Narendra Modi, the national politician, was born in the shadow of violence. Under fire for his alleged role in the post-Godhra anti-Muslim riots in 2002 and almost exiled from the Bharatiya Janata Party for failing to do his rajdharma in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s well-known rebuke to him, Modi managed to survive – rising again like a proverbial phoenix from the ashes.

After the tumult of 2002, Modi’s long journey to the prime ministership has rested on an unusual but canny gamble. Instead of unequivocally denying his role in enabling Hindu mobs to unleash acts of savagery on Gujarati Muslims, Modi refused to accept blame for the violence while gladly embracing the image and idea of being the protector of Hindus.

The riots of 2002 strengthened his standing with hardliner Hindutva supporters. For them, Modi stood as a natural leader of Hindus and a brave, honourable man because of the pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat. In May, in a tweet that got her account permanently suspended, Bollywood actor and Modi devotee, Kangana Ranaut, invoked this very image of Modi, when she asked him to show his “virat roop”, or heroic avatar, of the “early 2000s” to the Trinamool Congress in the aftermath of the Bengal elections.

Consummate political animal

Consolidating power after the setback of 2002, Modi, the consummate political animal, flourished in Gujarat, all the while dreaming of a bigger stage. As 2002 receded from the horizon, India’s corporate titans, elites, celebrities, professional classes in a collective act of wilful amnesia latched on to the myth of Modi’s excellence as a moderniser and efficient leader, who had alchemically turned Gujarat into a utopia of development.

That image of Gujarat was a convenient fiction. In the economic realm, Modi maintained the relative strengths that he inherited from the previous administration, but did not radically improve the state’s well being. In terms of human development indicators, Gujarat fared exceedingly poorly.

As Maitresh Ghatak, a professor of economics at the London School of Economics, put it, Gujarat was “a classic case of a corporate-led development model facilitated by the state which involves increasing prosperity for the rich, but very little benefit of growth trickles down to the wider population”.

Even as Gujarat was relentlessly praised as a “miracle state”, reports showed that Gujarat under Modi performed much worse than poorer states when it came to child malnutrition, for instance.

Yet, whether Modi fans really bought the story of the Gujarat model or found in it a convenient excuse to justify their support for someone facing very serious accusations of human rights violations is perhaps irrelevant. Their reactions, more significantly, revealed the success of what may be called the Modi template.

At every step of his career, as he has gone from strength to strength, Modi has been surrounded by violence and disaster, stemming from a mix of narcissism, ineptitude and authoritarianism. And at every stage, even as Modi has managed to milk this chaos – often of his own making – for ample political capital, he has evaded accountability by tightly controlling the flow of information about what may have actually transpired.

Through keeping the media on a tight leash, threats of intimidation, reprisals against critics and the help of an arsenal of loyalist bullies, Modi has refashioned facts into a self-serving narrative that typically centres on him as a lone, heroic outsider single-handedly battling internal and external enemies who are out to destroy India. In this, he resembles a long tradition of dictators from Hitler and Mussolini to Papa Doc Duvalier and Kim Jong-il.

Enemies everywhere

This is the nub of it, really. For, unlike his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, Modi cannot exist without an enemy. He needs enemies to define who he is, and, with the help of his acolytes, he has readily found them aplenty. Like every good self-pitying nationalist, Modi has defined his enemies as the enemies of the nation itself.

Over the last seven years, this list of adversaries has included Pakistan, China, liberals, Muslims, Kejriwal, the so-called award wapsi gang, black money, corruption, terrorism, Mamta Banerjee, and, at any given time, usually one member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, mostly Jawaharlal Nehru who isn’t even around to defend himself.

Modi’s response to each threat – imagined, or, if real, suitably magnified – has been executed with characteristic ineptitude. Each response has resulted in collateral damage in the form of loss of lives and devastation to livelihoods. Yet, on the screens of jingoistic television channels, the pages of establishment newspapers, the mouths of celebrities, and the tsunami of social media messages generated by the Bharatiya Janata Party IT Cell every one of Modi’s failures has been packaged as a stroke of genius.

Take demonetisation, for example, which was, variously, justified as a brilliant idea for ending terrorism, wiping out corruption, getting Indians to start using digital payment apps, bringing more Indians into the non-cash economy and so on. The move in 2016, inspired by the ideas of an engineer, Arun Bokil, cost India 1.5 million jobs, 1% of GDP, and utterly failed to make a dent in any unaccounted for income.

Aside from any deaths that may have occurred as a result of the hardship and loss of employment resulting from the quixotic policy, over 100 people died while waiting in lines, in stampedes, or other circumstances directly related to the processes of having to exchange bank notes. Two years after RTI queries on the subject, the Modi government had not made details of the deaths public.

Yet, before, during, and after demonetisation, a sparkling assortment of worthies could not help singing praises of the policy. Modi’s academic fans, including esteemed economist Jagdish Bhagwati, came to the defense of the policy not once but repeatedly. An awed and amazed cricketer Virat Kohli described it as the “greatest move” he had ever seen – in all of human history, if you please. Bollywood’s amateur economists were no less effusive. As one article put it, from the “Khans to the Kapoors”, everyone in the industry was united in their unfettered admiration for the initiative.

