Past Continuous: June 21 is All About Hedgewar, #YogaWithModi, #SelfieWithModi

With Narendra Modi at the helm, the incongruity of celebrating June 21 as International Yoga Day and World Selfie Day can become mildly embarrassing.

Some days ago on June 21, the International Day of Yoga was observed globally and within India by the Centre and states. Indian foreign missions, too, marked the observance which was started by the United Nations in 2015 at the initiative of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as part of his efforts to re-position himself as an upholder of soft and spiritual Hinduism, in contrast to his image prior to 2014 as a representative of the archetypal angry and revengeful Hindu. Every function organised by the government or backed by it was publicised extensively.

Since the UN accepted India’s proposal by adopting a resolution in December 2014, it has been forgotten that it specified “cost of all activities that may arise from the implementation of the present resolution should be met from voluntary contribution.” To what extent this is being adhered to by the Indian government is a matter of investigation but expenses for sarkari functions are normally met by government departments. However, the pomp and show surrounding what must remain an austere observance is not the only paradox associated with June 21 — consciously chosen not just because it is the summer solstice but also because it the birth anniversary of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh founder, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, described as “a great son of Mother India” by former President, Pranab Mukherjee — and its observance as Yoga Day.

Depending on how one looks at the situation and on which side of the political narrative one is posited in times when nuances are blurred, it can also be considered apt that the day also happens to be the World Selfie Day. The day came into existence in 2014 and it is now the fifth year since the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) began celebrating this day as part of its “Who do we think we are?” project. Sadly, pursuit of selfies have lost the intended objective and instead become an exercise in self-projection.

The same year on April 21, exactly two months prior to that, the selfie made an inroad into Indian political space and electoral campaign when Poonam Mahajan, then a Bharatiya Janata Party candidate from a Mumbai constituency tweeted early in the morning: “First ever selfie with our future PM @narendramodi Victory for Mumbai #bkc.

This picture was followed the same day by Modi within less than 14 hours by another selfie, this time with writer Chetan Bhagat.

Eight days later, Modi created a flutter with his own selfie. After casting his vote in Ahmedabad, he came out beaming, displayed the lotus symbol of his party and took a selfie while camera crews and still photographers went shutter-happy at this unabashed campaign. If the three pictures are seen sequentially, one can make out Modi’s growing comfort with the medium. With Mahajan he is unmistakably uncomfortable, with Bhagat he is a shade at ease but all by himself, he is the emperor of the frame shooting not just for his own frame but also enabling others to take the whole shot.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi taking a selfie with the BJP’s election symbol. Credit: Reuters

The Election Commission directed the police to file a case for violation of the model code of conduct because Modi blatantly displayed the BJP election symbol while polling was underway. In September 2014, a local court accepted the police closure report and it was evident that time had come for Modi to get away with blatant violation of norms.

While his first tweet was a straight ‘Voted! Here is my selfie’ with his picture, the next one demonstrated that after seeing the success of the first two tweets with Mahajan and Bhagat, his social media team had planned it as an ‘event’ after he voted: Selfie is in! Share yours using #SelfieWithModi & see what happens.

The tweet created the hashtag that has been retweeted umpteen number of times, including in 2015 when the BJP set up #SelfieWithModi stalls during assembly elections in Delhi at a cost of more than a crore rupees, for people to click themselves with a ‘virtual’ Modi.

In December 2017, Modi once again courted controversy by staging a roadshow after voting. In the recent by-polls  in Kairana, Uttar Pradesh, Modi addressed a public meeting in adjoining Baghpat a day before polling and after campaign had formally ended. These incidents are certain pointers to the road ahead as India heads into another elections which will possibly be another no-holds-barred contest.

