‘Vishwas Ki Dor’: How Women Shaped Gender Bender Modi’s Unprecedented Victory in 2019
The Modi phenomenon at the macro level is accompanied by another one at the ground level: the increased and impassioned participation of women in Indian democracy and political discourse.
The notions of patriarchy and gender that work for Modi’s critics and haters are unlikely to work for women who support him, and it has shown in his reelection in 2019.
Signs of their silent weaponry were strewn all over. Words of their political wisdom, when they spoke loud and clear on why they support Narendra Modi, were heard by those who had ears to the ground. Women, in 2019, have played a defining role in giving the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a tally-rattling 303, its own, and National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the enormous 353. It has revealed a continuing thread of trust existing between Modi and his voters, between voters and voters, between women voters and Modi, that finally won it.
Cut to a press interaction in Rajasthan on 23 May. Vasundhara Raje, who was compelled to exit from Rajasthan’s chapter of power after the “teri khair nahin” season, reappeared to thank voters of the state while celebrating the mandate that ruptured “Modi tujhse bair nahin” mood in bigger volumes and appallingly huge margins. It was an NDA sweep in Rajasthan. Raje’s face beamed the resulting happiness.
The weight on Smriti Irani’s shoulders was a cruel burden of sorrow. It was too hard to bear. She kept a brave face. Her eyelids, heavy with anger and sadness, stood out in her fixed gaze towards the path, as she walked, sharing the burden of an arthi with three men.
Barely three days after continuous victory celebrations resulting from her historic win in Amethi over Rahul Gandhi in the dynasty’s bastion, Surendra Singh, Irani’s trusted lieutenant in her campaign from Barolia village was murdered in his house. It happened hours after people from BJP’s local unit took out a victory procession.
Irani’s symbolic gesture displayed her political grit, and her understanding of gender roles in deeper dharmic contexts. Carrying Singh’s arthi on her shoulder, Irani hasn’t broken any norm. She has only expanded the meaning and emotional base of a family. Irani’s gesture was an unusual one for women in Indian politics.
She was gearing to bear the weight of loss and responsibility towards a man, who is considered instrumental in her bitter battle against the Gandhi scion, and her eventual win. She appeared in white — also the colour of mourning.
Irani vowed to get Singh justice. Even in the fresh hours of victory, women in Modi’s team remain on emotional vigil. They have to pull out word weaponry to show the glistening edge of attack even in mourning. Such is the clockwork of gender dynamics in the political phenomenon triggered by Modi’s entry in Parliament.
Political theatre has little for script complacency. In 2019, women — in whispers or volume, have become active participants of Modi’s script. Being audience to Modi’s journey is a rigorous experience for women who make his challenges and battles their own — whether by fighting an election, or voting in one, whether by being a woman candidate whipping up a 50 per cent vote share for BJP, or by being a woman supporter contributing to that vote share.
On 25 May, two days after BJP-led NDA stormed back into power stunning pollsters and exit poll cynics, Modi addressed the 353 NDA members in a 75-minute speech at the Central Hall of Parliament. In this speech, undoubtedly his most spectacular since 2013, Modi described “maatrishakti” (woman power) as “raksha kavach” (protective armour).
The strong thread of trust running between Modi and his voters, between his voters and voters that I have witnessed on ground, showed hour after hour between 8 am and 2 pm on 23 May. It was reaffirmed by Modi himself at the Central Hall, where he mentioned that there is a “vishwas ki dor” (thread of trust).
The Central Hall speech also marked a beginning of Modi’s second adhyaay at the power centre. He reaffirmed his faith in the women of the electorate. “Is baar mahilaaon ne baraabri kar dee hai,” he said, adding that they will exceed men in participation “agli baar” (2024).
It is a bit early to assign hopes to his tasks for 2019-2024, but his words indicated that his focus on women in policy and programmes that directly or indirectly impact them, would continue. It may even arrive in stronger measures and benefits. His stress on “baraabri” indicated that he had intended to place an equilibrium through his work graph to secure the “raksha kavach” of “maatrishakti”.
