An Election in 1987 and Decoding the Modi Strategy of Winning

Everybody now recognises that the 2014 election marked the most decisive shift in the history of Indian politics. This was obvious from the nature of the mandate for Narendra bhai and the party: the BJP became the first party in thirty years to get a majority on its own, and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance ended up with a two-thirds majority. Since 1984, no party had won an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. During the general elections between 1951-52 and 1984, parties and Prime Ministers that had won majorities had done so on the basis of goodwill generated during the freedom movement, family legacy, anger against the incumbent government (1977), a mix of fear and sympathy (1984), with dollops of appeasement, sectional prejudice, empty sloganeering (‘Garibi hatao’, 1971) and vote bank mobilisation. There had been no mandate for hope — and no mandate that was simply a reward for tested performance.

For the twenty-five years between 1989 and 2014, India had been governed by coalitions. Coalitions by their very nature are a compromise. They are a compromise of political interests and a compromise of policy outcomes. Fatalism had set in among ordinary citizens. They too had come to compromise with aspirations — whether for themselves and their families, or for the India of their dreams. There was a feeling that policy paralysis, administrative confusion, quarrelling ministers and blackmailing allies, corruption, insecurity and vulnerability to terrorism, and weak and indecisive Prime Ministers — who acted more as managers than leaders — were built into the coalition system. These had become a permanent curse on Indian democracy.

A low-level equilibrium of expectations had set in. India had taught itself not to think big and think ambitious. The ten years between 2004 and 2014 represented the pinnacle (perhaps ‘nadir’ is a more appropriate word) of this national listlessness and despondency. Popular morale was low, India’s people were dejected. It was against this backdrop that Narendra Modi emerged as a compelling all-India candidate for prime minister. He took the BJP into new areas, constituencies and social groups. More than that, he ignited hope.

How did Modi become so popular and well-known across the country, and in such a short period? Was it the result of one blockbuster election campaign? Or was it because of a message taken to every street, every galli and every mohalla by not just the BJP’s untiring workers, but also by millions of non-political volunteers? Or was it due to the idealistic men and women and young people who came to believe in Modi? Or did it happen with the aid of the force multiplier of technology? These were the mediums, but what was even more magnetic and forceful was the substance of the Modi message. That message itself had been written earlier, in the years of perseverance and striving, and of economic and social attainment in Gujarat.

I first met Narendra bhai in Ahmedabad in 1987. He had recently been assigned to the BJP Gujarat state unit as General Secretary (Organisation). The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation elections had just been announced. The context of this election needs to be appreciated. The Congress was the dominant party in Gujarat and across the country. It had won massive mandates in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in 1984 and 1985. The BJP, as a political and electoral force, was at the foot of a mountain and had a long climb ahead. With about a dozen seats in the outgoing Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, our party was hardly in the reckoning.

After being given charge of the election, Narendra bhai taught us to aim high and plan methodically. In many ways, he helped us re-think and re-imagine elections and electioneering. As secretary of the BJP city unit in Ahmedabad, I listened and observed him from close quarters and then began implementing what he told us. The basic premise of the Modi strategy was simple: mobilise and optimise the strengths and capacities of the party and the Sangh network for the election. The outcome was stunning. The BJP won a majority of municipal seats as well as the Mayor’s office.

Now there was no holding back. In 1988, a state-wide membership drive was launched. What would have otherwise been a routine event was transformed by Modi into a ‘Sangathan Parva’ (organization festival). He was clear that he wanted it to be a ‘festival’ owned and energised by the people and their mass participation, and not a sterile party function by and for party functionaries. He instructed that the enrolment of members would be numbered and recorded in registers. The registers would be available at the tehsil and zilla level for random checks and audits.

Like many others, I was assigned districts that I would have to visit to verify the registers and names listed. I accompanied Narendra bhai on two long tours of the state. His pace of work, acuity of observation and eye for detail were mesmerising. I absorbed all that I could. One piece of advice particularly stayed with me. Narendra bhai told us every village was likely to have had two major candidates in the preceding sarpanch election. The winner would invariably be from the Congress or the Janata Dal, the two leading parties in Gujarat at the time. The loser would be sidelined and forgotten. Modi asked us to target the runner-up as part of the party membership drive.

