On August 30 in his 68th edition of his monthly Mann ki Baat national radio address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke mostly of toys and childhood. He did not refer to any specific issue on the day after India set a world record for the largest number of coronavirus cases in a 24-hour period although he urged his listeners to adopt Indian-bred dogs.
The dark clouds of unemployment, disease, hunger and death are gathering this monsoon season. Besides raging Covid-19, many states are broke and unable to pay salaries, the economy is shrinking fast and we have had the biggest GDP contraction ever. Millions of Indians, already surviving at a subsistence level, are going without a square meal a day, China has violated our border and a limited war could take place any time.
Things are not good and if politics today operated on the usual principles of anti-incumbency, the regime should be discredited and fighting for survival. But this is not happening for multiple reasons. First, there is no credible national opposition as we have again been reminded by the recent pathetic sequence of events in the Congress. Although Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi preside over a shrinking and disabled party, media narratives are presented as if they are the incumbents and representatives of the old elite, hanging in there. As it turns out, the actions of the dynasty actually reinforce that impression.
Indians therefore have no national alternative to believe in. Regional parties remain strong in several states but do not even attempt to appeal to any national imagination and attempts at grand alliances have mostly failed.
So in spite of the mess the country is in, the leadership of Narendra Modi floats in a sort of celestial space, like a Vishwa Guru, great leader detached from worldly desires. There are carefully choreographed images to present this leader of the unfolding Hindu rashtra: after the August 5 ceremony at Ayodhya, where the nation first saw the new look prime minister with a flowing beard, last week Modi himself released footage of his morning routine in the course of which he fed peacocks, with a meditative expression on his face. The white beard that has begun to flow during the lockdown gives his carriage a sage-like appearance.
Narendra Modi has always choreographed his own presentations. While covering his evolution in Gujarat, I had come across a poem in an anthology he authored titled Aaankh Aa Dhanya Chhe (Blessed are These Eyes). In a poem called Gaurav (pride) in the collection he had written
I am proud that I am a human, and I am a Hindu
Every moment I experience I am big, wide, I am Sindhu
The inner world of Narendra Modi is apparently engaged with Narendra Modi. One of the hagiographies being distributed in Gujarat then ruled by him spoke of the then chief minister meditating in caves. At the end of the 2019 election campaign, the image that Modi himself chose to leave the country with was the “sanyasi in the Kedarnath cave”. It was mocked on social media but went down well with the average citizen in the Hindi belt that believes in the essential idea of an all-compassing strong leader.
The exact details and facts of what went into that Kedarnath trip and the photo opportunity are not what many people cared about; believers absorbed an image that gratified their notions of the world and reinforced their prejudices – and Modi’s greatest talent lies in understanding the audience. His image calibration has therefore been a work in progress for two decades. Increasingly, these days the images that Modi chooses to present the world touch subliminal buttons – saffron, sage, penance, service and so on.
As the nation slides into chaos and despair and we get poorer and poorer, it’s even more imperative for him to do so and actually appear as someone removed from the political realm on planet Earth. The one-sided media narratives in the Hindi belt have also contributed to this psychological state: people have been fed a diet of Modi worship and an adrenaline rush from crushing the enemy –whosoever it may be at any particular time. The many mistakes of the Bharatiya Janata Party are brushed over or excused in the media narrative.
There have been terrible decisions taken and personally announced by the prime minister, from demonetisation to the sudden lockdown with four hours notice to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but he’s mastered the art of moving to the next image. Beyond the Modi persona, the central leadership is short on talent. Home minister and political manager Amit Shah has been unwell for some time, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman has never impressed, the great spin master Arun Jaitley has been gone for over a year, and there is no individual in the current Delhi regime who particularly shines. Yet the details do not seem to matter as the prime minister caters to the imagination and Hindutva today is also embodied in “Moditva”.
Yet at the end of the day we must not forget that even in that magnificent victory in 2019, when the BJP got 303 seats, they had 37.36% of the votes while the combined National Democratic Alliance had 45%. This means that 55% of India’s people still did not vote for Modi or the BJP. When misery is mounting, things can fall apart except that right now it does not seem that there is any force that can be an agency of change.
Saba Naqvi is a journalist who lives in Delhi. She is the author most recently of Politics of Jugaad: The Coalition Handbook.