The man in the saffron robe sat cross-legged with his eyes closed, back to the wall of a cave framed by the Himalayas.

This was India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s latest production, traveling to a remote mountain temple with a preferred TV news crew to show the world India’s leader meditating days before the end of the country’s marathon general elections. As official results Thursday showed Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party leading in the race for the lower house of Parliament, the party already declared victory.

Modi, 68, has carefully constructed an image of himself as a pious man of the people, a would-be monk called to politics who has elevated India’s status globally and transformed its parliamentary elections from a contest of political parties on social and economic issues into a cult of personality.

FILE - In this  May 20, 2014 file photo, India's next prime minister and Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narendra Modi, bends down on his knees on the steps of the Indian parliament building as a sign of respect as he arrives for the BJP parliamentary party meeting in New Delhi, India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party claimed it had won re-election with a commanding lead in vote count Thursday, May 23, 2019. Modi, 68, the leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has carefully constructed an image of himself as a pious man of the people, a would-be monk called to politics who has elevated India’s status globally and transformed its parliamentary elections from a contest of political parties on social and economic issues into a cult of personality. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File)
FILE – In this May 20, 2014 file photo, India’s next prime minister and Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narendra Modi, bends down on his knees on the steps of the Indian parliament building as a sign of respect as he arrives for the BJP parliamentary party meeting in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File)

“He’s able to build the narrative the way that he really wants people to believe. He’s actually in many ways a pied piper, that whatever he says, people actually believe it,” said Modi biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.

The cult has been fueled by a social media blitzkrieg. There was NaMo TV and a NaMo app. Like President Donald Trump, to whom he is often compared, Modi is a big fan of Twitter, using it and a YouTube channel managed by the BJP to bypass traditional media.

The party has become synonymous with Modi, whose near-ubiquitous bearded and bespectacled visage appears on BJP billboards blanketing India’s vast territory.

FILE - In this Feb. 13, 2016 file photo, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during the inaugural ceremony of 'Make in India' week, an initiative launched to encourage international companies to manufacture their goods in India, in Mumbai, India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party claimed it had won re-election with a commanding lead in vote count Thursday, May 23, 2019. Modi, 68, the leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has carefully constructed an image of himself as a pious man of the people, a would-be monk called to politics who has elevated India’s status globally and transformed its parliamentary elections from a contest of political parties on social and economic issues into a cult of personality. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade, File)
FILE – In this Feb. 13, 2016 file photo, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during the inaugural ceremony of ‘Make in India’ week, an initiative launched to encourage international companies to manufacture their goods in India, in Mumbai, India. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade, File)

“Every vote for the lotus” — the BJP’s ballot symbol — “will go into Modi’s kitty,” Modi said recently.

And when India retaliated after a suicide bombing in Kashmir with an airstrike of an alleged militant training camp inside Pakistan, Modi took on an even larger persona: He started referring to himself as India’s “chowkidar,” or watchman, adding it as a prefix to his official Twitter account. Party leaders and a number of his 47.3 million Twitter followers quickly followed suit.

“The BJP re-election campaign has been a presidential-style one — a relatively new phenomenon in Indian politics,” said Nikhil Menon, a historian focused on South Asia at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “The strategy behind this is to use the enormous popularity of Narendra Modi to the advantage of the party.”

FILE - In this May 27, 2014 file photo, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, walks to shake hand with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif before the start of their meeting in New Delhi, India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party claimed it had won re-election with a commanding lead in vote count Thursday, May 23, 2019. When India retaliated after a suicide bombing in Kashmir with an airstrike of an alleged militant training camp inside Pakistan, Modi started referring to himself as India’s “chowkidar,” or watchman, adding it as a prefix to his official Twitter account. Party leaders and a number of his 47.3 million Twitter followers quickly followed suit. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File)
FILE – In this May 27, 2014 file photo, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, walks to shake hand with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif before the start of their meeting in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File)

At a recent BJP rally on a dusty parade ground in New Delhi, hundreds of supporters in T-shirts carrying the slogans “Modi once more” and “Modi again” chanted his name in Modi masks while lifting life-size cardboard cut-outs of the prime minister into the air.

“Please put your hands together and make it sound like an airstrike,” a party worker implored the crowd.

When Modi took the stage in his characteristic white kurta and flag-of-India sash, he started by mentioning that he’d met several people on Delhi’s Metro.

FILE - In this June 21, 2016 file photo, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, center,practices yoga along with thousands of Indians to mark the second International Yoga Day, in Chandigarh, India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party claimed it had won re-election with a commanding lead in vote count Thursday, May 23, 2019. Modi, 68, the leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has carefully constructed an image of himself as a pious man of the people, a would-be monk called to politics who has elevated India’s status globally and transformed its parliamentary elections from a contest of political parties on social and economic issues into a cult of personality. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das, File)
FILE – In this June 21, 2016 file photo, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, center,practices yoga along with thousands of Indians to mark the second International Yoga Day, in Chandigarh, India. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das, File)

“BJP has ended VIP culture,” he declared. “Entire government is now connected with people via mobile phones.”

In his five years as premier, Modi has never taken reporters’ questions at a press conference. Instead the government press information bureau gives media outlets unlimited access to in-house photos and footage.

Populism and nationalism are not new to India, whose modern history was dominated by the political dynasty of the Indian National Congress party, which led the country to independence from British rule in 1947.

