Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election campaign in Gujarat over the last fortnight saw him playing the victim, a man facing a conspiracy to engineer his downfall. Of course, playing the victim has always been Modi’s political style. It foregrounded his Gujarat Assembly election campaigns of 2002 and 2007, but was pushed into the background in 2012 as he sought to invent a new persona of Mr Development. It was mainly in this avatar that he led the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign.

It is hard to tell whether Modi subconsciously regressed into playing the role of victim over the past few weeks because of the acute pressure of winning Gujarat. Perhaps he reverted to his old persona because he thought it was his best bet to trump his rivals. In either case, Modi the victim was placed at the centre of the electoral battle and the issue of development became secondary, at least in media headlines.

To understand why Modi plays the victim occasionally, we must turn to our psychology text books. They say that all of us have amour propre, a sense of self-worth, otherwise known as narcissism – a term that is erroneously used as a pejorative. Narcissism is a dominant, even defining, trait among powerful leaders, point out Manfred FR Kets de Vries and Danny Miller in a paper titled Narcissism and Leadership: An Object Relations Perspective. Kets de Vries is a Dutch psychologist of repute and Miller is a professor of management studies and consultant to Fortune 500 companies.

“Narcissism is often the driving force behind the desire to obtain a leadership position,” they say. “Perhaps individuals with strong narcissistic personality features are more willing to undertake the arduous process of attaining a position of power.”

No need for loyalty, love

Modi has indeed gone through an arduous process to become prime minister, overcoming the hurdle of his lower middle-class background, a feat only a handful of people manage to achieve. This should have injected in him a sense of immense satisfaction. But perhaps it also inflated the narcissistic tendencies that characterise most successful people. As Kets de Vries and Miller write, “Narcissists feel they must rely on themselves rather than on others for gratification of life’s needs. They live with the assumption that they cannot reliably depend on anyone’s love or loyalty.”

It explains Modi’s tendency to centralise power, his penchant to take decisions in secrecy (of which demonetisation is an apt example), of projecting himself as the sole embodiment of the government. Few members of his cabinet can call themselves his friend. His own party sold Modi as the leader whom India can trust because he is single and will, therefore, not be corrupt because he has no children to whom he can bequeath his wealth. His lack of familial ties, of love, has been turned into a virtue.

Since narcissists refuse to depend on loyalty and love, Kets de Vries and Miller say, they “become preoccupied with establishing their adequacy, power, beauty, status, prestige, and superiority”. In a democracy, therefore, narcissistic leaders must repeatedly win elections to prove their adequacy, superiority and power.

Every election victory has a bearing on Modi’s self-definition: it reinforces his supremacy, establishes he is without equal. A defeat, therefore, becomes proof of his inadequacy. It diminishes his sense of the self. So even when he loses an election, he seeks to establish his superiority, either engineering the defection of his rival to his side or preventing him from functioning. That is what he has done to Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.

In the end, of course, defeat can only be effaced with his next triumph. No wonder then, that Modi invests so much energy and personal equity in every election he spearheads.

Modi dreads defeat – and therefore the tactic of spinning a yarn about a Pakistan-Congress conspiracy to unseat the BJP from power in Gujarat.
Modi dreads defeat – and therefore the tactic of spinning a yarn about a Pakistan-Congress conspiracy to unseat the BJP from power in Gujarat.

The dramatic route

Given that every election has the potential to threaten the integrity of his personality, the question of waging electoral battles in an ethical manner is reduced in significance. For Modi to claim that the presence of former prime minister Manmohan Singh at a dinner hosted by Mani Shankar Aiyar for a visiting Pakistani dignitary suggested a Pakistan-Congress conspiracy to dislodge the Bharatiya Janata Party from power in Gujarat was, therefore, just another tactic in the long war.

But if Modi is not the victor, he must appear to the people as the victim, a person who was tripped slyly by his opponent. It is important for him to keep alive the fiction that he wins all battles if they are fought fairly. Modi dreads defeat, of which he perhaps saw fleeting signs in Gujarat – and so spun an unethical yarn about a Pakistan-Congress conspiracy.