Maatrishakti has reciprocated the emotion. In Odisha and West Bengal — the lap of devotion for Subhadra and Durga and Kali and Saraswati, the saffron party has made thumping inroads, with eight and 18 seats.
The one thing that a carefully drawn, cleverly curated, composed and positive campaign of Modi dissolved was negativity in the poll narrative. Modi’s mention of people giving up LPG subsidy, in his Central Hall speech erected a warm memorabilia to one of the first indications of trust in him. Women, anyone’s guess, were significant participants of this movement. Other actions and reciprocation followed.
The notions of patriarchy and gender that work for Modi’s critics and haters are unlikely to work for women who support him. In the Pauri Garhwal constituency, nationalism weighed down the sentiment of ‘jal, jungle, jawani’ (water, forest, youth — three resources vital to Uttarakhand’s larger emotion which matter to women; the phrase also mentioned by Modi in his Dehradun speech) during 2019. In Uttarakhand, BJP won all five seats. Victory margins in the state, without doubt, have been powered by women at home front as well as the ground front.
In Pauri Garhwal constituency, I came across women’s unique assertion of faith in Modi.
Sagar Negi, a young voter I met in Narendranagar, along with his friends, told me how women in general think about Modi — the PM and the PM candidate. He said, “women, especially older women in our family — mothers, aunts and mothers of friends, they all trust him, they believe that he is as hard working as them and most women born and living in Uttarakhand. Like them, he never takes a break from work. They want the man who works hard like them to return.” His two friends reiterated it.
Women traditionally known for their hard work have voluntarily attributed the virtue to a man in politics, the most loved and the most hated man in politics, in his crucial campaign.
When Rasal Kanwar walked up to me at Rajsamand candidate Diya Kumari’s campaign road show in Beawar, Rajasthan, I got an early glimpse of the “maatrishakti” which Modi has been mentioning after his win. Kanwar is a living symbol of India’s democratic triumph at the grassroots. Kanwar said, “I am the pradhan of Jaitaran. I have come to support Diya Kumari ji. Unko bhi jitana hai aur Modiji ko bhi jitana hai (we have to make both win).”
Why does she support Modi? I asked the pradhan over the phone, much later in May. “Gram Panchayat mazboot ki hai pehel kee hai. He has strengthened the rural areas, lives and the panchayat. It is the most important unit of governance and there is nothing better being in power as a woman, pradhan and voter to see him bring the essential changes at all levels of governing.”
Women supporting Manoj Sinha and fighting the bigger battle in Ghazipur for Narendra Modi’s aggressive stance on the opposition, which he clearly revealed in a speech here, are known for their immaculate organisational skills. Unfortunately for the BJP women of Ghazipur, Sinha lost by a huge margin to the mahagathbandhan.
The women of BJP Ghazipur got their space in politics and on the dais when Modi delivered his speech from Ghazipur. What gave them this presence? Bhanu Pratap Singh, the party’s district head, said, “Yahan ki kamaan mahilaaye hee sambhalein rehtee hain adhiktar (women command the frontier here). They are patriotic to the core.”
In South Delhi constituency, where Amit Shah rushed in from Kolkata later that evening to deliver his speech in Ramesh Bidhuri’s campaign, women were unstoppable at the bottleneck entrance to the rally ground. Dust and a tough entry point did not deter the women from walking inside in huge numbers.
Men at the rally noticed that I was looking at the women’s battle readiness (which clearly surpassed men’s), in wonder. They commented as they walked in and out through clouds of dust: “Madam, inko to bilkul samay nahin hai, hum se bhi zyada Modi ji ki bhakt hain yeh (they have no time, they are bigger devotees of Modi than men).”
In the last five years of India’s political journey, Modi has smoothened out the fine creases of gender, as much as he has steamed down the lines defining caste and class. It prepared ground for ‘chemistry’.
On 25 May, Modi used several expressions to describe his faith in people. He even said that the 2019 campaign was like a “teerth yatra” (pilgrimage) to him.
