Big Chief, Little Country

Narendra Modi’s outsized image comes at the cost of a shrinking democracy

A cut-out image of Narendra Modi on a house in Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, in December 2016. The public has been lulled into believing that all good comes from Modi, and all that goes wrong is only because he cannot look after everything. DHIRAJ SINGH/BLOOMBERG/GETTY IMAGES
27 December, 2022

The Bharatiya Janata Party foregrounded the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the recent Gujarat assembly election and swept aside the opposition. It fought the Delhi municipal election in his name and came close to winning. The oversized image of Modi has become a political free pass for the party, so much so that its campaigns often succeed in glossing over failures of governance.

This image is not, however, permanently established in the public mind. It needs to be constantly nourished. Modi’s political genius lies in his ability to find ever new ways to do so. Even in a state where elections are not due anytime soon, the first image any visitor is likely to encounter is of Modi beaming down from posters celebrating India’s leadership of the G20 summit, an intergovernmental forum. India heading the G20 is not a real achievement—it is a routine opportunity that falls to each country by turn. But that fact is irrelevant when the only political reality that exists in the country is the one that reaches the people.

This control of reality has been decades in the making. It began in 2002, with the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat. Till that point, Modi was a pracharak—full-time worker—of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, seconded to the BJP, who was willing to run from television studio to studio in the hope that someone would have him on. In the tumult of hate and violence, he constructed himself as a leader who would stand up for Hindus.

When I travelled to Gujarat a decade later, as Modi campaigned for a third term as chief minister, I found his oversized image, now so familiar to everyone, on display everywhere. Owing to his immense popularity after the violence, all opposition—institutional and political—had been set aside in the state. The media was a mouthpiece of the government. In a piece for the magazine Open, I wrote,