Thanking workers of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hours after sealing an unprecedented second consecutive full term for his party, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an interesting remark: Desh ke koti, koti nagrikon ne is fakir ki jholi bhar di (The bag of an ascetic like me is overflowing with the blessings of crores of Indians).

Later setting out the three personal commandments he would adhere to in the second term, Modi added, “Every moment of mine and every fibre of my being will be dedicated to the people of India."

Given that everything he says and does is well thought through, it is very unlikely that the choice of fakir as a moniker to define him was a random claim. Especially if you consider the fact that the campaign for the 17th Lok Sabha was launched on 26 May 2014—even before the accolades dried up and the opposition overcame their stunning defeat, Modi had already swung into campaign mode.

So the obvious question is whether PM Modi is setting the stage for the 2024 showdown. Indeed, this is perfectly plausible.

The choice of fakir as the new moniker adds a new hue to brand Modi. An ascetic is an individual who subscribes to severe self-discipline and abstains from all forms of indulgence. By adopting it, Modi is once again placing himself apart from the political mainstream which he otherwise dominates; carving out a special status in the political order.

In the just concluded election, Modi had, when the opposition charges on corruption over the Rafale deal were at their peak with their slogan #chowkidarchorhai (the gatekeeper is a thief), turned the tables by adopting the moniker #mainbhichowkidar (I am a gatekeeper too).

The opposition, particularly the Congress party president Rahul Gandhi, would uncomfortably recall the political fallout of their use of this pejorative slogan. In this context imagine seeking to sully the moniker ascetic—considered sacred among all religions in the country.

Beginning 2014, when as an aspirant he taunted the two-term incumbent United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime headed by then prime minister Manmohan Singh with his claim of “chappan-inch chaati (56-inch chest)" to showcase his braveness as a challenger, Modi has worked on building his brand. And when Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar recklessly dubbed him as a “chaiwallah (or tea seller)", aspirant Modi relentlessly exploited it to accuse the Congress party of a class bias. Overnight, brand Modi acquired a populist underpinning.

In a column published in Mint on 24 May Sandeep Goyal, who is an expert in human brands, says as much. “Authoritarian, megalomaniac and communal. These are the words most commonly used by the media to describe Narendra Modi 10 years ago," he says before adding, “Today the same Modi, headed handsomely into his second term as the Prime Minister of India, is being variously described as self-made, strong, efficient, inspiring, incorruptible, sincere, credible and a committed leader. What an unbelievable transformation!"

This makeover into a hit brand, writes Goyal, was achieved through a combination of faultless execution and high marketing spends.

Contrast this with his most prominent rival, Congress president Rahul Gandhi. He too underwent a makeover in the last year. While he did bury the popular pejorative of “Pappu" coined by the BJP through some bold confrontations and well choreographed interventions in Parliament, Rahul Gandhi failed to convey the same message to Bharat—the constituency without the support of which no politician can dream of coming to power.

At the moment matters, look grim from the point of view of the opposition. According to Goyal, Modi is “unassailable" today. “He just needs to change to higher gears, from salesman to statesman."

Indeed over the weekend, Modi did precisely that. Delivering his acceptance speech at the meeting of the National Democratic Alliance, Modi shed his combative self and assumed a more statesmanlike role, making out a case for bringing the minorities—who view the BJP very sceptically—into the mainstream.

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

Read Anil Padmanabhan’s earlier columns at livemint.com/capitalcalculus.


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