Dhanyawad Modi?

Tavleen Singh writes: The message this campaign to ‘thank Modiji’ is likely to send is one of complacency and cult-making of the kind that the Kim family of North Korea is famous for.

From the Prime Minister’s birthday next week, a campaign will begin to revitalise his image. It will continue for three weeks. As part of this exercise, 14 crore bags with his picture on them will be distributed to thank him for giving needy people five kilograms of free grain. Five crore postcards will be sent out saying ‘Thank you Modiji’ for helping the poor. Videos thanking him for Covid vaccinations will be shown and there will be meetings and exhibitions on the Prime Minister’s life and work so that every Indian becomes aware that he is the ‘Messiah of the Poor’. This newspaper reported that all of this was being done to counter the negative publicity that came from the mishandling of Covid’s second wave.

Why is this necessary when, according to his publicity machine, he has an approval rating of over 70 per cent, which is the highest of any other leader in the world? Why is this necessary when the mighty Indian media has become submissive, scared and sycophantic? Celebrated TV anchors use their shows to sing paeans of praise to the Prime Minister. Not even in those terrible days in April and May, when Covid patients were dying outside hospitals for want of beds, oxygen and drugs, was there criticism of Modi personally. Not even when it became clear that Modi’s vaccination task force had failed to order vaccines in time did anyone blame the Prime Minister. So why is he feeling so insecure that he needs to use his 71st birthday as an occasion to create a Modi cult?

After brooding over this question for a longish while I concluded that it could be because someone in the PMO has finally dared draw his attention to some ground realities. These realities are harsh. Last week the farmers’ protest, that has now gone on for nearly a year, gathered steam and Rakesh Tikait reminded a vast gathering of angry farmers of an old slogan from his father’s time ‘Allah-u-Akbar, Har Har Mahadev’. The reason why alarm bells would have gone off in BJP circles is because this is a clear sign that Muslims and Jats in western Uttar Pradesh have given up the hostilities of the past few years and renewed their friendship. Not good news for the BJP, with elections for the state Assembly due in less than six months.

Rabid hyper-nationalism that relies on branding Muslims as traitors works when the economy is doing well, and the living is easy. Right now, life is hard. Unemployment, according to most polls, is the biggest problem facing young Indians, and the steep rise in prices of everything from food to fuel is the biggest headache for ordinary Indian families. They have in any case been living off their savings in these long months of Covid lockdowns. Millions of Indians who had managed to count as middle class have now been pushed back into poverty. Clearly, if new jobs and the hope of prosperity are to be revived, the push will have to come from the private sector.

 How is this going to happen when major Indian companies are being charged with being ‘anti-national’? First, it was the Commerce Minister who chastised the Tata group for putting their own interests above the national interest. Then last week, the RSS mouthpiece, Panchjanya, accused Infosys of trying to ‘deliberately destabilize the Indian economy.’ RSS spokesmen tried later to distance the BJP’s mothership from this bizarre and unwarranted attack, but the damage was done.

On top of this comes another harsh reality. Underprivileged Indians cannot begin to hope that their children will see a better future because schools have been closed for so long that millions of children have forgotten how to read. A survey released last week called ‘Locked Out: Emergency Report on School Education’ found that 75 per cent of the 1,400 children examined have seen a decline in their reading abilities in the past 18 months. The survey conducted across 15 states and Union Territories found that nearly half the children included in the survey were unable to read more than a few words.

So, it is true that there is a need for the narrative to change. But, if the Prime Minister is allowing this massive exercise in restoring his image to go ahead in the hope that it will put an end to the negative publicity that has enveloped him since his last birthday, he is making a big mistake. The message this campaign to ‘thank Modiji’ is likely to send is one of complacency and cult-making of the kind that the Kim family of North Korea is famous for. The only Indian leader who tried to do this was Indira Gandhi, and she did it during the Emergency, after she suspended democracy. History records that she failed totally in her efforts to improve her image by building a cult around herself.

Will Modi succeed in changing the narrative by ordering India to thank him endlessly in this campaign that begins on his 71st birthday? Personally, I believe that this kind of whitewashing usually fails. To thank Modi for vaccinations that are the right of every Indian is as inexplicable as thanking him for distributing free grain to desperate, hungry people. Why should anybody thank him for doing what is his job? It is the ground realities that need to change, because unless those change, the narrative will not.

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