In undivided Andhra Pradesh, poor families benefitted from a programme that provided them subsidised LPG connections almost two decades ago. In Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam made good its election promise of free LPG connections and gas stoves after 2007. The United Progressive Alliance government led by Manmohan Singh of the Congress also had a scheme to subsidise LPG connections for the poor.

But to hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi talk about his government’s Ujjwala Yojana, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he’d done something new and unique to transform the lives of India’s poor women.

A closer hearing of his claims about the programme, however, reveals a man whose artfully constructed self-image comes unstuck because of an obvious lack of empathy and sincerity, an inability to listen, and a need to be constantly heard.

At an event on Monday at which he spoke to beneficiaries of the scheme from across the country, the prime minister claimed that he had been inspired by Hamid, the protagonist of Premchand’s short story Idgah, who used his little spending money not on sweets and toys but on a pair of tongs for his grandmother so she would not singe her fingers making rotis. “I thought if Hamid can do it, why not the prime minister of India?” Modi said.

A prime minister who feels for the poor women of this country slaving over hot smoky stoves, the love and concern that little Hamid had for his old grandmother Ameena, turning rotis over a hot flame with her bare hands, is an evocative image. But it’s an image that vanishes in a trice when you listen to Modi’s conversation with one beneficiary.

Suchsmita Kabata from Mayurbhanj in Odisha: “Earlier in the monsoon wood-fired stoves got flooded, my children could not even eat…This time during the monsoon, with gas I don’t expect to have this problem.”

A Hamid moment? Not.

Modi: “Ok… that is a good thing, but what I asked you was, do you feed your children any new things or still only give them those big big thick thick rotis you made on the wood-fired stove?”

Hamid would not have been so derisive about any type of food a woman cooked for her children. He may even have known that rotis, big or thick, are not the usual fare in Mayurbhanj, a predominantly rice-eating region.

Suchsmita Kabata: “Whatever my children want, they say mummy make me this or that I can do that right away. Thank you, I and my family are much obliged to you for the LPG connection.”

Modi: “What is the really good thing you make, that your children like? What is the thing your children love?”

Suchsmita Kabata (patiently): “Maggi [instant noodles], chowmein, they like spicy things.”

Modi (incredulous): “You make Maggi?”

Suchsmita Kabata (defensively): When I make Horlicks for my children I have to heat water, now I can do it quickly.”

Modi (with a smile): “Now when the lord and master [patidev] asks for tea you must also be giving it immediately, so there must be fewer fights in the house?”

[Noises off]

Interpreter (off-screen): “Yes, yes, even that problem has been resolved for us.”

Telling a woman that her husband is inconsiderate and quarrelsome in order to present himself as her saviour may be a first, even for Modi.

Staged interactions

After four years in office, it is well established that Modi’s conversations are with himself. His interlocutors, in the staged interactions he permits, exist just to create the impression of a dialogue. He can tell them how their marriage works and they will agree with him. He can tell them what to feed their children and they will say he is the best judge of that. He tells them that he has transformed their lives, and they say yes he has. He tells them everyone before him was out to exploit them and they agree.

The most well-worn trope of Modi rescuing the poor from under the boot heels of the wicked “big people” who controlled the country for “six to seven decades before 2014”, however, does not always hit its mark. Modi, who has continually held political office since 2002, is not so convincing in the guise of a messiah of the poor. His brand of class rhetoric also seems to fall flat because his target audience does not necessarily see itself as a victim of other people’s success.

Another conversation on the Ujjwala Yojana promo video, with Meena, a rural health worker from Raipur district, Chhattisgarh went like this:

Modi: “People in the nighbourhood, big people, in whose homes there is a scooter, there is a car, there is a nice house… first there were gas stoves in their homes…”

Meena: “Yes Sir..”

Modi: “There wasn’t one in your home…”

Meena: “Yes, sir, there wasn’t…”

Modi: “What did you feel then?”

Meena: “That if I had one, I could cook quickly for my family…”

Modi: “Now it’s in your home, what do they feel? They must not like it? ‘First we had it, we walked around with our chests out, now this Modiji is a man who has even given it to the poor, now we no longer have that aura’… That’s what they must be saying right?”

Meera (confused): “No sir, thank you very much sir, that you have given a poor person like me a cylinder…”

That the pleasure at improving the quality of ones life is insufficient, and must be shored up by the sense that it makes someone else resentful, reveals a peculiar, even perverse mentality.

But this perversity, centered on envy and resentment, seems to be at the core of Modi’s politics, whether it is promoting a development scheme like the Ujjwala Yojana or deriding a political rival. Premchand’s Hamid would have had none of it.