One of the many aspects that made voters the destination of his teerth yatra, as seems evident from his language and the emotional connect, is their worship for hard work “parishram ki pooja”. Impact? Mahagathbandhan was pulled out with pomp to halt Modi, but was left reeling under his impact as caste arithmetic was better played by Modi even when he was not out to play it all through his reach to the colour to the last layer of the social spectrum. Women voters are believed to have made the passage easier.
In 2019, his deck of message-carriers outside the party and from all walks of life, broadened further. From the poorest of the poor in urban and rural India to the most glamorous. Just as many celebs who oppose him, today, including actor Swara Bhasker, who led many glamour-puffed and face-fluffed campaigns for all losing candidates opposing Modi and BJP, there were many who saw how Kangana Ranaut delivered a strong message without needing to even name Modi moments after casting her vote in Mumbai. She told the local media: “Kabhi British kabhi Mughal kabhi Italian government ke hee ghulam thhe...to, please, apna jo swaraj ka jo haq hai usko please aaj yahan aazmaiye.”
What do women, who are miles and means away from social media, or even phones, think and do about their support for Modi? They simply vote for him. And before and after getting the finger inked, they would tell you what he has done for them. They tell you about his policies, programmes and initiatives in their own political vocabulary. Modi is “the family head”.
He also happens to be the keeper of the women’s wrath he has no fan base in.
In 2017, Yogi Adityanath became the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. This new development made women on the other side of the political spectrum look at the man in saffron as a symbol of imagined oppression. Not surprisingly, 2019 was meant to be that last lap of the marathon to see Modi shunted out of power. In Delhi, in 2017, over Americano shots, their board for state polls was used, wiped, scribbled and ready. In 2019, Atishi Marlena becomes the prominent representative of left’s resistance to Modi and Gautam Gambhir, as much as Mamata Banerjee cuts an image of being the tigress gnawing at Modi and Amit Shah in Bengal.
Modi’s Lok Sabha election speeches in all the three states BJP lost in 2018 suggest that women were in focus of his words and work. He was not ready to lose any bit of the emotional territory nourished and nursed. In Bengal, he met Binapani Devi Thakur, affectionately called Boro Maa — the matriarch of the Matua Mahasangha, before she died at 100.
His election speeches connect the divine feminine with the woman voter. Modi makes an emotional invocation to Bharat Mata in all his speeches. In states, he pays his tribute to the women of devotion and shakti as it manifests in the women seated before his dais to hear him. In Khargone, which was his concluding campaign speech for 2019, he paid his respects to “Mata Ahilyabai”. He paid respects to Ma Narmada, and made a mention to her eternal lap. “Main Ma Narmada ki goad mein aayaa hoon.”
In Uttarakhand, in his Dehradun speech, he paid tribute to the brave mothers of the state who send their sons to protect and defend the nation. He mentioned “Ma Bharti ki raksha” in Khargone. His Uttarakhand speech happened during Navratra. His mention to the devi echoed from Uttarakhand to women celebrating the devi across the country. In Khargone, he assured actions “shapath honaey ke baad (after he takes oath)”. In the great Ahilyabai’s land, it could be seen as a word of promise he was making to women. Modi managed to bring a pro-incumbency mandate.
This sets his candidates, especially his women candidates as ‘worthy representatives’ of his faith in general and faith in the feminine, as witnessed on ground, in particular.
When Diya Kumari talks about Modi, her tone is marked by affection. Pictures of Modi saying pranam to Diya Kumari, who is a member of the Jaipur royal family, reflected how he carefully acknowledges the unspoken power of an unseen hierarchy, regardless of his own position, regardless of years. This speaks to women and local contexts.
Diya Kumari is the second member of the Jaipur royal family, after Maharani Gayatri Devi, to trounce Congress in Lok Sabha. Maharani Gayatri Devi fought from the Swatantra Party founded by C Rajagopalachari. The legacy is broadening.
On 7 May, two days before I was to set off for Uttarakhand to vote, and from there to Nagina, I received a video from an unknown sender. Not sure about the original source of the video or the time when it was recorded. In the video, village women holding axe, sickle and giggles, perched on a hill, between chores in the jungle. They seem to have taken some time off for recording a message for the Prime Minister. It begins — “Modi bhai ji, pranam.”
