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Six-Week Show Begins But the Charisma Has Gone

As a jaded and faded prime minister over-stretches himself, the BJP can see the election is far from being a done deal.
PM Modi in parliament, February 7. Photo: Video screengrab/@narendramodi/X.

At the beginning of the Lok Sabha election season a couple of months ago it seemed that the outcome of the 2024 outcome was a foregone conclusion. And, when the Election Commission announced the election schedule, the received wisdom was that the prolonged  time-table was designed to enable the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s ace mascot and vote-catcher, Prime Minister Narendra Modi to do what he does best: set the agenda, fine-tune the narrative, and tweak the nation’s mood in his favour.

On the eve of the first round of voting, it seems that the BJP’s  biggest  investment is turning out to be a non-paying asset. On the hustings, the prime minister is already looking jaded and faded, over-exposed, over-hyped and over-worked. A bit like Jasprit Bumrah being asked to bowl all the overs in a T20 match.

The great sociologist, Max Weber, who conceptualized the concept of “charisma,” had also introduced the idea of “routinisation of charisma.” A charismatic personality – she or he could be a saint/ religious figure, a cine celebrity, a sports person or a political actor – eventually loses their novelty and runs out of tricks that in the first place helped create an aura of inexhaustible “charisma.” A charismatic personality rises in contrast to others actors on the stage; but then the “charisma” drives the rest of the cast away, and it becomes a solo show. And, then, the audience gets too familiar with the charismatic actor’s repertoire; the dramatic pause can be anticipated, the lines become predictable, the body language all too familiar. Only those who reinvent themselves constantly get to command the stage.

Yet it cannot be overlooked that a narrower Modi cult – as distinctly different from ‘charisma’ – is still very much intact. A cult is characterized by the unquestioning faith the believers put in the unlimited authority and wisdom of the guru/the Master/the Fuhrer; for the believers of a cult, the “Bhagwan” is blessed with powers to protect the community (and humanity) from all kinds of adversities and from human follies. For the Modi cult’s believers, he can do no wrong and he has all the answers to all our problems and has what it takes to remove all obstacles on our path to national glory and greatness.

The cult, narrower and restricted, survives but the charisma has become “routinised”. After ten years on the national stage, Modi is as exciting as an old calendar on the kitchen-wall or as believable as a geriatric Amitabh Bachchan selling a concoction as an invigorating fruit drink.

And, it is not difficult to catalogue the bad shots Modi has made so far in this election season.

For the prime minister to rake up the Katchatheevu island issue was the first indication of a charismatic leader devaluing his primary asset – credibility, as he was seen willing to sell shoddy goods. No wise leader seeks to undo – that too totally out of the blue, without any provocation – settled questions of geopolitics.  For the first time as prime minister, Modi allowed himself to come across as an irresponsible leader.

Second, Modi shot himself in the foot when he chose to defend the discredited “electoral bonds” scheme – that too after the Supreme Court had categorically de-legitimised it. Suddenly, the prime minister is being seen as someone who is not willing to defer to the wisdom of the apex court, the same judicial forum that had lent its imprimatur to his pet projects – Article 370 and a Ram Mandir at Ayodhya.

Also read: Forget the Leader and His Hubris, It’s the Power of the Finger That Matters

The sub-text of the electoral bond scam is that it overnight robbed the BJP and the prime minister of that critical moral edge over others. For once, the Congress slogan of “chanda do, dhandha lo” hit the bull’s eye. The BJP’s all too evident and all too often flaunted financial clout suddenly has begun to look less than honourable. This in turn has eaten into the prime minister’s most cherished aura – of an angry medieval monk out to rid God’s kingdom of the corrupt and the immoral. In a flash, Modi’s moral capital looked vastly depleted.

As if that was not enough, he compounded these problems by arresting Arvind Kejriwal. Given the extensive disclosures of “electoral bonds” having been used by tainted entities to buy “protection” from those very agencies which were now knocking at the Delhi chief minister’s door, the arrest seemed vindictive and vengeful. Society’s sense of fairness was violated. Modi’s campaign against “corruption” no longer looks like a morally-sustainable crusade but a transactional instrument against political rivals. The Congress charge of “washing machine” has found more than a few takers.

And, all this bragging about “ab ki bar, 400 par” has created its own sense of disquiet even among some within the Modi circle of seduction. All of a sudden, the prime minister finds himself on the back-foot, having to explain that he had no intention of monkeying around with “Babasaheb’s Constitution”.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

On the other hand, the Opposition parties have not allowed themselves to be over-intimidated by the Modi propaganda juggernaut that “2024 is a done deal”. Instead, led by the Indian National Congress, the BJP’s rivals have made an issue of the promises made and not kept by Modi. His ten-year record has been subjected to close scrutiny. Every charge or allegation or assertion the prime minister and his minions make is refuted within hours if not minutes on social media. The harsh and ugly realities of everyday life in India have been made to compete with his gilded-up Potemkin Bharat.

Except in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, the Opposition parties, jointly or solo, have displayed unexpected innovation and imagination in challenging the BJP’s famed bag of tricks. In particular, there has been entrenched resistance to Modi’s preemptory demand that all regional and local identities be subservient to “national” goals and interests as defined by him.

Granted that the BJP can still be considered head and shoulders above its rivals in organisational resourcefulness, including a vast reservoir of underhanded tricks and tropes, there is a new impactful player in the arena – the much harassed and much prosecuted NGO sector. Over the last ten years, the Modi regime has virtually de-fanged this critical segment of democratic India; except those aligned with the RSS and its ecosystem, almost all NGOs have been knee-capped. An arrogant Modi regime believes that all those who have different ideas and idealism have melted into insignificance; but in this election season, democratic and progressive voices are making themselves heard in town after town, using instruments of social media. Popular discontent, resentment and anger is being mobilised against the ruling party. There is a “Tea Party” in every village. By contrast, the much-touted RSS “Swayamsevak” has become a contractor, a power-broker, and a middle-man.

The ”done-deal” strategists now find themselves making the old caste and community  calculations, just as the prime minister has reduced himself to serving the same old stale “Hindu-Muslim” dish with varieties of  “tadka”. There is a certain shabbiness to the arguments and assertions made by him day after day. His physical stamina is already over-stretched and his political message is uninspired and uninspiring. And the six-week show has only just begun.

Harish Khare is a former editor-in-chief of The Tribune

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