Losing touch: Whatever happened to Narendra Modi’s optimism?

Candidate Modi of 2014 who offered a vision of national greatness has been replaced by Prime Minister Modi who campaigns on paranoia.

In 2014, Narendra Modi ran for, and achieved, the prime ministership as the candidate of aspiration. There were many other aspects to his campaign and many factors in his victory. But aspiration was central both to how he wished to be perceived and how he actually was perceived across the country and in the Indian diaspora.

He embodied aspiration in his own life story, as the son of a backward caste chaiwalla who had never had anything handed to him and had achieved high office through drive and ingenuity; in the way he promised strong, decisive leadership; and, above all, aspiration in his vision for the country. Elect Modi and India would be a developed country by 2022; one crore new jobs would be created every year; Make in India would transform us into an East Asia-style manufacturing economy; the Ganga would be cleaned up by 2018; India would be recognised around the world as a major economic and military power.

There were aspects missing from this aspirational vision. Notably, there was little talk of the moral aspiration of rooting out caste and gender discrimination, of the idea that we could be a better society as well as a more prosperous one. And the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign benefited from plenty of tactical caste and religious polarisation. But Modi’s own rhetoric and energy were overwhelmingly positive. His core slogans – Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas and Achhe Din – spoke to a sunny, inclusive optimism.

Modi’s optimism, his sense of possibility for himself and for the country, was infectious. Newspaper columnists with no time for Hindutva pronounced it a moral imperative to vote for Modi so that India could become a great power. Young voters responded with particular enthusiasm. Modi’s principal opponent, Rahul Gandhi, is two decades his junior, but in 2014, Modi made a mockery of Gandhi’s attempts to position himself as the leader of India’s youth.

Three and a half years later, a very different Modi has been leading his party’s campaign in Gujarat. To be sure, many aspects of the BJP’s campaign are typical of state elections in general and Gujarat in particular. There was no shortage of anti-Muslim rhetoric in the Gujarat elections of 2002 and 2007. Nor is there anything new or noteworthy about the Congress’s belated attempts at “soft Hindutva”. As for ad hominem attacks and dirty tricks: the Hardik Patel “sex CD”, and fraudulent claims that Rahul Gandhi is not a Hindu and Ahmed Patel the Congress’s chief ministerial candidate are contemptible but of a piece with modern Indian electoral politics.

What is new, and striking, is the change in the prime minister himself. His optimism, his sense of embodying aspiration, and his ability to set and control the political narrative are nowhere to be seen. In 2014, the Gujarat Model of development was supposed to be the prototype for Achche Din. Now the BJP is a three-year incumbent at the Centre and a 22-year incumbent in Gujarat. Where is the robust defence of its record and the optimistic vision of what they can offer in the future?

Loss of control

It is not that Modi omits all talk of development in his speeches. But a better future – for Gujarat, India, and young people – no longer provides the narrative foundation. Instead, the prime minister is reactive, touchy, and uncertain about his own record. He established the last of these when he declared, in Gandhinagar on October 16, that the Congress had been an “equal partner” on the Goods and Services Tax; far from claiming credit for his government’s principal economic reform, he looked to share the blame.

Two repeated tropes embody Modi’s diminished optimism and loss of narrative control. His complaints about the Congress’s personal attacks are more than hypocritical; they suggest that, for the first time, Rahul Gandhi has managed to get under his skin. Modi and the BJP have pursued personal abuse as political strategy to greater effect than any of their rivals. To elevate Rahul Gandhi and the Congress in this way is not a sign of confidence. Steve Waugh’s Australian cricket team did not whine about opposition sledging.

The repeated invocation of Pakistan, above all in the allegations about the now-infamous dinner hosted by Mani Shankar Aiyar, speak to paranoia and desperation rather than the effective use of nationalist rhetoric. If, as it appears thus far, Modi is unable to substantiate his claims, he will have sacrificed one of his most important achievements as prime minister. He restored authority to the office of prime minister after 10 years of back-seat driving from Sonia Gandhi as the Congress president. A prime minister who wildly implies that his predecessor has been conspiring to commit treason, and then fails to back it up, is even less commanding than one who takes orders from his party chief.