Women in the video say they are from Jakhori, Rudraprayag. Over these two odd minutes, they try to put across a humble request to ‘bhai ji’ (how men are affectionately addressed by women on the hills in sisterly love), for a road in their village.
This video is a treasure of hope and joy that lives in the difficulty-driven lives of pahadi women. The comfort with which they speak with the unseen man, who happens to be the PM, tells a lot about the self assurance and their trust in the leader.
The message is short and is repeated in the local dialect by each participant. “We support you, we work hard, please get a road connecting our village built, we do not want anything else from you.”
Last year, in Jodhpur, women Hindu migrants from Pakistan told me how they flock up for that staple morning walk to the doongar (a hill) carrying glass bottles with them — owing to the absence of a toilet. They are not Indian citizens yet. Hindu organisations have pitched in facilities, but sometimes, nothing is enough. In Delhi camps, where Hindu migrants from Pakistan live, many women said that they need toilets. It is on the lines of “Modi ji banwaa rahe hain desh mein (he is getting them made in the country).”
Among new voters this year were Hindu migrant women from Pakistan who recently got Indian citizenship. “They have mostly voted for Modi. They say that he has been instrumental in giving them safe and secure lives, and facilities,” said a male member of the big Hindu migrant family living in Jaipur.
What women think matters to Modi. Work on policies that would directly impact lives, woman, her physical and social dignity, financial inclusion, and the well-being of her family crawled upward on his priority list alongside his travels to various nations. In Uttarakhand, voters, mostly men, stated how his travels had strengthened India’s position internationally.
The mention to “India’s maan samman” in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and across Delhi moved in conversations when women voters talked about global, national and international developments.
An observation that came my way was that the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana pushed the image of a ‘thinking PM’ into caste crevices.
In February this year, the Finance Ministry said that nearly 34 crore Jan Dhan accounts were opened under the Modi regime, and the Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile (JAM) and direct benefit transfer are understood to have served as game changers.
On ground, people I met in four states cited the government’s move of direct benefit transfer scheme as a step and symbol of trust and respecting the earning member and the saving member of the family. On ground, mothers getting longer maternity benefits props up as a surprise element in the order of what you would think should make people’s sequence of priorities.
In Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, the medical cover under Ayushman Bharat found repeated mention among voters, BJP leaders, and even critics of Modi and BJP.
Election speeches lack the space for a broader narrative related to public health. NDA’s Intensified Mission Indradhanush in 2017 which came up after the launch of Mission Indradhanush in 2014 — is one of the crucial steps towards ensuring the safety and health of expectant mothers which found mention on ground. Poshan Abhiyan, which monitors under-nutrition, anaemia (among young children, women and adolescent girls) and low birth rate, is another such measure.
In Rajasthan, Bhamashah Yojna of Vasundhara Raje government, Centre’s Matritva Vandana Yojana, are among initiatives that spoke directly to women for women. Triple talaq, Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana, the strengthening of family health system — a sure shot result of Swachh Bharat mission, have impacted their voting decisions. I saw effect and micro benefits of these initiatives at a Pune slum, parts of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, during the last three years.
The building of toilets; on the state level, the assimilation of plans and policies to deal with vital issues that impact lives of people has impressed women voters. These steps, when interwoven in issues like national security — as in Uttarakhand, where measures being taken towards the curbing of palayan or out migration, help address some vital internal security issues, are of importance to women voters.
Creating agri-based and gas-based home economies under Deen Dayal Upadhyaya-Grameen Kaushalya Yojana and Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, improving road and rail connectivity, One Rank One Pension, these initiatives and tasks completed, or in progress, walked to the women voter. The idea that continued to stay afloat was that Modi upholds the dignity and welfare of women.
A little observation: Modi’s drawing board is a carefully arranged jigsaw of not his governmental experience alone. He uses language to dispel hesitation. He busts fears on expected loss of currency (in demonetisation) by assuring women that their savings are safe. Out came the savings from dabbas, batuas, from under the newspaper folds neatly used as cupboard mats, and from safe locks.
Demonetisation was not understood initially by many women from the disadvantaged backgrounds, as I found out in conversations in Delhi and Uttarakhand post November 2017.