Kets de Vries writes in another paper, Are You a Victim of the Victim Syndrome?: “The world is a dangerous place for people with a victim mentality. They have always to be prepared for the worst, as it is full of people who are out to hurt them.”

Let alone the dinner Aiyar hosted, even the neem-coated urea his own government has introduced is projected to have risky consequences. “Don’t you think that by taking this step of introducing neem-coated urea, I have ended the business of black marketeers? Don’t you think they will avenge it?… I carry my maut [death] in mutthi [fist]…” In the same vein, Aiyar was accused of going to Pakistan to fix contract to kill him.

Kets de Vries writes, “… People with a victim mentality know how to inflame others.” It was to inflame people that Aiyar’s description of Modi as a “neech kisam ka aadmi” (a low-life kind of person) was twisted to accuse the Congress of insulting members of the lower castes. The party was projected as being anti-Gujarat because Indira Gandhi had removed Morarji Desai as finance minister in 1969, and the Congress had allegedly sidelined Sardar Patel in the post-Independence period.

Modi accused Sardar Arshad Rafiq, a relatively unknown former Pakistani Army officer, of writing a Facebook post supporting Congress leader Ahmed Patel’s candidature as Gujarat’s chief minister. Rafiq denied he had written such a post. Nevertheless, Modi demanded to know, “Why is Pakistan’s senior retired army officer exercising his brain in the Gujarat election?” It was to stoke the anger of Gujaratis against Pakistan, as was perhaps Modi’s aim when he accused Salman Nizami, a Congress activist in Kashmir, of questioning his parentage.

These examples only prove right another one of Kets de Vries’s observations: people prone to the victim syndrome are also masters of manipulation and have a penchant for high drama. Indeed, whenever Modi is under stress, he slips into playing the victim with a theatrical touch. After his policy of demonetising high-value bank notes seemed to have gone horribly wrong, he said in Goa on November 13, 2016, “I will not stop doing these things, even if you burn me alive… They may ruin me because their loot of 70 years is in trouble… My dear countrymen, I gave up everything… my home, my family… I gave up everything I had for this country.”

Kets de Vries explains the motivation behind such theatrics: “Victims’ talent for high drama draws people to them like moths to a flame. Their permanent dire state brings out the altruistic motives in others. It is hard to ignore cries of help.” In an election, how can people assist a person who is the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy? Obviously, they can do so by voting for his party.

The Hindutva angle

Modi playing the victim has another meaning in the context of Hindutva, a cultural identity offered to those who have been bruised by modernity. Modernity homogenises cultures, disrupts the old social system and dislocates individuals from the socio-cultural milieu in which they were once secure.

“There is thus bound to be a palpable grief for the values of a lost – and retrospectively idealised – world,” writes renowned psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar in The Colours of Violence, a seminal study of the 1990 riots in Hyderabad. “Cultural groups are not only a shelter for those mourning lost attachments but also vehicles for redressing narcissistic injuries, for righting what is perceived as contemporary or historical wrongs.”

Hindutva aims to build a community that mourns not just through the bonds of brotherhood, but one that seeks to recover its lost self-esteem by avenging itself against groups held responsible for inflicting narcissistic injuries on them. Hindutva blames quite a few groups for the plight of Hindus, but none more than Muslims and the Congress.

In the Hindutva laboratory of Gujarat, socio-cultural experiments in vengeance have been conducted for long. Perhaps sensing that Gujaratis were not quite so enamoured with him as they were in 2014, Modi presented himself as the victim of a Congress-Muslim-Pakistani conspiracy. He hoped that in his persecution fantasy Gujarati Hindus would perceive their own historical and contemporary victimisation – and vote for the BJP.

It is hard to tell what a BJP victory could mean to Gujaratis psychologically, but it will certainly help Modi preserve his narcissistic self, which he has conceived with utmost grandeur, laced with the belief that India is lucky to have him. For such a leader, just the fear of being rejected by the people of his own state can seem a menacing threat to his self.