In the fifth year since the selfie became a tool of broadcasting a larger-than-life-size image of the politician, most notably Modi, social obsession has assumed gigantic proportions mainly because it is endorsed from the top. Technology contained in the smart phone has been effectively used to publicise his pictures but in the process undermined virtues of modesty and humility in public life. Modi’s social media campaign has justified unceasing bombardment of his pictures with the sole intention of inundating public spaces. Public figures, political leaders included, have always made efforts at ‘looking good’ but this has rarely assumed such obsessive proportions.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi doing yoga. Credit: PTI

This period has also seen selective representation of yoga to promote a mirage of the actual reality and is aimed at presenting a benign facade because the true representation will prevent Modi’s global acceptance. Just as the selfie projects on the large national screen a denotative depiction of Modi, the facet of yoga which is being publicised through the public display and performance of asanas by thousands is not what yoga actually connotes in classical texts Patanjali Yoga Sutra. Instead of promoting its deeply spiritual aspects, yoga is being displayed as a spectacle which aims to awe the public. The government’s depiction of “India’s gift to the world” is highly romanticised and little different in nature than its representation in the past of being a land of exotic objects — the difference being that the visual has changed from snake-charmers to yogic postures.

Likewise, because the prime minister displays with pride his compulsive behaviour of taking selfies at every opportunity, it is seen as a perfectly justifiable public act. It is now difficult to venture into any public space without witnessing the galling sight of a self-obsessed nation, where people are fixated on their looks, and perfecting the art of pouting.

Instead of tutoring people to use their mobiles without jeopardising their own lives or of others and not inconveniencing other people, the emphasis on showcasing the smart phone as a self-projector is a sharp fall in the sort of examples, political leaders set to people previously. Consequently, people die while takings selfies before an onrushing trains and step on accident victims to take selfies before taking them to hospitals. In 2017, research showed that India had the highest number of selfie-related deaths in the world. There is no end to outrageous situations when people have taken selfies. Because he is the premier, Modi must take in great measure, responsibility for prioritising the selfie over basic humanism.

The origin of the selfie can be traced all the way back to 1839 when an amateur chemist and a photography enthusiast took a picture of himself.  With time, cameras began to have easier-to-operate timing-devices and till the advent of mobile photography, few would have lost an opportunity to set up the camera on a stand or a shelf to frame a group and then quickly run into it before the shutter went off.

But on a more serious note, self-portraits were commonplace in art despite the inherent challenge countless artists painted and sculpted exquisite self-portraits. The emphasis in these self-images — even in pictures taken with timing devices — was to represent a specific mood and encouraged experimentation and self-interpretation. This has been replaced by the path being shown by leaders like Modi. Other global leaders, too, have fallen to the lure to the selfie and even embarrassed themselves – for instance former United States President Barack Obama whose picture with Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Danish prime minister became a sensation for the obvious lack of amusement of Michelle Obama. Yet, no global leader has pursued selfies with Modi’s doggedness and he is credited with ‘selfie-diplomacy’.

The image of themselves which has been projected by political personalities from the time of Gandhi to Modi has evolved from when the Mahatma identified himself with the poorest of the land by choosing an attire  which they could afford, to contemporary times when the prime minister consciously projects himself as an aspirational figure with specially-draped outfits, designer spectacle frames, stylish watches and flamboyant pens.

Yoga is already known in the world primarily for its asanas, as it was ‘discovered’ courtesy gurus who marketed Indian spirituality from the 1970s in a world where Western materialism was facing a crisis and looking at alternative lifestyles and value systems. Modi could have corrected the lopsided understanding and projection of yoga but chose the easy path because of his penchant to convert everything into an event.

The selfie is not of Indian origin and for much of the past decade or so has been presumed to have been the handiwork of a drunk Australian. But as it has later turned out, the young man just used what was “just common slang at the time” in a post in which he included a self-portrait when he “tripped ofer and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps.” This happened because he was “um, drunk at a mates 21st,” and ended up with a “hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip”. But the young man was “sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”

Modi had no such explanation to offer Lance Price, the British writer and one time aide to Tony Blair. He was asked about the contentious selfie but he termed his action a “natural reaction and was just for the social media.” Significantly, while describing the self-moment, Price noted that the BJP already had form for stretching the rules on polling days.” On his part, Modi confessed that he “like all Indian politicians looked for ‘auspicious’ days to help ensure ‘our message got the attention it deserved to keep the election momentum going’.”

It is not yet known if anyone has yet got an opportunity to quiz Modi on his decision to promote asana-centric yoga, but one can safely conclude that in a moment of candid confession, he would say the decision was prompted by the necessity to alter his international image. In time, the coincidence of June 21 being the day to celebrate both yoga and selfie can become mildly embarrassing at the least. Till this does not happen, it is up to people to keep this incongruity in mind.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.