The ‘strict headmaster image’ Modi got in 2017, came to revisit these voters, some of whom I witnessed carefully listening to Pon Radhakrishnan at a jhuggi in Kalkaji, Delhi. Here people from Tamil Nadu are settled, alongside a melting pot of regional identities, in a largely Punjabi-dominated neighbourhood. These women from Tamil Nadu living in Delhi want Modi to do more for the community, for the children and their education.
In years preceding 2014, the Left’s jagged idea of empowerment did not see women benefit from a pan India movement dedicated to toilet building. Instead, it focused on keeping her limited to remaining angry and joining protests for basic amenities she would be deprived of for decades. The idea of making her travel miles to enrich their own activism brought little or no electoral dividend.
Coincidentally, after exit polls, which gave Modi or/and NDA a clear majority, many journalists were seeing slyly ridiculing people who have voted for Modi. They clearly forget that in ridiculing a ‘juice wala’ on the road side for having supported Modi, they are running a solid risk of ignoring the reasons behind his choice emanating from home. These reasons could be the ‘juice wala’s’ wife, mother, sister, the facilities, their choices, social security or the improvement they might have received through any of the focused programmes and policies released from Modi’s policy arsenal.
In Nagina constituency’s (Bijnor district) Najibabad, one of the Vidhan Sabha constituencies here, women supporters of the party told me how there has been a noticeable change in women’s living conditions during the last five years.
While talking to women in Uttar Pradesh, I notice that the two years of Yogi Adityanath’s rule in the state are seen as powerful offshoots of Yogi raj in Modi’s India. Results from Bijnor and Nagina point out that women’s concerns have a long way to go in rewriting of poll outcomes against the more dominant caste and community factors on the ground.
For some people who come from the erroneously biased women emancipators wing in India’s political spectrum, woman’s empowerment does not belong in the LPG cylinder that comes to her in Ujjwala, giving her a chance to have a healthy life and lungs. It does definitely not reside in seeing her save funds for her daughter’s well-being through Sukanya Samriddhi. For them, woman’s empowerment does not arrive in road access and connectivity, not even, when her village in a far-flung corner of Uttarakhand gets road access and connectivity.
In Uttarakhand, among men who told me how lives are improving for women at home and eventually would improve more, owing to the under-construction all-weather road, and village connectivity, were ex-servicemen.
For the women on Left, feminism and gender pride belongs in the power of keeping a woman deprived of, longing, and craving, for exactly those tangible and intangible joys, which are meant to cushion her at the home front. It is even better, if she is refused these basic policies and programmes for decades, or fails to have access to them. When she has access to facilities, amenities, or sees other women leading slightly better lives owing to Modi’s policies and programmes, and when she expresses the resulting joy in voting for Modi, old media’s misogynistic view must fall upon her choices (and her bindi, bangles, sindoor, rituals).
Upholders of gender dignity derived joy in victimising her further, through either exploiting her deprivation, or through captivity in ideological, caste or religion driven boxes. The spectacle is no figment of imagination for anyone who has been a visitor to Jantar Mantar for nearly two decades. Modi has breached this space.
In their gender construct, the twenty-first century Indic woman’s vehicle to a better future is not the electronic voting machine but the crowded bus to political nowhere. That she is valued as a voter not in plain electoral jargon, but in solid, visible and tangible work from the government, itself, impacts their peace.
In Europe and the United States, ‘women of the right wing’ are discussing, supporting, opposing, debating on abortion rights. In India, ‘women of the right wing’ as they mull over broad lines to define themselves, are widening ears to one thing that the men are increasingly talking about in 2019. It is population control.
Among men I met on ground for 2019, many want Modi to bring strong measures for population control. Perhaps, for women who support Modi, the subject is yet to get enough talk time.
Satisfied to some extent with the political outcome of the choice she made by pressing that button in 2014, a section of woman voters has occasionally joined the song for the mandir.
