Supporters wear masks of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a campaign rally in Prayagraj on May 9. (Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP)

An election campaign that could fundamentally change the course of India’s future has become oddly centered on the past.

In the last stretch, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been focused on Rajiv Gandhi, a former prime minister — and father of Rahul Gandhi, the opposition Congress Party’s president — who was assassinated by terrorists in 1991. Modi has mocked him as the country’s “corrupt No. 1” and raked up a row over whether the Gandhi family once vacationed on an aircraft carrier. The fixation on events from decades ago seems befuddling.

This election will not be won or lost by what people think about the Congress or its first family. This election is all about Modi: he is the candidate, the message and the issue in an election that has twisted India’s complex parliamentary democracy into an American-style referendum on an individual.

The only thing that stands between Modi and a second term is a clutch of powerful regional satraps and some complex caste arithmetic that could unite the opposition in key states. That or the impossible-to-forecast phenomenon of silent voters who are perhaps not opening up to pesky reporters and pollsters and may be wary of voluble peer pressure from the pro-Modi camp.

But the mega-rich Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has scripted a powerful narrative from the threads of populist nationalism, religious majoritarianism, coarse and divisive rhetoric, a canny blurring of fact and fiction — all coalescing into an elaborate mythmaking machinery devoted to the amplification of Brand Modi.

So, given all his obvious advantages, why exactly is the prime minister so obsessed with leaders gone by? Why is he not talking about the economy or his record or even the hope of a better future?

“The Gandhi family have dominated Indian politics for over 70 years, largely unrivaled and unquestioned. Despite being reduced to a rump of seats in 2014, they continue to adopt a dynastic model of politics and thereby, through their own cult of personality, continue to hog a disproportionate share of the media,” argued Manoj Ladwa, chief executive of the London-based media house India Inc. and a close confidant of the prime minister, in an interview. “Rahul represents the same history of entitlement and corruption. It’s only natural for Modi to hold a mirror to his political opponents.”

But there could be another reason for Modi’s medieval, atavistic aggression. He appears to have a need to define himself against an adversary, to benchmark himself against an imagined “other.” He needs to construct an “enemy” to go to battle.

When Time puts him on the cover as the “divider in chief,” his critics may see it as validation of their dislike. That only galvanizes his hardcore base further. Modi’s defining characteristic in the 2019 elections is Trumpian. What is considered distasteful and coarse by liberals only seems to make him politically stronger. And if Modi is playing Trump, his Congress challenger appears to attempt the Michelle Obama part for going high “when they go low.”

Modi’s abrasive confrontation with Rahul Gandhi has become a somewhat surreal intergenerational clash between alpha-male machismo and new-age metrosexuality. The more Modi personalizes and sharpens his attack on the Gandhi family, the more the Gandhi scion — who famously walked up and hugged Modi in the middle of a heated parliament debate — talks of “love.” The Gandhian turning of the other cheek may be hailed as the more decent response, But in the ruthless, take-no-prisoners, strongman-driven world of politics, Modi seeks to present his aggression as strength.

There could be another much craftier reason for Modi’s relentless assault on leaders from the past: it’s called headline management.

In a week when there has been a fresh controversy over India’s gross domestic product figures, at a time when data shows that industrial production has contracted, when tax revenues miss their target and the Indian economy may be hurtling toward a grave slowdown, isn’t it perfect to have prime-time television devoted to whether a former prime minister vacationed with his family 30 years ago aboard a naval ship at taxpayers’ expense?

Once again, what appears illogical and bizarre seems to have an internal logic in the Modi political playbook.

The BJP strategy to market Modi in 2019 is quite evident: make a lot noise and then hope that his election becomes a self-perpetuating truth. As Ladwa told me, “it’s not just the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor … it’s TINA plus.”

In other words, Modi wants to create the impression of absolute domination so that voters become fatalistic and wonders if a vote for anyone else is a waste.

It’s no surprise, then, that the slogan of choice for party supporters is #AayegaToModiHi.

Or “Modi will return, whatever you do.”

Read more:

Barkha Dutt: In 2014, Modi ran on aspiration. In 2019, he is running on fear.

Milan Vaishnav: Indian voters are looking for an excuse to back Modi. They may have found one.

Arun Agrawal: India’s Supreme Court is displacing millions. The Modi government must reverse the decision.

Suchitra Vijayan and Vasundhara Sirnate Drennan: After Pulwama, the Indian media proves it is the BJP’s propaganda machine

Ruchir Sharma: As Modi discovered, India’s economy will never look like China’s