Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s New Year’s Eve speech was remarkable for its departure from his customary style of delivery. He did not even once refer to his audience as mitron or friends, a word that has spawned countless memes over the 50 days of demonetisation. Once a constant refrain in his speeches, Modi knows that the word now evokes derisive laughter.

For a man extraordinarily conscious of the popular mood, it was indeed surprising that he did not acknowledge, even in passing, the deaths since November 8 of more than 100 people in bank queues or who were driven to suicide in their desperation for cash. Nor did he refer to the countless people thrown out of jobs or to the businesses that have stalled on account of the liquidity crunch that has resulted from his decision to demonetise high value currency notes.

No doubt, he did refer to the suffering of people on account of demonetisation, but undermined its severity through formulations such as this: “The government is well aware that in this period, you had to queue up, and face difficulty in withdrawing your own money.” In other words, all that Indians had to endure was the excess energy and time expending in accessing their bank accounts.

The elision of mitron from his December 31 speech and the downplaying of the suffering of India’s people provide us a glimpse into Modi’s mind, his idea of power, and even his moral universe.

His omission of mitron shows that he is hyper-sensitive to being laughed at or joked about. The mitron memes are confined to social media. One would assume that their creators do not have access to Modi. But because Modi takes social media seriously, and believes it can alter narratives, he takes jokes pertaining to him personally.

Not for him the rustic confidence of former Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav. Remember the many sketches that mimicked his own style of speaking, his poor command of English, and the logic-defying arguments he is prone to offering on occasion. Once, when Yadav was asked what he thought of the buffonish clones of him in cinema and TV programmes, he responded, “Because of me they are making money.” It testifies to Yadav being comfortable in his skin.

By contrast, Modi’s avoidance of mitron from his speech emphasizes that he wishes to be taken seriously. He perhaps thinks laughter at his expense undermines his self-image – that of a leader who has to be respected, perhaps feared. It is very unlikely that Modi would urge a cartoonist taking a dig at him, as Jawaharlal Nehru asked Shankar to do.

Extreme sensitivity

Extreme sensitivity to his self-image is also why he will not admit to the adverse impact of his policies. That, for him, is the spin of his critics. For instance, in his speech, Modi said, “Indians have displayed the strength of people power, utmost discipline, and the ability to discern the truth in a storm of disinformation.” It is the storm, presumably, churned up by his political rivals and critics.

To shut them up, as to also ensure that disinformation does not sway people, Modi often evokes feelings of patriotism. He compared the war on black money to the external aggressions India faced in 1962, 1965, 1971, and in Kargil, when the “intrinsic strength” of citizens was on display. He went on to add, “Such collective energy and patriotism is understandable in the face of external threats. However, when crores of Indians unite to fight a war against internal evils, it is unparalleled.”

When we commemorate war, though, we remember those who were killed on the battlefield. Those who died during the two days of demonetisation are the brave casualites, so to speak, of the war on black money. But Modi refused to acknowledge them.

He will not because a nation facing an external attack has no choice but to counter it and accept the tragic inevitability of the deaths of some defending the country. But this tragic inevitability is not inherent to combating, to use Modi’s words, “internal evils”, of which black money has been defined as the most evil.

Since war against black money does involve inevitable deaths, to even express regret over the deaths of people in the 50 days of demonetisation would have meant Modi tacitly owning up to his mistake. It would have implied that either his demonetisation policy is flawed or very poorly executed. Both demand atonement or, at least, a seeking of forgiveness.

But to seek forgiveness would also be to accept his fallibility, his lack of foresight. However, a leader is hailed to be decisive because he knows what actions or decisions need to be taken and has no doubts about them. Modi has constructed an image of himself as a decisive leader – and successfully sold it to people most tellingly in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

This was precisely why Modi refused to explain or apologise for the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat that occurred during his watch as chief minister. And when he did choose to break his silence on the 2002 riots, Modi told a news agency, in the weeks before the 2014 election, “If… someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is. If I’m a chief minister or not, I’m a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad.”

But his expression of sadness does not mean he accepted the responsibility for his administration failing to control the riots in Gujarat.

Or take the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, in 2015, ostensibly because he and his family had eaten beef. After remaining silent for weeks, Modi told Anandabazar Patrika newspaper, “Incidents like Dadri…are really sad but what is the Centre’s role in them.”

No doubt, the Dadri incident could not directly be blamed on the Modi government. But the Hindutva politics of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party certainly framed the backdrop to the mob violence. Perhaps the prime minister was unable of condemning belligerent Hindutva because he was apprehensive of alienating his own partymen.

Una warning

Yet, a year later, after the Dalits in Una, Gujarat, were flogged for skinning a dead cow, Modi went on the attack. “If you have a problem, if you feel like attacking someone, attack me, not my Dalit brothers,” he thundered. “If you want to shoot anyone, shoot me, not my Dalit brothers.” But he went a step further: “Be wary of nakli [fake] gau rakshaks, they have nothing to do with cow. Governments should crack down on them.”

It was certainly an unequivocal criticism of cow vigilantes, most of whom belong to the Sangh Parivar, the family of Hindutva organisations to which Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party belongs. Modi was applauded for his statement. Yet, at the same time, many wondered why he had waited until Dalits were attacked by cow-protectionists, whose primary target till then had been Muslims, before stridently condemning cow vigilantes.

The answer to it is simple: Modi wished to appease Dalits whom he has been wooing ever since he became prime minister. By contrast, Muslims, by and large, do not vote his party – and, therefore, he didn’t feel the need to take a morally correct position.

In other words, Modi’s is an ever-changing moral universe, dependent on whether it is conducive to being used instrumentally for acquiring votes and power.

But what is worse is that we have embraced this moral universe constructed to suit instrumentality. For instance, it has been a matter of intense debate, in the media and drawing rooms, whether Modi will gain electorally from demonetisation in the states going to polls. It is as if a victory for him would make the deaths over the last 50 days, and the loss of jobs and shutting down of businesses, meaningful. Modi’s skewed moral universe reflects ours too.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.