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The Big Story: Bouncer

Until the Covid-19 pandemic hit India in 2020, an unusual thing was happening in Narendra Modi’s second term as prime minister. As we wrote in August 2019, Home Minister Amit Shah – long seen as Modi’s right hand man – had begun to grab much more of the spotlight and also take ownership of the government’s big moves, from the Article 370 abrogation to the Citizenship Act amendments.

At one point it almost seemed as if Modi’s image was being transformed purely into that of an almost-presidential statesman, with Shah taking on the messier day-to-day politics. Then 2020 brought the pandemic, forcing the government to rely more heavily on Modi’s credibility over Shah’s rabble-rousing persona, while health concerns meant that the home minister was relatively restrained for some stretches of the year.

Last week, two months into 2021, we received another sign that the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership is willing to place Modi firmly on a pedestal well above every other politician or public personality.

From the Indian Express report:

“The world’s largest cricket stadium hosted its first day of bigtime cricket with a stream of VVIPs, key announcements, a bunch of wickets – and a new name.

The 130,000-seat arena at Motera in the Prime Minister’s home state of Gujarat, which was inaugurated Wednesday by President Ramnath Kovind, will be known as Narendra Modi Cricket Stadium and be a part of the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Sports Enclave.

Known earlier as Sardar Patel Stadium, or Motera stadium, before the massive redevelopment, the new name was revealed only when President Kovind opened a digital plaque, which said that the “Narendra Modi stadium” has been inaugurated.”

Renaming government schemes, public buildings and even entire towns and districts has always been part of the political playbook in India, a weapon that Modi’s BJP has been more than happy to wield.

But over the last six years, the party has sought to make name changes in a way that either fits into its preferred narrative – like turning Aurangzeb road, named after the Mughal emperor, into APJ Abdul Kalam Marg, to honour the BJP-appointed former president – or to bring its own ideologues from the past into the mainstream, as was the case with renaming the Mughalsarai railway station after Deendayal Upadhyay.

All along, Modi, Shah and the rest of the party have wasted no opportunity to draw attention to the actions of the “first family” of the Congress, the Nehru-Gandhis, whom they have frequently accused of treating India like a fiefdom, including sticking family member names on public buildings and government schemes across the land.

Modi’s BJP was sold as being different, falling prey neither to dynastic politics nor petty self-glorification. Apparently this doesn’t quite hold true in Gujarat.

Take first the question of dynastic politics. Again, from the Express:

“Union Home Minister Amit Shah described the occasion as “a golden day in the history of sports in India”…

As Shah spoke, among those present on the dais were his son and [Board of Control for Cricket in India] secretary Jay Shah, and Rajya Sabha MP Parimal Nathwani and his son and Gujarat Cricket Association Vice President Dhanraj Nathwani.”

And then, of course, there is the name of the new building.

The United Kingdom’s Financial Times put it quite simply:

This is not technically true. The stadium was renamed by the Gujarat Cricket Association, and was only announced as a surprise on the day it was inaugurated, conveniently avoiding the build-up of any criticism or outrage before the big day.

But it is quite easy to deduce that a major decision like this would not have taken place without Modi’s go-ahead, especially since it was announced by President Ram Nath Kovind and Home Minister Amit Shah.

The choice is somewhat at odds with the way the BJP has treated Modi’s image so far. Certainly, the party has gone all out in deifying Modi in political propaganda, using slogans like “Modi hai to mumkin hai” (with Modi, anything is possible), and accepting fellow BJP leader and current vice-president of India Venkaiah Naidu calling him “god’s gift for India, messiah of the poor” at a party event.

But, in part to underline its difference from the Congress, it has sought to cleverly direct attention to the prime minister without venturing into territory that is traditionally associated with strongmen leaders and tinpot dictators.

Its renaming of central welfare schemes with the prefix Pradhan Mantri, prime minister, for example, has led voters to significantly attribute credit for policies to Modi and the Centre, even though technically his name is not on them.

Earlier this year, the Sports Ministry decided that all sports facilities and hostels of the Sports Authority of India would only be named after “eminent athletes” since they had not been given sufficient space in public life until now.

Which is why naming the stadium after Modi, a move most would associate with authoritarian leaders, is somewhat unusual.

It certainly fits in with the BJP’s unabashed promotion of Modi as being a “messiah” for India. But it does so using a seemingly outdated technique, one more associated with the Nehru-Gandhi Congress, leaving the party open to accusations of not being any different from the other side.

In fact, the only response BJP leaders seemed to have when questioned about the renaming of the stadium was to point out that the Congress did the same thing.

As usual with the BJP, we have little understanding of what went on behind the scenes – at least in the reporting so far.

Were others in the party, either in Delhi or Gujarat privy to the plan to change the name of the stadium? Were BJP leaders beyond Modi, Shah and his son, Jay Shah, included in the decision? Was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the party’s ideological parent that has always been uncomfortable with a personality cult growing outside of it, consulted? Why was it kept a secret until the inauguration? Does the BJP now endorse the naming of public buildings after living politicians?

Characteristically, only one BJP leader seemed willing to speak up publically about this, though there were some murmurs around the right-wing internet.

Regardless of how it played out behind the scenes, however, there is now a Narendra Modi Cricket Stadium. Is Narendra Modi’s name soon going to turn up on many other official signs and plaques around the country?

Meanwhile, to steal a march on the ‘can’t make this up’ section, it emerged that the two ends of the stadium pitch have been named after the two big corporate groups that are most closely identified with the government: the Adani Group and Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance. Even if the naming of the two ends preceded the renaming of the stadium, the joke writes itself.

Flotsam and Jetsam

Can’t make this up

India and Pakistan recommitted to the 2003 ceasefire last week, in a bit of a surprising development, though clearly the optics were not all well coordinated:

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