‘World’s first mass blinding’

Before the fiasco of demonetisation, the Modi government launched a brutal reprisal against Kashmiri protesters, killing 90 and injuring or maiming 17,000, in what the Kashmiri author, Mirza Waheed, described as the “world’s first mass blinding”. More recently, after revoking Kashmir’s special status and dividing it into two in 2019, the Indian government practically placed the entire state under arrest for several months.

Both actions paid back Modi handsomely but what larger benefit they have served Indian society remains unclear, beyond whipping Indian anchors like Arnab Goswami and Rahul Kanwal into paroxysms of nationalistic arousal and providing Indians with some vague sense of being a powerful country.

The same story of the normalised use of excessive violence by the Indian state has played out several times in the last few years, whether in the assault on Jawaharlal Nehru University students by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s student organisation, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, in January 2020, the reprisals against people protesting against the government’s citizenship initiatives in Delhi in February 2020, and the riots related to the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, which were fomented by BJP leaders, resulting in the deaths of 53 people.

The one partial exception has been the farmers’ protests that began late last year and are still ongoing. Modi has been relatively subdued in his actions against these protests, given the powerful symbolic place of farmers in the Indian political imagination, though he did cut off internet access and attempt to stifle dissent related to this issue too.

Following a terrorist attack in Kashmir in early 2019 that killed 40 Indian troops, Modi’s retaliatory belligerence against Pakistan came a cropper. At the time, Modi supporters swooningly crowed, “Modi ghar me ghus ke marta hai,” Modi enters homes and strikes, a reference to the Indian Air Force entering Pakistani airspace with the intention of taking out terrorist camps. Yet the truth remains that Pakistan shot down at least one Indian plane and arrested the pilot, who was only released after diplomatic intervention by the US. Despite the claims of the Indian state and the BJP IT cell, India did not, in fact, take down a Pakistani plane.

Mystifyingly, all of this was celebrated as a great Indian victory, accompanied by congratulatory chest-thumping in all the usual quarters by all the usual suspects. India’s increasing hostilities with China, which seemingly sits on more Indian territory now than any time since 1962, evoke the same loud cheers among Modi supporters and mediapersons, with jubilation at the belief that the Indian tiger has bested the Chinese dragon.

Modi’s most colossal failure, however, has been on full display over the last few weeks, when he has been frozen into inaction while a crisis of gargantuan proportions has enveloped India. Modi and his right hand man, Amit Shah, are out of their depth and beyond their pay grade here. So much for the gushing about Shah’s remarkable organisational abilities and Modi’s leadership that has widely greeted every BJP election victory in the last seven years.

The failure of Modi and Shah to respond to the epidemic of death caused by the Covid-19 virus, either now, or earlier, when there was ample time to prepare for a second wave, has resulted in the preventable deaths of thousands of Indians, the renting asunder of countless families, and the complete collapse of India’s healthcare system.

Over the past few weeks, city after city, and, now, rural area after rural area, have reprised the same tragic story of patients dying for lack of oxygen, families begging hospitals for beds, and doctors pleading to official authorities for supplies and support. Images of rows of the deceased, of pyres burning in parking lots, of family members isolated in their grief as they bid their loved ones goodbye are jarringly juxtaposed with Modi’s trademark designer vaingloriousness.

As India sought help from any number of nations –including those Muslim-majority countries like Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, and the United Arab Emirates that Modi supporters have routinely derided as terrorist or rogue states – the prime minister, in a peerless display of callousness, has decided to proceed with his vanity Central Vista project in New Delhi. The project involves remaking Rajpath by, among other things, cutting down trees, a gruesomely symbolic act at a moment when the nation is literally choking to death.

In 2007, Sonia Gandhi had described Modi as “maut ka saudagar” or a merchant of death, a reference to his role in the riots in Gujarat in 2002. No doubt, there was an ugly irony there, given the Congress’ well-documented role in the pogrom against Sikhs in 1984. The exact details of Modi’s role in the events of 2002 will likely never be known. It is uncontroversial to note, though, that Modi’s failure – whether through deliberate inaction or incompetence – to prevent the anti-Muslim violence that was sure to follow the deaths of the kar sevaks in Godhra, given Gujarat’s highly communalised atmosphere, amounted to a serious dereliction of duty. With the perspective of time, it is clear that in the long run Modi’s abdication of responsibility worked out very satisfyingly to his political benefit.

Similar but sharper charges, of committing a “crime against humanity” and engaging in “criminal dereliction,” have now been levelled against Modi by commentators across the political spectrum, from Arundhati Roy to Arun Shourie.

Each day brings to light more evidence of the Modi government’s failures to address Covid-19 crisis, encapsulated in traumatising and horrifying images of death, such as dozens of bodies washing ashore on the banks of the Ganga. The BJP’s strategy for damage control, at least on Twitter, beggars belief, with their IT cell head, Amit Malviya, combatively and callously stating that that the incidents of bodies floating in the river are a common fact and may have nothing to do with Covid-19.

It remains to be seen whether Narendra Modi will be able emerge politically unscathed from the cataclysmic events of the last two months. But none of the perfumes of Arabia nor all the Ganga jal in India can wash the guilt that stains his hands as a result of his greed for power, his incompetence, and his indifference to the suffering of the Indian people.

Rohit Chopra is Associate Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University