BJP’s Bengal campaign was not for lily livers and faint hearts. Irani, much later in the party’s campaign, when her own battle against the Gandhi brother and ‘sister for brother’ was over, turned towards Mamata Banerjee-ruled Bengal, where women of Bengal BJP already were pouring sweat and blood, literally, into an embittered war with the Trinamool Congress (TMC). Locket Chatterjee won Hooghly — driving out a sitting member of Parliament from TMC.
The mention to Bengal is not restricted to Bengal and CR Park in Delhi. People in parts of Delhi know of ‘Draupadi’ — the title given to and known for BJP leader Rupa Ganguli’s character in Mahabharat — the Doordarshan serial in the late 1980s. The awareness regarding BJP’s brave women of Bengal was palpable even in outer areas of Delhi, where zooming auto rickshaws, and small gatherings of people are abuzz with how they are working against the clock in Bengal to take BJP’s number tally up.
The impact of BJP’s campaign in Bengal could be seen on a rally ground in Delhi. Here, South Delhi constituency candidate Ramesh Bidhuri’s jan sabha witnessed women representing Delhi’s melting pot responding energetically, whenever anyone on the dais mentioned Bengal. On the dais, Meenakshi Lekhi, sat like a boss, wearing the trademark raised eyebrow, a visible sign of her pointed preparedness.
When Modi roared against the ‘Bengal tigress’ on Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha karyakarta Priyanka Sharma’s arrest, he was not only responding to a call of support to women who support him, but also issue a new shot of morale into Bengal BJP workers, who, including Hooghly candidate Locket Chatterjee, were placed at the burner, at the hustings.
Nirmalta flows out of their competitive fire. Nirmala Sitharaman, in May, attacked a leading woman politician, defending Modi. She said, “absolutely disappointing, and shocking if I can say this... for her to speak so ill... about the prime minister, about the prime minister’s personal life... and about women in the BJP.”
She added, “Mayawati please be assured, we are absolutely safe, secure and have very good professional relationships in our party. You don’t have to be worried about us, behen Mayawati, when there is a Dalit behen in Rajasthan, waiting for all of us to stand up and speak for her... who is in extreme distress.”
Sitharaman, the Defence Minister, under whose tenure Balkot happened, and the one who was seen on her own feet at India’s borders to meet and greet soldiers, also happens to be the woman who bowed down to touch the feet of mothers of martyrs at a ceremony held in Dehradun.
Another perception that has not escaped the voter in 2019 is that the women in Modi’s team are versatile messengers of his own language. Sushma Swaraj told the audience at the Mahila Sammelan event in Varanasi in May, as she does, on Twitter, about BJP’s women power, especially Modi’s cabinet.
In the experiment of hoisting gender over one of the most intense electoral wars fought in the history of independent India, Narendra Modi has been a commanding catalyst of the art of making women see what they want. If not wholly in the electorate, then, to a great extent in the choices they make.
Favouring him, opposing, supporting him, fighting to see him at that coveted corner chair in Lok Sabha with some support from like-minded men, once again, women have owned and reclaimed their electoral grit. Atishi Marlena managed to get some limelight in the storm. The women support for Gambhir was already strong. It leaped multiple times after a ‘letter’ and related events popped up during the last hours of their campaign came to the fore.
Most women I met were all praises for NDA’s focus on development, its tough decisions on Pakistan and national security, the way it demonstrated care for the family of soldiers and ex-servicemen, “keeping matters of jaat-paat away”.
More than 50 per cent of Jan Dhan accounts in 2018 belonged to women. Modi announced in mid-May that PM Kisan Samman Nidhi, which was announced shortly after his party saw defeat in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, and promised Rs 6,000 to every farmer who owns five acres of land, would be extended to all farmers of Madhya Pradesh.
On ground in west Uttar Pradesh, I met farmers who spoke in favour of the scheme. Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh results tell that elite echo chambers of Congress (and mahagathbandhan) were unaware of the spell Modi was casting on people who were able to differentiate between high moral ground and real, solid, ground. According to these people, people who were criticising the scheme forget that Rs 6,000 are of real value to a farmer.
When men speak in favour of a scheme, women get emotional relief. When women in rural areas see hope, urban women vote for their well-being.
