In a land of a million mutinies, Modi is only touching upon a billion aspirations | Rajdeep Sardesai
In 2014, Narendra Modi could relentlessly focus on being an energetic agent of change because he was, after all, the challenger, the political ‘outsider’...But in 2018, Modi cannot switch quite as easily to the avatar of the humble ‘chai-wallah’ or detached ‘fakir’ because he now enjoys the trappings of power and authoritycolumns Updated: Apr 26, 2018 19:22 IST
If Prime Minister Narendra Modi was not a politician, he could probably be a feel-good guru. Modi’s signature characteristic is his ability to constantly radiate a positive energy. Last week, as he took his ‘Bharat ki Baat’ to a global stage in London, he was once again the consummate performer: near Westminster Hall, a handful of protestors were chanting anti-Modi slogans; inside the hall, an adoring diaspora audience was lapping up his one-liners. For two-and-a-half hours, with an ingratiating poet-advertiser Prasoon Joshi as his balladeer, Modi showed us just why he is such a successful political communicator. Even in times of gloom, there wasn’t a trace of self-doubt or anxiety in his demeanour.
It hadn’t been a good week until then for the prime minister. Back home in India, the morning papers were headlining the cash crunch in ATM machines, with troubling questions re-surfacing over a lingering fallout of demonetisation. In the previous few days, the shocking attempt to shield the accused in the horrific sexual assault and murder of an eight-year-old in Kathua and the death of the father of an alleged rape victim in Unnao had provoked national outrage. In both instances, the role of the ruling BJP lawmakers had come under a cloud. And yet, in the rarefied atmosphere of an iconic London building, a remote village in Kathua and a dusty town in Uttar Pradesh seemed a very long way away.
Which brings me to the question: is the prime minister living in denial, or are those of us in the news universe choosing to inhabit an area of permanent darkness? During his interaction, he claimed that ‘positivity’ was his life mantra. “For me, the glass is always half full. You’ll always find people who’ll say a glass is half full, some will say half empty. I am different. I say this: it is half full and the rest is filled with air.” The audience burst into instant applause.
For a few hours, in the shimmering lights of a London amphitheatre, Modi appeared to be invoking the spirit of ‘achche din’ that had catapulted him to power in 2014, making the despair of 2018 seem transient. It was almost as if the Dalit anger during a Bharat Bandh, the protests over Kathua and Unnao, the farmers march in Mumbai, the Cauvery black flag demonstrations, the ‘revolt’ in the judiciary, the multi-crore bank scams, a CBSE exam leaks controversy, and, the staff selection exam dharna were all aberrations. In a land of a million mutinies, Modi was instead touching upon a billion aspirations.
In the battle between an ‘aspirational’ India versus a ‘mutinous’ India, the truth, as it often does, lies somewhere in between. In 2014, Modi could relentlessly focus on being an energetic agent of change because he was, after all, the challenger, the political ‘outsider’ seeking to demolish the status quoist ‘Lutyens’ elite’. He could then fit into the role of an angry, anti-establishment hero because a country was tiring of an ancient regime that had presided over vaulting corruption, low growth and high inflation in the previous five years. But in 2018, Modi cannot switch quite as easily to the avatar of the humble ‘chai-wallah’ or detached ‘fakir’ because he now enjoys the trappings of power and authority.
Nor are the areas of darkness pointed out above just in the imagination of a cynical journalist. When taken together, they offer a mirror to a deeper moral and institutional crisis that faces the country today. What else will explain the manner in which a sickening crime in Kathua gets caught in sharply polarised local politics, revealing a shameful majoritarian bigotry? Why do faceless farmers have to repeatedly hit the streets to get their voices to be heard? Why is it that Dalit rage is like a dormant volcano waiting to erupt? Why is it that the super-rich seem to get away with big-ticket corruption even as the anonymous salaried Indian waits her turn in bank queues? Why can a technologically-advanced country not conduct an error-free exam? Why is the judiciary split wide open?
Asking these inconvenient questions is surely a legitimate exercise, one that cannot be dismissed lightly as the prime minister appeared to do when he said, “I take criticism in my stride because, after all, people need someone to trash, someone to fling barbs at.” Not every mutiny is a “barb” directed at you Mr Prime Minister, but is often a much-needed wake-up call to conscience. After all, a half full glass is sadly, and more realistically, half empty too.
Post-script: As the adulating audience left Westminster hall, a bejewelled lady turned to the camera: “Isn’t Mr Modi so inspiring, he makes us all feel like coming back to India.” Watching her drive away in a sparkling BMW, I wasn’t quite sure she would.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal