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On 22nd October morning, Supremo Nawaz Sharif will wake up suffering from more than jet-lag. He will feel the rust in his joints after five years of rest in London.

He faces the prospect of a gruelling election campaign stretching over the next four months, fighting for a job he would rather not have.

If he succeeds, he will assume the PM-ship for the fourth time – improving his ambitious daughter Maryam’s prospects for herself. Some suspect he would prefer to remain in London, reigning over his PML-N from a safer distance.

In 2024, both Pakistan and India will hold general elections. Ten years ago, in May 2014, PM Nawaz Sharif created history by attending the inauguration of PM-elect Narendra Modi in New Delhi. Much has happened to both since then.

In 2019, Nawaz Sharif was released from jail after a mild heart attack. His doctor claimed that the ex-leader was ‘fighting for his life’. Allowed to leave, Nawaz has spent the past four years in London, fighting for his political rehabilitation. He returns, a part-time invalid.

During that same period, in India, Narendra Modi has consolidated his position as its pre-eminently populist leader. He and his deputy Amit Shah together have honed national populism into a variant of ethnic democracy, moving it goose-steps closer to authoritarianism.

Christophe Jaffrelot’s study of Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy (2021) traces PM Modi’s rise as a pracharak in the RSS in 1972 to his election as India’s PM in 2014. Then, his BJP secured 282 seats out of 543 in the Lok Sabha. (In 1984, it had gained only 2 seats.) 

Jaffrelot writes: ‘It took a century for the RSS’s political party – the Jana Sangh and then the BJP - to garner mass support. But it took less than twenty years for Narendra Modi to ensure its success at the polls, first in Gujarat and then in India at large.’

Such success has to be earned – the hard way. During the 2018 election campaign (which lasted 8 months), ‘Modi travelled 186,411 miles to hold 475 regular rallies’.

The normally indefatigable Mrs. Indira Gandhi managed only 252 rallies spread over two months of campaigning. Travelling through rural constituencies at night, she would hold a torch to illuminate her face, so that people would see that she had been amongst them.

PM Modi harnessed 21st century technology to his electoral vahana. ‘While he sometimes spoke at three or four venues in a single day, his words – and his image – were broadcast to 100 locations at the same time. According to his website, 3D hologram projections delivered twelve speeches across 1,350 venues [.] More than 7 million people reportedly witnessed the 3D shows over 12 days at the height of the hologram campaign’. To rustic Indians, these 3D projections were magical. Modi, like the ubiquitous Lord Krishna, seemed to possess supernatural powers of replication.

Modi’s ‘digital army’ of 5,000 officers, led by a US repatriate Rajesh Jain, concentrated on 155 key urban constituencies identified as ‘digital seats’. Up to 40,000 tweets were sent every day. This relentless barrage was described as ‘multimedia carpet-bombing’. This publicity blitzkrieg cost $1 billion.

By the time of the 2018 elections, Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) initiative had constructed 92 million toilets in rural areas and 6.6 million in urban areas. Amongst those who already had toilets and bidets to match, the number of Indian $ millionaires swelled from 34,000 (2000) to 759,000 (2019). Oxfam calculated that in 2018, 10% of the richest Indians owned 77% of the nation’s wealth. [Shades of Mahub ul Haq’s 22 families in Pakistan.]

In the 2018 elections, Modi’s BJP shifted focus from social improvement to the mantra of National Security, with Pakistan as its repetitive refrain. Amit Shah (now BJP president) recruited ‘900,000 cell phone paramukh – one for each polling booth. These people were appointed not so much for collecting data as for disseminating propaganda.’  The Israeli Pegasus spy software proved especially useful. (It failed Israel against Hamas.)    

To many Indians, Modi’s self-abnegation and bhakti deserve instinctive respect. Jaffrelot attributes this to India’s traditional submission to hierarchy and acceptance of authority. The Dalit leader Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, in 1949, though warned against its misuse: ‘Bhakti in religion may be a road to salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship’.

Like Hitler in the 1930s, Modi has given his people self-respect. Like the Germans, Indians ‘are prepared to suspend their critical thinking and to readily renounce some of their freedoms’. For them, Modi’s charisma is enough. It hovers ‘above accountability’. 

Nawaz Sharif, before plunging into his election campaign, should make another trip to New Delhi. PM Modi could offer him advice on how to remove the rust.




[DAWN, 12 OCT., 2023]



12 October 2023
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