Modi does not lament criticism, assault, bitterness or hatred. He celebrates them in his election speeches and public interactions. When he is hurt, if he is, he strikes back during that limited slab of his political campaign, where he can leave the statesman behind in a chamber somewhere for a while. Saffron, just plain saffron, a wrap of it, is an effective instrument of messaging in our times enriched by Hinduphobia. Modi used it. Women watched that. It walked with them to the booth, especially in the last phase.
Saffron is the new red for some, black for some. Saffron makes some see red. Saffron on Modi makes some see green.
Modi — that boulder sitting before Mayawati in her path to regain power.
Mayawati called Modi “unfit” for the top role and termed his rule in Gujarat as a “black spot”. She attacked him for “abandoning” his wife. Then, she wondered if he could lose Varanasi. Nothing unites his woman support better.
According to Delhi-based BJP leader and spokesperson Nupur Sharma, Modi’s image hit the inner most zone of emotion that goes along with women to the booth. Few days before the election result, she said: “when people make these comments on his personal life, it is unbecoming. Kaheen na kaheen it will boomerang on the opposition. Modi ji is accepted by the people as he is. He is a man on a mission who is working to safeguard people’s interests without any selfish interests. That chhavi of Modi ji has hit home.”
Sharma, who returned from Varanasi before the last phase, said that Modi’s “persona has become larger than life”.
Modi — that outsider who breached Bengal, and sat wrapped in saffron in a Kedarnath den, hours before the seventh and last phase of polls, which also included Bengal, where his duel with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is folding into a volcano of hot molten debris of words. “Didi”, he shouts, before launching a statement that would return to him with more barbs.
Modi — also the man who not only condemned comments on Nathuram Godse from Bhopal MP Sadhvi Pragya, and packs a subtle message in his Central Hall speech.
When he reacted to Sadhvi’s stance and statement, it triggered a sudden flash of memory of the newsroom — of the day when another woman leader in saffron had made a family head in BJP upset, more than a decade ago.
Women shape history. They shape political journeys. His cabinet and support to women leaders in states, show, he watches how women leaders shape their own individual journeys while defeating the mightiest of opponents. He plays in patience as much as he expects patience from these leaders in the local context, in national or within the party.
Locket Chatterjee might herself have enough to share with Irani. It includes the teeka, which she wears on her forehead when she is seated next to Yogi Adityanath in a rally, when she is hugging and providing solace to violence-affected BJP women workers, soaking their tears on her cotton blouse in a motherly embrace, when she is campaigning from a boat, sailing on Ma Ganga.
Modi has been vocal about his mother’s struggles. He has clutched that Rs 500 note (recently, during his visit to his mother during a campaign halt) in his fist, as many overgrown children do when mothers shower blessings and love. His appearance in the “Mere Paas Ma Hai” political sequel lasting 2019 summer has been a quiet blockbuster. The mother appears on the same frame as him when he is receiving from her, instead of “giving”.
He roared “na khaunga na khaane doonga”, accepts a sweet pushed into his mouth with a squeak and smile. Women watch this display of affection. They drop tears and wipe some. The endless cycle of strong dislike, affection or hatred for Modi stays on paddle mode for as long or short he remains surrounded by his mother.
An artiste practising Madhubani art I met in Delhi revealed that many voters like her have been silent since the beginning of the campaign. “My relatives in Samastipur told me. Modi hee Modi hai, par sab chup hain. Chup chaap vote kar raha hai.” She added that the same is happening and will happen in the last phase of Bengal. Her companion agrees. According to him, Jan Dhan accounts have been the game changers in the region. He said, “she is speaking to you so much today because of the confidence she has got after being financially stronger.”
Modi’s visual language seems to be working. It has helped him turn stubborn roadblocks brittle.
It is not the current of emotion alone working for Modi. There is something solid traveling from his emotional investment in real changes. Rural electrification in Uttar Pradesh, with Power Minister Shrikant Sharma backing the efforts under Yogi Adityanath government would be counted as one of the factors which has got BJP home and heart in the state electorate.
