Politics is, above all, a battle of narratives, and Narendra Modi has always been a master narrative-builder. The notion of the "Gujarat Model", for example, was created out of almost nothing and swept him into power in 2014.
But I have to wonder about the latest attempt to reclaim the narrative in this election campaign - the "Main Bhi Chowkidar" faux-movement that the Prime Minister kicked off on Saturday, most visibly by changing his Twitter handle to Chowkidar Narendra Modi. Now we have the dubious pleasure of discovering that every union minister and also every noxious right-wing troll has added "Chowkidar" to their Twitter handle, making for a truly ridiculous timeline - if, that is, you are foolish enough to follow many of them.
Nobody can say that Rahul Gandhi is a clever politician, but this is the second time that he has forced the far more politically accomplished Prime Minister on the rhetorical back foot. The "suit-boot ki sarkar" taunt early on the government's tenure ensured that it had to almost completely restructure its economic messaging, and start presenting Modi as a pro-poor welfarist as opposed to the pro-business moderniser it had earlier projected. For years afterwards, whenever you asked a senior BJP official or minister about why economic reform was slow, they would snap back something about having to deal with the fallout of the "suit-boot" tag.
And now there is the whole "Chowkidar Chor Hai" slogan that Gandhi seems to have effectively popularised. If you watch his speeches on YouTube - where they are, much to my surprise, getting numbers that are not too distant from the Prime Minister's - the call-and-response nature of the "Chowkidar Chor Hai" slogan is usually the highlight.
There is, of course, a purpose to this slogan. Modi was elected on the assumption that he would be better than his predecessors on multiple fronts: he would be a better administrator, more honest, and more Hindu. The dismal state of the economy and the shortage of jobs makes it clear that he is not, in fact, a better administrator. The Congress has sneakily sought to "repair" its secular image as well - I mean, how else are you going to explain hoardings calling Priyanka Gandhi "Ganga ki beti" just because she's taking a boat ride down the river - and therefore, that aspect is also no longer a walkover for Modi. So we're left with the honesty part, which is where the various accusations surrounding the Rafale fighter jet deal come in.
You wouldn't have expected it, but the Rafale accusations seem to have rattled the Prime Minister. I continue to seriously doubt there was actual wrong-doing, but there seems to be no question that a decision was taken by the Prime Minister himself to recast the Rafale deal - and there are legitimate queries to be made as to why. Modi knows this as well - which is why he made the rare rhetorical mis-step of, in a speech shortly after the Pakistani counter-strike to India's attack on Balakot, saying that things would have been "different" had we been allowed to buy the Rafale. It is all very well to argue that the voter in Begusarai or Bulandshahr is not interested in the Rafale deal. That is the stupidest possible view of politics. They may not be interested in the facts of whether the competing Eurofighter should have been considered, whether India-specific additions to the jets were properly negotiated, and so on. But they are certainly interested in whether the Prime Minister is, in fact, as above-board a custodian of the national exchequer as he has always claimed.
Modi's little video in which he insisted he was "standing firm" and then his appeal for solidarity arguing that "everyone who is fighting corruption, dirt and social evils is a chowkidar" is, in that context, clearly an attempt to recapture the narrative. He may not be "feeling a little guilty", as Rahul Gandhi alleged in a response, but what are we to make of the fact that he feels the narrative needs recapturing?
It is generally agreed that, at this point in the campaign, Modi and the BJP have recovered much of the ground that that they had lost over the past year or so. The stand-off with Pakistan helped changed the subject away from jobs and economic under-performance back to national security, where the BJP has traditionally had an advantage. But perhaps we have been too hasty in assuming this means that Modi will romp home again, if with fewer seats this time. The very choice he made in trying to appropriate the "Chowkidar" meme suggests that it had made deeper inroads than many metropolitan pundits thought it would. The question is whether this appropriation through "Main Bhi Chowkidar" will work. Perhaps it will - Modi is at his best when he seeks to claim the moral high ground and to remind people that he is not from a privileged background. But it is possible also that he has diluted that appeal this time by seeking to bring in every BJP fellow-traveller as well. Are neutral voices on social media adding "Chowkidar" to their name the way that people from all sides signed on to the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) campaign? Or is only the most die-hard BJP supporters who are doing so - many of whom will have already been seen as abusive and unpleasant? Is it wise for the Prime Minister to so closely align himself with that crowd of people, who serve their purpose as a way of inspiring the base but can hardly be seen as instruments for converting those who are wavering? Modi has had great success in inspiring social movements in the past. But his attempt to turn a forward defensive stroke against the "Chowkidar" yorker into a heave towards the midwicket boundary might lead to him getting caught in the deep.
(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)
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