What has caused the disappearance of Modi’s optimism? And what might it mean for our politics over the next 18 months? In part, this is simply the common story of a politician who achieves power through extravagant promises and then struggles when confronted with the challenge of incumbency. Some credit, too, should go to Rahul Gandhi and the Congress. After three years of drift, Rahul Gandhi’s coronation as the party president has given the Congress some degree of focus and energy – for now. And the appointment of Divya Spandana as head of social media has sparked a hugely successful overhaul of the party’s digital strategy, one for which the BJP was unprepared and has failed to counter.

But Modi’s central problem is one specific to him. As prime minister, he is unable to run with any confidence on his own record. For one thing, he has made limited to negligible progress on most of his aspirational promises of 2014. Make in India is little more than a slogan; the three crore jobs have not materialised; his Ganga clean-up has been as ineffectual as Rajiv Gandhi’s. And his government’s two signature economic measures – demonetisation and GST– are now seen as liabilities, as his attempt to implicate the Congress in GST shows.

This means that while Modi remains personally popular, including with young voters, he can no longer credibly be the candidate of aspiration. The Congress’s revival in Gujarat has, almost certainly, come too late to prevent the BJP rule in that state being extended for another five years. But one exit poll that predicts a BJP victory, by India Today-Axis, had a remarkable finding: in their sample, voters aged 18-25 actually prefer the Congress to the BJP. It is one poll and may have little significance. But it would have been unthinkable only three years ago. Modi cannot take young voters for granted. If he wants to win a renewed majority in 2019, he needs to convince them, and perhaps himself, that he remains the best vehicle for their aspirations.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Get ready for an 80-hour shopping marathon

Here are some tips that’ll help you take the lead.

Starting 16th July at 4:00pm, Flipkart will be hosting its Big Shopping Days sale over 3 days (till 19th July). This mega online shopping event is just what a sale should be, promising not just the best discounts but also buying options such as no cost EMIs, buyback guarantee and product exchanges. A shopping festival this big, packed with deals that you can’t get yourself to refuse, can get overwhelming. So don’t worry, we’re here to tell you why Big Shopping Days is the only sale you need, with these helpful hints and highlights.

Samsung Galaxy On Nxt (64 GB)

A host of entertainment options, latest security features and a 13 MP rear camera that has mastered light come packed in sleek metal unibody. The sale offers an almost 40% discount on the price. Moreover, there is a buyback guarantee which is part of the deal.

Original price: Rs. 17,900

Big Shopping Days price: Rs. 10,900

Samsung 32 inches HD Ready LED TV

Another blockbuster deal in the sale catalogue is this audio and visual delight. Apart from a discount of 41%, the deal promises no-cost EMIs up to 12 months.

Original price: Rs. 28,890

Big Shopping Days price: Rs. 10,900

Intel Core I3 equipped laptops

These laptops will make a thoughtful college send-off gift or any gift for that matter. Since the festive season is around the corner, you might want to make use of this sale to bring your A-game to family festivities.

Original price: Rs. 25,590

Big Shopping Days price: Rs. 21,900


If you’ve been planning a mid-year wardrobe refresh, Flipkart’s got you covered. The Big Shopping Days offer 50% to 80% discount on men’s clothing. You can pick from a host of top brands including Adidas and Wrangler.

With more sale hours, Flipkart’s Big Shopping Days sale ensures we can spend more time perusing and purchasing these deals. Apart from the above-mentioned products, you can expect up to 80% discount across categories including mobiles, appliances, electronics, fashion, beauty, home and furniture.

Features like blockbuster deals that are refreshed every 8 hours along with a price crash, rush hour deals from 4-6 PM on the starting day and first-time product discounts makes this a shopping experience that will have you exclaiming “Sale ho to aisi! (warna na ho)”

Set your reminders and mark your calendar, Flipkart’s Big Shopping Days starts 16th July, 4 PM and end on 19th July. To participate in 80 hours of shopping madness, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Flipkart and not by the Scroll editorial team.