. Modi was the “Pracharak” or organizer and propagator for the RSS. A role that required him to stay unmarried and move among the poorest of the poor. It is this experience that gave Modi a strong understanding of what the poor and the rural voters really want. It is also what sets him apart from those politicians who never even communicate with voters once elected.
He also learned a lot from the Emergency of 1975 to 1977: a satanic period when civil rights were suspended in India and anyone who stood against the federal government was quickly jailed. Families of those who were jailed were also mistreated and in some cases tortured. Modi went into hiding during that period and helped the families of the jailed political leaders, activists, and social workers. This expanded Modi’s network and gave him the kind of real life experience that few others had because even his contemporaries were in jail while he traveled the country in disguise as a Sikh.
Lastly, when Modi was asked by the RSS to join a political party called the BJP(Bhartiya Janata Party), he reluctantly joined in 1985. He then spent the next fifteen years working as a political worker never demanding anything in return. In 2001, when his home state was struck by a massive earthquake and the then chief minister was unable to manage the crisis, Modi was asked to step in as Chief Minister. Here was a man who had never even run for municipal elections, who was now thrust into a major leadership position. This was done because Modi had decades of organizational and disaster management experience.
He was able to handle the situation well. However, in February 2002, when a train bogie full of Hindu pilgrims, women, and children was torched by Muslim youth and riots broke out, Modi was caught off guard. Inexperienced, Modi tried to handle things using his own state police who were incapable of handling massive riots. After three days of trying to handle the situation, Modi called in the army and the federal riot police. But, by then over a thousand people had been killed, most of them Muslim.
It's important to note that riots in Gujarat were a regular phenomenon. So, the undercurrent of communal tension always existed and it would regularly spill over into the streets. The riots of 2002 were not the first riots. But, Modi made sure that they were the last! Since the media squarely blamed him for mishandling the riots, he actually became extremely careful about how he administered and handled situations. He was tried and investigated multiple times by a vengeful federal government until finally, the Supreme court declared him innocent.
Once Modi understood how to balance a variety of factors, he focused on developing his state. And within years, he was able to attract investment and turn his state into one of the most prosperous regions in the world. He termed his development model the “Gujarat Model”. No doubt his popularity stemmed from the elevation of the people of his state. Unlike previous politicians who would either promise something outlandish and never deliver or who would play divisive politics just to come to power, Modi did only what was good for the development of his state.
In a way, his experience as the Chief Minister of Gujarat completed his learning journey. He had started as a volunteer and then he became an organizer for a nationalist organization. He learned about the problems of the common man, the poor, and the rural population. He contemplated solutions. He worked as a political worker, understanding how things move forward in a multiparty system. And then he worked as the Chief Minister, which trained him for the role of an administrator and leader.
The Reasons for Popularity
Direct Communication: Having understood how Modi became the leader that he is today, we can now understand why he is so popular. The experiences of the Gujarat riots taught him how to handle misinformation and rumors. Modi doesn’t rely on conventional media to interpret his decisions, he communicates directly with the people. He has a website where people can complain or provide suggestions.
He has a radio program where he is able to communicate why he took certain decisions and where he can call people to action. And on occasions, he addresses concerns on the television or the internet. In short, Modi has successfully used technology to establish a two-way communication system that helps him stay in touch with the people. This is a major reason why he is so popular.
Transparency and Honesty: Another reason why Modi is extremely popular is because he has a clean record as a politician. Considering that he has been in the public eye for decades, Modi doesn’t even have a single charge of corruption against him. Combine that with his impeccable record as a Chief Minister and few people can then doubt his motives or character.
India went through a sea change when the people took to the streets demanding an honest leadership after a number of multi-billion dollar scams came to light during the last regime. Modi was able to provide that honest leadership and the people accepted him as the leader. Even today, when he takes tough decisions and asks people to co-operate, people do so with pride because the motive is quite clear. His transparent motives make him popular.
Problem Solver: Finally, Modi studied innumerable solutions to various problems while he was in the RSS and later while he was working as a political worker. As a popular reporter said, Modi used to live in a single room which had books on one side and a tea kettle on the other because he loves to drink the concoction. He also had a laptop and a deep interest in learning. Essentially, Modi taught himself continuously, studied various problems and their solutions.
This kind of a continuous study has given Modi a mental repertoire of solutions that few other people have in their minds. Most politicians are way too involved in politicking to actually contemplate on important issues. Modi is not that kind of a politician. This is why when he proposes a solution, it doesn’t seem to be earth shattering, but when implemented it solves 90% of the problem. His ability to come up with such minuscule solutions to major problems of healthcare, poverty, employment and education differentiate him from others.
However, the popularity doesn’t stem from the solutions, but how he implements those solutions. Modi makes each solution a popular solution! He involves the masses and tries to create a mass movement. This is actually what makes him popular even when he does something that political pundits deem as unpopular. People feel involved as if they’re contributing in the act of nation building. To understand what I mean, let me provide a few simple examples:
Energy: So, Modi proposed that all the people who are middle class and above, should let go of any subsidies that they enjoy on cooking gas. He said that if the prosperous let go off subsidies, the very poor will be able to get cooking gas for free. His call-to-action was answered by over 10 million people and because of that thousands of poor households were able to cook using modern methods instead of using coal or wood burned systems.
Banking and Insurance: Modi provided three extremely low-cost solutions for insurance and pension to the poor. However, a lot of the poor people did not have bank accounts. Modi asked common people to bring anyone who they saw as poor to the banks and help them open accounts. He even requested the bank officials. Within a year, over 100 million new bank accounts had been opened. The poor people deposited money in their accounts and in effect self-funded the insurance system that was then able to provide the needy with a much-needed safety net.
Healthcare: Finally, Modi requested Doctors in the private sector to donate a single day to treating pregnant women at the government hospitals. It seemed an unlikely scenario, after all, why would well-paid doctors leave their work for an unpaid workday? But, the Doctors did take up that task with extreme vigor. The actual goal was to ensure underprivileged women successfully deliver children and infant mortality rate goes down. Doctors at government hospitals were heavily burdened with the task, but by creating a mass movement of private doctors, Modi was able to provide quality healthcare to women who would otherwise have gone untreated.
This approach of turning simple solutions into mass movements makes Modi a popular leader. Every time people answer his call to action, they become his admirers as well as his unofficial ambassadors of change. This creates a system of word of mouth that is unparalleled. I would be remiss if I don’t mention that in Gujarat, Modi had developed his own eyes and ears. He did not rely as much on his party cadre as he did on the common people to check corruption, to provide feedback, and to implement policies. He is only repeating that formula but on a larger scale.
Modi is a once in a lifetime politician. Even his most persistent adversaries begrudgingly admire his ability to maintain his popularity. His tough decisions are hard to understand at first because they seem so minuscule. However, the impact of those decisions is usually massive and visible. This combined with his honest and transparent approach make him a massively popular leader. It is only hoped that the muse of popularity will stay a bit longer with him, so that he may elevate the last hundred million people out of poverty and restore India to her rightful place in the world.