Call it the Bollywoodisation of the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Karan Johar/Ekta Kapoor Effect, but the entertainment industry’s imprint on the Modi government looms large as it celebrates its two-year anniversary.
The government has turned governance into a film-style entertainer, exemplified by the five-hour, star-studded show that is has planned in Delhi on Saturday, which will be broadcast live, at which it will tell India how the nation is relentlessly marching forward, sector by sector.
Reel vs real
This is not to say that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is seeking to create a make-believe world completely divorced from reality. But then, neither does Bollywood: it merely exaggerates reality to provide entertainment.
On May 26, two years to the day that Modi and his cabinet were sworn in, advertisements in several newspapers showed a massive image of the prime minister staring out at readers, with a line at the bottom saying: “Mera desh badal raha hai, aage badh raha hai." My country is changing, moving forward. Change, though, is not something that you should ordinarily advertise. It is there for the people to experience or witness.
But then, even weddings are events that most of us have witnessed countless times. Despite that, Johar made millions by selling us on the Big Fat Indian Wedding.
The entertainer is always allowed to be flexible with facts. In cinema, the gap between the real and the reel world is bridged because of the viewer’s willing suspension of disbelief. To push them into this state of unconsciousness is an art. Likewise, the Modi government seeks to bridge the gulf between its claims and the grim reality by manipulating popular perception.
But the numbers speak
In 2015, only 1.35 lakh jobs were created across eight labour-intensive sectors – the slowest growth since 2009. Under the Prime Minister Jan Dhan Yojana, 22 crore people have opened bank accounts, heralding financial inclusion. However, a survey has shown that 33% of these account holders already had an account in their name, and about 28% of these accounts are lying idle.
Then, under the government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, 5.85 million toilets were built in rural India in 2014-2015, up from 4.97 million in 2013-'14. However, Lok Sabha data showed that the United Progressive Alliance government constructed 12.4 million toilets in 2009-'10, and another 12.2 million in 2010-'11, without trumpeting the achievement, or taking out full-page advertisements. Worse, nearly half of the 5.85 million toilets the Modi government built are reportedly lying unused.
Digital India laudably seeks to take the internet to all gram panchayats. But until May 2015, less than 10% of the panchayats had been covered.
All in the storyline
Stop. Don’t cite statistics, those are inherently boring. It is not entertainment.
Besides, it is possible to interpret data in a variety of different ways. It all depends on what you wish to emphasise – the good, the bad, or the indifferent.
Here’s where we can see the Ekta Kapoor effect. She produced serial after serial around a theme as hackneyed as that of the family, something that few Indians have managed to successfully escape from. Her genius lay in incorporating, in the same unit, a caring mother-in-law, a wicked sister-in-law, scheming daughters-in-law as also rebellious sons or daughters unmindful of their parents’ wishes as well as siblings eager to make sacrifices for the larger good of the family.
But through this repetition, Kapoor successfully imprinted this in the mind of the nation – that family matters.
Likewise, it doesn’t matter whether the Modi government has repackaged or renamed the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance's programmes – as in the case with Swachh Bharat Abhiyan – nor whether its policies are functional or dysfunctional, nor even whether they are yielding the expected results.
What matters is the storyline – that the Modi Sarkar is working overtime, in sharp contrast to all its predecessors, or so the BJP wants us to believe.
But then how can you believe that, if you haven’t seen the change around you and, more significantly, your life hasn’t been altered?
It’s all about loving the government
So, as a solution, the government has borrowed the technique of the Kapoor-Johar duo to make you see and feel what it wants you to.
This is the real purpose of the razzmatazz the government has organised at Delhi’s India Gate on the evening of May 28. The venue is symbolic – it was once looked upon as the courtyard of the Indian government, where dissenters would assemble to create their cacophonous protests. They have now been pushed into the sprawling city’s nooks and crannies, largely invisible to most.
India Gate has become the space for the government to flaunt its sinews. On Saturday, it will only welcome the government’s supporters, not its critics and dissenters. The rebel has disappeared – or transformed.
Perhaps the most eloquent symbol of it is cine star Amitabh Bachchan, who is slated to take part in the celebrations. The young angry man of yesteryear, whose cinematic roles had become a metaphor for the disenchantment among the young, has now been transformed into a quiescent old man, eager to fall in line.
But really, it has to be a Freudian slip for the organisers to have titled the evening programme as Zara Muskura Do. It sounds like a plea, a request to the people to at least smile a little, as if the government is aware of their disappointment, its own failure in enlivening their life.
Not everyone is convinced
Yet you can’t but wonder who the government thinks will not smile at all. Does it include the family of Mohammad Akhlaq, who was lynched by a mob in September after he was falsely accused of consuming and storing beef in his house in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh? Or the parents of the minor and his companion who were hanged in Jharkhand in March for taking cattle to a fair? What about the Christians who have been beaten up in, say, Madhya Pradesh for allegedly converting people?
Will those who will not smile also include history scholars worried about the government’s brazen attempt to rewrite textbooks? Or the writers who returned their awards in protest against the rising tide of intolerant? The students of Jawaharlal Nehru University – Kanhaiya Kumar, Anirban Bhattacharya and Umar Khalid – who now face sedition charges?
The list is long.
All we know is that for sure is Rohith Vemula will not smile.
The make-believe world can have an unexpected impact on reality. Johar revolutionised Indian weddings, making them bigger and grander than ever before. Kapoor made Karwa Chauth fashionable and brought gaudy dresses and meaningless family rituals into vogue.
But for all you know, the BJP’s Bollywoodisation of Indian politics could even turn this dictum on its head – after all, in a democracy you can’t fool all the people all the time.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.