FILE - In this Oct. 5, 2018 file photo, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, hugs Russian President Vladimir Putin before their meeting in New Delhi, India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party claimed it had won re-election with a commanding lead in vote count Thursday, May 23, 2019. Modi, 68, the leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has carefully constructed an image of himself as a pious man of the people, a would-be monk called to politics who has elevated India’s status globally and transformed its parliamentary elections from a contest of political parties on social and economic issues into a cult of personality. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File)
FILE – In this Oct. 5, 2018 file photo, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, hugs Russian President Vladimir Putin before their meeting in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File)

The party of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawarlalal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, has produced six of India’s 14 prime ministers, including Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, herself a populist though of a different ideological stripe, and her son Rajiv Gandhi.

The BJP has produced only two.

Rahul Gandhi, Nehru’s great-grandson, took the Congress reins from his mother, Sonia Gandhi, after the party was decimated in the 2014 polls, winning only 44 of 543 seats.

FILE - In this June 26, 2017 file photo, U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, hug while making statements in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party claimed it had won re-election with a commanding lead in vote count Thursday, May 23, 2019. Like President Donald Trump, to whom he is often compared, Modi is a big fan of Twitter and uses a YouTube channel to bypass traditional media. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
FILE – In this June 26, 2017 file photo, U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, hug while making statements in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Modi’s unlikely rise to power has also endeared him to voters.

He was the third of six children born to Damodardas Modi, who ran a small tea shop at the local railway station in the tiny town of Vadnagar, in the western state of Gujarat. The family struggled to make ends meet, which meant Modi had to help his father run the shop.

Modi’s characterization of his opponents as out-of-touch post-colonial elites has resonated in a country where opportunity is often still constrained by caste.

FILE - In this Sept. 28, 2014, file photo, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India gives a speech during a reception by the Indian community in honor of his visit to the United States at Madison Square Garden, in New York. Modi, 68, the leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has carefully constructed an image of himself as a pious man of the people, a would-be monk called to politics who has elevated India’s status globally and transformed its parliamentary elections from a contest of political parties on social and economic issues into a cult of personality. The cult has been fueled by a social media blitzkrieg. There was NaMo TV and a NaMo app. Like President Donald Trump, to whom he is often compared, Modi is a big fan of Twitter, using it and a YouTube channel managed by the BJP to bypass traditional media. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow, File)
FILE – In this Sept. 28, 2014, file photo, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India gives a speech during a reception by the Indian community in honor of his visit to the United States at Madison Square Garden, in New York. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow, File)

Modi began his political rise as a teenager in Gujarat, joining the militant Hindu organization Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, which modeled itself in the 1930s after fascist Italy and which is regarded as the ideological parent of the BJP. Speaking at rallies, Modi built a reputation as a powerful orator and political strategist, and in the late 1980s was tapped as a general secretary of the BJP in Gujarat.

He rose quickly through the party’s ranks and, by October 2001, was running the state as chief minister.

In 2002, a group of Hindu pilgrims traveling by train were allegedly attacked by a Muslim mob. Hindus in Gujarat ransacked their Muslim neighbors’ homes, setting people on fire and raping women. Modi’s government was seen to have done little to stop the rioting that killed about 1,000 people.

FILE - In this May 16, 2014 file photo, 90-year-old Hiraben blesses her son and India's next prime minister Narendra Modi at her home in Gandhinagar, in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party claimed it had won re-election with a commanding lead in vote count Thursday, May 23, 2019. Modi was the third of six children born to Damodardas Modi, who ran a small tea shop at the local railway station in the tiny town of Vadnagar, in the western state of Gujarat. The family struggled to make ends meet, which meant Modi had to help his father run the shop. Modi began his political rise as a teenager in Gujarat, joining the militant Hindu organization Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, which modeled itself in the 1930s after fascist Italy and which is regarded as the ideological parent of the BJP. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki, File)
FILE – In this May 16, 2014 file photo, 90-year-old Hiraben blesses her son and India’s next prime minister Narendra Modi at her home in Gandhinagar, in the western Indian state of Gujarat. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki, File)

Since Modi and the BJP took the helm of the Indian government, Hindu mobs have lynched dozens of people — mainly Muslims and lower-caste Dalits — suspected of illegally transporting or consuming beef. Many Indian states have laws limiting or banning the slaughter of cows, which are sacred to Hindus, and rather than condemn the killings, some BJP leaders have come to the alleged killers’ defense, garlanding them with marigolds as protectors of the faith.

Though Modi himself hasn’t publicly supported the vigilantes, he has been accused of failing to condemn them, thereby cultivating a climate of intolerance.

His recent visit to the cave temple signals that religion, and its defense, will remain a political priority.

FILE - In this Sept. 27, 2015, file photo, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, left, speaks seated next to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook in Menlo Park, Calif. Modi, 68, the leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has carefully constructed an image of himself as a pious man of the people, a would-be monk called to politics who has elevated India’s status globally and transformed its parliamentary elections from a contest of political parties on social and economic issues into a cult of personality. The cult has been fueled by a social media blitzkrieg. There was NaMo TV and a NaMo app. Like President Donald Trump, to whom he is often compared, Modi is a big fan of Twitter, using it and a YouTube channel managed by the BJP to bypass traditional media. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
FILE – In this Sept. 27, 2015, file photo, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, left, speaks seated next to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook in Menlo Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

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