Of the many hats Narendra Modi wears – policy maker, global leader, vote catcher – the one he appears to really enjoy is that of a moral science teacher.
His followers are impressed that he is on back-slapping terms with world leaders, that he is always impeccably dressed, and that, when the occasion arises during election campaigns, he can blow the communal dog whistle unabashedly.
But most of all what they really admire about him is the image, carefully constricted, of the austere, selfless, yogic, wise elder who provides guidance. In this role, he is relaxed, as he transforms into a paterfamilias, gently wagging his finger, and telling citizens what they should do and why it is good for them.
We have seen it on a few occasions in the past. The Swachh Bharat campaign had a strong moral message about cleanliness. No less a figure than Mahatma Gandhi was roped in to endorse that cause.
Yoga was another, in which he led by example, ostentatiously practising it on the streets of Rajpath and in his garden.
All these initiatives – including the latest one, which involves banging vessels at 5 pm sharp on Sunday all over the country – are also about mass mobilisation. They are designed to bring people together in a way that is, on the face of it, completely non-controversial and secular, and therefore difficult to really object to. But the moral dimension is unmissable – it is good for the country, good for society and good for the individual soul.
Such moralising comes naturally to him and flows from his cultural and political training – the RSS is very big on moral values, which are based on ‘ancient Indian wisdom’ that invokes a mythical Golden Age. That ancient era had a patriarchic and hierarchical order, in which the family elder – always male – laid down the rules which were followed without questioning them. The Sangh strongly believes in that order and its adherents are indoctrinated with that belief.
The patriarch is tough but loving, remains mostly silent and distant but is always has everyone’s best interest at heart and is available to dispense good advice. Modi epitomises that figure, and clearly revels in it. It also taps into a deep yearning among many Indians — not all of them bhakts — for stable ‘Indian’ values and certitude in a fast changing world, and especially during moments of crisis. M
Modi has also fine tuned the manner in which his messages are delivered.
The ‘address to the nation at 8 pm’ formula is somewhat overused and many of them have turned out to be damp squibs, but Indians have not forgotten what happened on November 8, 2016, when their bank notes became illegal and led to weeks of trauma. Any such announcement therefore leads to anxiety and rumour mongering, which fuels fear, as happened this time round when social media was abuzz with speculation about a national lockdown . When it did not happen, there was a sigh of relief. Strongmen like to see fear among their subjects. The announcement of Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens, followed by regular flip flops on the subject ensures that anxiety levels remain high and keeps everyone busy trying to locate their birth certificates.
But while critics may carp, social media warriors will sneer and the opposition parties can issue statements, but it will be foolish not to acknowledge that such pronouncements touch a chord among even those who are not die-hard devotees and wins over even fence sitters.
There is much to criticise in Modi’s speech.
As a leader of the country, he was expected to not just preach but also reassure about important developments in the battle against coronavirus. An emphasis on science and medicine and the debunking of nutcases (from among his followers), who are advocating bizarre remedies such as gaumutra or cow urine was expected of a prime minister. An economic relief package would have been welcome.
The idea of a ‘janata curfew’ is welcome, but it puts the entire onus on the individual. What, one is entitled to ask, is the government doing? The Indian public health system is broken, we know that, but how is the government planning to fix that in the immediate term? Banging steel thalis is no solution at all.
His idea of collective thali-banging is also appropriated from other countries. Countless videos have emerged showing people doing the same thing – it began with singing by Italians in their balconies and was picked up by other nations too.
Those who with longer memories will recall that in the 1970s, socialist Mrinal Gore and Ahilya Rangnekar of the CPI(M) deployed this very method in the suburbs of Mumbai to draw attention to the problem of water supply –the irony of subverting a way of protesting into a government initiated national unity effort is unmissable.
Yet, it has become increasingly clear over the last few years that no matter the attacks on him and his government, his popularity has remained undented. His decisions have affected not just the broader economy but the lives of millions of people, his administration has clamped down on dissidents, and his team remains clueless on how to fix things.
At this juncture, the country would have liked to know of concrete steps that the authorities are taking to not just deal with the health crisis but also mitigate its impact. The Kerala government has shown the way. Other state governments have already shut down public spaces and asked people to work from home. The speeches by Angela Merkel of Germany and Justin Trudeau of Canada were models of effective leadership.
The latest nostrum will be hailed as a masterstroke and the media will be full of visuals declaring it a huge success. It will be touted as one more example of his leadership. It is almost certain that even without Modi’s appeal, people would have stayed at home on Sunday; now he will get the credit. The Modi cult will get even more strengthened, this time to the accompaniment of a lot of noise.