From a boy selling tea at a non-descript railway station in Gujarat to help out his poor father, Narendra Modi, who is all set to become India’s Prime Minister for a second successive tenure, fought his way off the streets to become one of the country’s most popular mass leaders. You are either an admirer of Modi or his adversary. There is nothing in between. Such is the image he has carved for himself after launching his career in nationalist politics. The 68-year-old BJP leader does not shy away from publicising his humble roots and at the same time portraying himself as the uncompromising leader committed to protecting India's national security and Hindutva values, pressing its claims to be the world's rising power.
There have been strident criticism of Modi’s economic reforms and businesses still complain about the sudden demonetization in November 2016 and introduction of Goods and Services Tax in 2017 in a bid to flush out black money. But Modi stuck to his course and little mud has stuck and few dispute that Modi, ‘NaMo’ as he is known, drives India's national agenda while expertly baiting Pakistan and the opposition Congress party, especially its leader Rahul Gandhi.
Gifted with excellent communication skills, Modi regales rallies with stories of how he is ‘a son of soil’, contrasting himself with Rahul Gandhi as a ‘spoilt’ member of the Gandhi dynasty that has dominated India for much of the time since independence seven decades ago. Modi terms himself as a ‘chowkidar’ and dubs Rahul as ‘inamdar.’
Narendra Damodardas Modi is joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) at the age of eight and left home as a teenager, abandoning a marriage arranged by his family, to become an RSS activist. An assiduously hard worker, Modi rose through the ranks of the RSS and its political front the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which sent him to become chief minister of Gujarat home in 2001 at a time when the party was faced with serious infighting there.
Bolstering the Gujarat economy and espousing outspoken nationalist credentials provided the launch pad for Modi to lead the BJP into the 2014 general election despite a section of the party being opposed to his elevation as its Prime Ministerial candidate. But he led the party to its biggest landslide in parliamentary polls decimating Congress.
Modi is not without shadows in his history and chinks in his communications defences. After a train carrying Hindu pilgrims caught fire killing about 60 people in 2002, riots broke out that left at least 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, dead. Modi was accused of complicity in stirring up the riots but two courts found there was no case to answer.
Sometimes Modi's comments come back to haunt him. While campaigning in 2014 he claimed to have a 56-inch muscle man's chest to make tough decisions. His opponents and comedians still mock him as ‘Mr 56 inch’. Journalists have a difficult time as Modi has never given a press conference as prime minister and critics say his rare television interviews are carefully stage-managed.
Rahul Gandhi regularly hits out at what he calls Modi's ‘autocratic backlash’ since taking power. Modi's personalised politics will be the ‘defining’ issue of the Indian election, even his party admits, while many experts say that Modi is carrying his party through this election. ‘Take away Modi and 90 percent of the speeches of the opposition leaders would be over,’ Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had said in a newpaper interview recently.
Modi has the capability of setting the agenda of political discourse and dominating the message in an effective manner. That was the reason why he could help the BJP turn on its head the strong anti-incumbency against his government to a pro-incumbency wave.