The rationale was razor sharp. The loser in the sarpanch contest, he said, would have 30-40 per cent of the vote. This was not enough to win, but still estimable. Modi asked us to approach all such persons and invite them into the BJP with dignity and after an honest conversation about our party’s positions and philosophies. If the match worked, it added a sizeable number of voters, at the village level, to our existing core. It also gave us a notable micro-level leader of some influence. This is how Modi built the party organisation in Gujarat, being clear that the expansion of the party and its electoral competitiveness had to go together. Governance would be the third angle, and in 2001 Modi was given the chance to complete the triangle, of course while retaining the BJP’s ideological distinctiveness.

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In his thirteen years as Chief Minister, Narendra Modi transformed Gujarat. From an early-stage industrial and commodities economy, the state evolved into a manufacturing and services powerhouse. He converted handicaps into opportunities. Piped water reached every home and technology assisted soil health cards enabled small farmers. A dairy revolution in tribal areas and a re-imagining of Kutch — which rose from the debris of the earthquake to become a modern industrial economy — changed lives and livelihoods in the state.

From seismic-appropriate housing to twenty-first century infrastructure, the Modi momentum was unstoppable. I have provided only a snapshot of Narendra bhai’s chief ministerial years. Other chapters in this book discuss and describe the many achievements in much greater detail. Beyond individual projects and statistics, what Modi brought to Gujarat was a new scripture of public service, and a new paradigm of governance. He was undeterred by the widely-held perception that ‘anti-incumbency’ and voting out governments was an instinctive and unthinking habit in Indian electoral life. He had faith in the sense and sensibility of voters. He trusted them to tell right from wrong; and good, long-term intent from short-term gimmickry. Many of his programmes in Gujarat — the bringing of the Narmada’s waters from south Gujarat to Saurashtra, for instance — were conceptualised with a long view. Their gestation period ran into more than one electoral cycle. Modi worked for not just the next election, but the Gujarat of the next decade and next generation. Expectedly the BJP too became the political vehicle of Gujarat’s development and aspirations for the next decade and the next generation.

Modi’s reasoning and his very approach required constant and direct communication. He was not shackled by the Secretariat in Gandhinagar. Week after week, he travelled up and down the state. He conveyed the benefits of government programmes to different audiences and stakeholders, to varied people and communities. He encouraged the BJP to do likewise — talk to people rather than speak just to the media.

He used the demonstration effect with finesse. He offered evidence of how a project was helping some populations and sub-regions to give an idea of what would happen to other sub-regions and populations as the programme was taken to its logical conclusion. At election time, he spelt out not just fresh promises, but a report card: of what he had delivered against what he had promised five years earlier.

Modi is not the type of politician who forgets his party’s manifesto. He has an emotional attachment with the party that is rare and touching. More than once — most memorably in his speech at the Parliament House in May 2014 — he has said that he looks upon the party as a ‘Mother’. The BJP is the Mother that has nurtured him and given him his essential identity. As such, the party’s manifesto is to him his Mother’s word. It is sacred to him, and he is responsible for honouring it.

As Modi put such sentiments into earnest action, Gujaratis experienced a new political and public service culture. No longer did their Chief Minister speak or think in terms of caste coalitions and acronyms; he spoke and thought for all the people of Gujarat, for every Gujarati. Modi’s programmes were universal in their desirability, design and delivery; they touched every family. Every part of the state — irrespective of its voting history and caste or community algebra — felt the firm and yet gentle hand of Modi sarkar.

This culture is Narendra Modi’s great legacy in Gujarat. It is no surprise then that the state has not turned its back on the BJP since the mid-1990s. The BJP unit’s identification with Gujarati society and its hopes and dreams is absolute. This is exactly the Gujarat model that was scaled up to all of the country after 2014. As the election that year approached, the discrepancy between the two models — the Gujarat model and the coalition-Congress model — became too apparent to ignore. The breathtaking pace of development in Gujarat had coincided with the floundering and failures of the UPA government in Delhi. India woke up to the Modi proposition.

This excerpt from Modi@20: Dreams Meet Delivery edited and compiled by Bluekraft Digital Foundation has been published with the permission of Rupa Publications

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