Exaggerated claims, imported equipment, meaningless positive quotes, a religious element and the suggestion of legal impropriety: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s seaplane ride on the final day of campaigning in the Gujarat elections is almost the perfect metaphor for his entire tenure. Modi flew on a single-engine seaplane on Tuesday, traveling from the Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad to Dharoi Dam and back in what his website, several top Bharatiya Janata Party leaders and many media outlets claimed was India’s first seaplane journey.
That, it has turned out, is patently untrue. India has had seaplanes before, although attempts to begin commercial services have mostly fizzled out after operators found that the trips were simply not viable. Modi’s website corrected this falsehood after it was pointed out by several online outlets, but the exaggerated claim is a classic element of the prime minister’s approach, one that prompted senior BJP leader LK Advani to call him a “brilliant events manager”.
There was more to the seaplane adventure that was emblematic of all things Modi. For a government that has made much of its “make in India” platform and chest-thumping nationalism, the aircraft in particular was registered in America – meaning it cannot be used for passenger operations in India as it stands – and flown by a Canadian pilot.
Rather than the foreign element being an embarrassment, however, Modi’s successful media management and the news outlets happy to toe the line managed positive headlines out of it. TimesNow, for example, ran a headline saying, “What pilot said about PM will shut Opposition’s mouth.” The actual quote simply has the Canadian pilot saying Modi was a “good passenger”.
Moreover, it is important from the image perspective where Modi was going. Although BJP leaders insisted the seaplane journey was a reflection of “development” – even though there are no concrete plans for seaplane services at the moment – Modi was using it to visit the Ambaji temple in Mehsana. Oddly for a right-wing Hindu nationalist party, the BJP has actually criticised Modi’s opponents in the Congress for visiting temples.
But the fact that Modi was a passenger in such a small plane at all also came up as a topic of discussion. Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah pointed out that, as per the security rulebook, no person with Z+ security is allowed to fly in single-engine aircraft because of the risk they pose. Double-engine aircraft are more reliable since they are less likely to need a crash landing in case one engine fails.
There was an additional irony in where the plane came from. Logs of its flight path suggested the Kodiak Quest plane had made its way to Mumbai from the Arabian Gulf via Pakistan, although it is unclear if it landed there. In normal circumstances this would not matter: This is a small aircraft with a short range and so a stop in Pakistan on the way to India should not be particularly surprising.
But Modi and the BJP have made many noises over the last few days of the Gujarat campaigning, spreading unfounded conspiracy theories about how their opponents, the Congress, met with Pakistani leaders to discuss election strategy. Modi even effectively accused former prime minister Manomhan Singh of treason (although he does not seem to have actively instituted any inquiry into the matter), prompting Singh to issue a forceful response demanding an apology. That this foreign-built, protocol-flouting, non-Indian-pilot-flown plane might have come in via Karachi would easily have been additional ballast for the BJP’s conspiracy theorists if only it were Congress President Rahul Gandhi in the passenger seat.
More than anything, though, the seaplane adventure is a reminder of Modi’s electoral instincts, always finding a way to be in the headlines, even if it means transgressing norms while doing so.
Remember the Ro-Ro ferry that Modi inaugurated in October, then also not quite honestly being touted as India’s first boat service that allowed cars to roll-on and off the vessels? In order to inaugurate that, the government had to modify its plan and build a special walkway just so that Modi could step onto the boat for a photo-op, even though this newly built walkway would have to be demolished for actual passenger service to begin, which is not expected anytime soon.
Put it all together – broken norms, foreign pilots, a temple visit, no actual development benefits, image management – and you have a perfect metaphor for the Acche Din government.