The humble security guard at the centre of India’s election debate is a sign that Modi is still setting the agenda

The humble security guard at the centre of India’s election debate is a sign that Modi is still setting the agenda
55-year old Imran is a watchman in one of the residential buildings in suburban Mumbai. He sleeps on the same chair he sits on to guard the building and uses the common toilet in the parking lot to clean up. He works two shifts a day of 12 hours each, for a total salary of ₹13,500. If he had worked one shift a day, he would have got ₹7,000 a month and would have had to find himself an accommodation.

He would rather send nearly all his earnings to his family in a village in Uttar Pradesh than rent a room in Mumbai.

Imran was blissfully unaware of the ongoing trend on Twitter where leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and their supporters have prefixed the word 'chowkidar' to their profile names. Chowkidar is the Hindi word for watchman or security guard and it has since become a buzzword on social media.

When told about his humble job being at the centre of the country's political discourse ahead of the elections, Imran's first reaction was that of amusement. "Wasn't it chaiwala the last time?" he asked with a smirk and thinly veiled sarcasm. 'Chaiwala' is what Indians call the local tea vendor in Hindi.

Modi's claim to fame in the run up to the 2014 elections was that he had worked in his father's tea stall in Gujarat as a child. He used his humble origins effectively as he challenged the country's political royalty-- the Gandhi family which has sent three Prime Ministers in the past-- and caught the fancy of an aspiring voter base.


At the same time, a series of corruption charges against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) tilted the scale further in Modi's favour and the BJP swept the elections with a majority in Lok Sabha, the lower house of Indian Parliament. This was the first time any party had managed to score a full majority in India's Parliamentary elections since 1984.

Modi is banking once again on a strategy that worked for him five years ago. The word 'chowkidar' has been bandied around by BJP leaders pitching Modi as a man of strength but someone who lacks political pedigree. That can hardly be true for a person who has been a politician for over two decades, a chief minister for three terms, and currently, the prime minister seeking re-election.

The playbook-- underdog versus the entitled-- is as old as time but no one has claimed the 'underdog' tag effectively after the first surprise. But Modi is giving it another shot

And in this battle of catchphrases, Modi may have an upper hand over his rivals.

First of all, the move has either distracted or diluted the debate on more pressing issues like the economy, policies, and unemployment. Modi's rivals are essentially talking about things that he wants them to talk about. While charging the government with corruption, senior Congress leaders have tweeted 'chowkidar chor hai' or 'the watchman is the thief'.

However, by referring to Modi as the watchman repeatedly, even in slander, the opposition is unwittingly fortifying the image he wants: a strongman of a humble background who is guarding the country not just from adversaries across the borders but also keeping a watch on home-grown muggers looking for a way out to safety.

For example, the opposition is mocking Modi citing the government's failure to stop billionaire fugitives like Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi, and Mehul Choksi with unpaid loans and alleged bank frauds to their name from leaving the country. However, even if one of the three are nabbed ahead of the elections, it will be forgotten that each of the three businessmen, with close ties to the BJP in the past, did mysteriously escape from the country.

The time spent on countering the chowkidar claim could have been used to question the government on its economic blunders like demonetisation, the troubles of the small enterprises, and the rise in unemployment in the last five years.

In the run up to the 2014 elections as well as in every state election thereafter wherever the BJP was the challenger, Modi had, in no uncertain terms, demanded an account of the incumbent government's performance. He would set the agenda and let the party in power respond. The strategy has been so successful that BJP is now in power in 17 out 29 Indian states.

Instead of holding him to account for the last five years, his rivals are following Modi's lead in political rhetoric. This hollow, partisan, inconsequential, farcical political debate is a lost opportunity for the opposition.

Over a 1,300 kilometres away from Mumbai in Gurgaon, Kabir (name changed on request), gets paid ₹15,000 for a 12-hour shift as a watchman. That's more than twice that of Imran, but it's still not enough for him to run a family comfortably.

Kabir had seen the rhetoric around watchmen in India on news television and he saw hope. "The PM is one of us and he will improve our working conditions after he wins the elections," he said. In the words of Emily Dickinson, hope is the thing with feathers.
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