Home / Opinion / Online Views /  Understanding the Narendra Modi phenomenon

Last week, the Narendra Modi roadshow touched down in Tiruchirappalli. Tamil Nadu is not a state where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a political base, nor one where it is likely to have one in the future. Yet, according to a person who witnessed it, the crowd at the meeting spilled outside the ground and took over an adjoining field with no facilities. Indeed, this person added, even the state’s charismatic chief minister J. Jayalalithaa hadn’t attracted such a crowd in the city. The witness said that, interestingly, there was not a single “white-haired" person in the crowd. I got the same sense on Sunday during Modi’s election meeting in Delhi.

I draw two inferences from these: One, Modi is rapidly becoming a national phenomenon. Before Trichy, there was a similar turnout in Bhopal, and the hundreds of thousands at Delhi weren’t deterred by the rain. Second, and more importantly, Modi has transcended his party and become a personality.

He seems bigger than the BJP, and while this isn’t a cause for worry, BJP, which has always believed in party politics (its public position has always been that it is against the personality politics of the Congress) will have to ask itself how it can translate the Modi goodwill to itself.

More than six months ago, in a previous edition of Capital Calculus, I argued that the situation India finds itself in favours a Modi wave. At the time he was not even the party’s official prime ministerial candidate. The enabling context was the vacuum in governance and Indian politics; a disaffected Indian industry long used to handouts from the establishment; a restless young population frustrated by the lack of opportunities to fulfil its aspirations; and the polarization of the electorate, particularly in northern India.

Each of these has played out as a well-scripted movie would, providing the perfect launchpad for Modi. And time and again, Modi has shown us that he is not one to waste an opportunity.

Last week, Indians were dismayed by the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA’s) cynical bid to use legislation to overturn the ruling by the Supreme Court to ban convicted politicians from holding electoral office. If that were not bad enough, the abrupt flip-flop forced by the intervention of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi—another attempt by the man to present himself as part of the solution, not the problem—only reaffirmed the drift in New Delhi.

That Indian industry has lined up behind Modi is well known. Recall Ratan Tata’s reference to Modi as the “Good M", an implicit reference to the not-so-good M, Mamata Banerjee, who forced Tata’s Nano project out of West Bengal.

An acquaintance in investment banking tells me a seemingly apocryphal story about a fat cat businessman in Mumbai hosting a fund-raising dinner for Modi and raising 6 crore from a few dozen attendees. At the lower levels of industry, where government handouts from policy favours are far and few, small real estate brokers struggling against bad sentiment in their sector are lining up behind Modi, as they see in him everything that they do not see in this government—certitude, leadership, and a pro-business outlook (you have to give credit to Modi for projecting his image so successfully.)

On Sunday, Modi once again demonstrated why he is able to make this connection, especially with the young.

First, he acknowledged that the fact that 65% of India’s population is young is an asset, one to be proudly showcased to the world. Second, he played on the aspirations of the young by reminding them about UPA’s terrible record in creating jobs. And finally, he cleverly wove himself into this narrative by relating his own rags-to-riches story of rising from a boy who made a livelihood by selling tea in railway compartments to holding a high public office.

Clearly, Modi is on his way to becoming a national phenomenon. Not since Rajiv Gandhi have we seen a person capture the imagination of voters across India in this manner. But the question is whether this popularity will benefit BJP? Will voters across India vote for a Prime Minister rather than a representative on election day? Will voters in the state elections be swayed by the man? Recent opinion polls suggest that BJP is still likely to be bested by the Congress, which may win a record fourth term in Delhi, essentially an urban constituency and, therefore, one where one would expect the Modi magic to work. Still, these opinion polls were all conducted before Modi’s elevation as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.

Modi and the BJP may also be helped by other factors.

The cynical politics of the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh to attempt a reverse polarization by overtly appealing to Muslim voters—a key electoral constituency—has gone out of control.

The resulting communal fallout in western Uttar Pradesh—it has disrupted the traditional Jat-Muslim alliance—has, for the first time in decades encroached into rural India and also led to the displacement of 40,000 Muslims from their homes. Political commentators who have travelled through the state recently relate how the polarization has resulted in more support for the BJP.

In conclusion, it can be safely said that it is one thing to be popular and another to capture political office, particularly in a country as complex country as India. Will Modi prove all the naysayers wrong?

Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at

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