According to him, the building of toilets steered Modi’s name further into homes. Sharma adds, “Shauchaalya ka bahut bada mudda hai, jo loag gaanv mein rahe hain, woh is cheez ko samajh sakte hain. Unko lagta hai ki hamari baat kar rahe hain aur hamari kathinaiyon ko door kar rahe hain.”
I met many women whose faces light up when the name of “Modi ji” is mentioned. If you call him “Modi”, they might interrupt or correct you or stress on the “ji”.
Not everyone loves to hate Modi. Strong dislike works, as for Pushpa Negi in Narendranagar, Uttarakhand. She said, “whether Congress does anything or not, I don’t care. They showed us the way, they were the first to work for the nation, they got us independence and BJP keeps saying that Congress has done nothing. I totally dislike all leaders of BJP. Modi is ok, but I am a staunch Congress supporter.”
Not everyone would toe the line defined by either Modi or defined by those who dislike him. Haji Nishad, a BJP worker from Mohalla Qazi Sarai picks up the gender factor in Nagina’s Muslim vote. According to him, he is expecting Muslim women to vote for Modi. “Men will not,” he said.
The fresh and curious streak of the Hindu man’s support for and faith in “Muslim behenein”, is endearing, particularly in Muslim-dominated constituencies, such as Nagina and Bijnor and parts of Uttarakhand and Delhi. One staple line I heard on ground was: “Karengi, dekhna, kyon nahin karengi BJP ko vote.”
After voting in Ghazipur ended, a terrible news came from the constituency. According to a report, a man who had wanted his wife to vote for BSP (mahagathbandhan) hacked her with a spade for voting for Modi.
A voter was silenced. She was attacked for exercising her right. Modi is the gender equaliser even in people’s focused hatred for him and in most tragic stories that emanate from ground. He will continue to move the pendulum of gender-based perspective on himself.
In Nagina, Haji Nishad endorsed Sushma Swaraj’s work for people of his community. How has Swaraj contributed? “Bahut se parivar se log Saudi Arabia mein kaam kar rahe hain.” He added that he often tells his community that “aisee sarkar baad mein dhoodhte reh jaoge”.
Rural women have better access to hope. Chandrama, a woman I met while she was walking with firewood on her head in Pauri Garhwal constituency, told me: “Modi ji ka cylinder toh nahin aaya mere paas abhi tak, aa jayega.” Uttarakhand, and pan India leap in BJP’s vote share in 2019 make Modi aware of his responsibilities and tasks that he has to contribute, here on, towards women’s well-being, progress and overall prosperity as citizens. Election 2019 has sent 78 women members to the Lok Sabha. Modi described it as an “important event”. On women’s participation in voting, Modi gently revealed his feelings at the Central Hall, “yeh apne aap mein bahut badaa kaam hamari matrishakti ke dwara hua hai.”
When Harsimrat Kaur Badal broke into giddha on her victory in Punjab, it showed the robust attitude towards her own political will. She has galvanised her journey with strong decisions, and stronger words on Congress leaders like Rahul Gandhi and Amarinder Singh. Her giddha celebration was like that Phulkari overlay on cloth. Exquisite, telling and narrating life.
Badal is a tiny representative of the happiness which Modi’s re-election has brought to many women, including winning candidates now MPs — from Queen Oja in Assam, to Poonamben Hemantbhai in Gujarat, from Mala Rajya Laxmi Shah in Uttarakhand, to Shobha Karandlaje in Karnataka and their voters, supporters and opponents.
Let me say it clearly. The more Modi is cornered by his opponents on women in his personal life including his mother, the more Modi himself says he is detached from family, more furiously his nationwide family of women — with Karnataka in the south currently forming the hemline of his expanse (and Andaman and Nicobar a valuable jewel dangling from the hemline), becomes wider, stronger, mightier.
It is an aspect Modi’s spiritual conferences with Baba Kedar and Badri keep hidden and camouflaged from him. The ways of the devi, including of Parvati, and the silent woman voter, are mysterious. Parvati and the devis keep Shiva on his feet. They keep Shiv bhakt Modi at work, worship and word, (which continues here on). In his own assessment of “Modi hee challenger hai”, there is every woman behind this man.
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