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Those twenty minutes on a Ferozepur flyover have revealed the underbelly of arguably the greatest street-fighter who ever made it to the office of the prime minister of India. As Amit Shah famously suggested to Satya Pal Malik, the man appears to have clearly misplaced his marbles. And that cannot augur well for our already over-heated polity.
It is necessary to remember always that Narendra Modi did not become prime minister by observing the mores and manners of a civilised democracy. He crowbarred his way to the top of his own party because he had the gift for exciting a crowd and inciting a mob. It was this proclivity that endeared him to “the silent majority” in the Hindu right-wing corner. It was his calculated capacity for unsuspected recklessness that stumped the slate of ‘traditional’ senior BJP leaders like L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Sushma Swaraj and Nitin Gadkari. Even beyond the BJP core constituency, his roughness was seen as a welcome muscular trait, in sharp contrast to gentlemanliness of a Manmohan Singh or an Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Now those 20 minutes on the Ferozepur flyover have revealed a new Narendra Modi: a deeply uncertain and perhaps scared man.
It is possible to believe that had Modi been 10 years younger, he could have most probably opted for either of two gutsy responses.
First, he would have stepped out of his limousine and walked over to the farmers blocking the road, and effortlessly engaged them in a dialogue. It would have yielded riveting television footage. There is no suggestion that the protesters were in any way menacing or even remotely violent, and he would have been seen as a plucky leader, unflinching even in a somewhat adverse situation. After all, he is often stepping out of the security cordon and getting himself photographed with adoring masses.
Alternatively, the prime minister could have invoked the full authority of his office, called up the Union home minister to rush in Central forces (stationed just a few kilometres away), with orders to clear the protesting farmers out of his way. He would have asserted a simple message: A powerful prime minister of a powerful state cannot be denied right of passage. An unafraid prime minister would not allow himself to be seen as cowed down by a gaggle of peaceful farmers.
Instead this man, always with an eye for camera and drama, sat there, frozen and immobile.
It is logical to infer that he would been informed of the pathetically poor crowd at the Ferozepur rally site (never more than 3,032, as per the local intelligence reports, surrounded by tens of thousands of empty chairs). The rally was planned as the modern enactment of a kind of ashwamedha yagna, intended to claim Punjab back for the BJP. All the resources of the richest political party in the country were at the disposal of the rally organisers. The intent was loud and clear. Tell the people of Punjab and the rest of the country that even though the three infamous farm laws have been repealed, the indomitable Narendra Modi remains unbowed; he will come to Punjab and show them that he still commanded the crowds.
That script went horribly wrong, producing an unnerving moment. A man used to having his way must have felt a frisson of failure.
There is a larger theme to this Ferozepur drama. Seven years of unchallenged supremacy at the top of an increasingly unrestrained state has bred not only a sense of divine entitlement in the prime minister but has also induced irresponsible complacency among senior security and intelligence enforcers.
Those who work closely with ministers and prime ministers are the first one to detect chinks in the politician’s armour. In Modi’s case, there was not much of a mystery to be decoded.
So self-absorbed and so self-pleased is the man that he would not admit to any lapse, shortcoming or failure. The officers know that even when they goof up, the boss would always defend them (at least in public). He simply would not allow anyone in the democratic arena to infer that he is less than perfectly perfect. This sense of infallibility has provided cover to bumbling bureaucrats, military commanders and intelligence chiefs.
Within 24 hours of those 20 minutes on the Ferozepur flyover, a group of retired senior police officers – many of them still hopeful of being parked in this or that sinecure job – concluded that there was a conspiracy. According to this bunch, it was “a shameful open display of collusion of the state machinery with the so-called protestors to embarrass and harm the prime minister”.
These officers who have held responsible positions should know better than to make such a sweeping judgment. All this huffing and puffing was obviously an orchestrated demonstration of misguided partisanship and loyalty.
It seems there is now a kind of cottage industry, dedicated to feeding the sense of insecurity and paranoia of an ageing emperor.
It is well known that even the most charismatic of leaders take considerable care to script their public appearances. It is only when there are moments of unscripted crisis that a leader’s character and mettle get tested.
In her Downing Street Memoirs, Margaret Thatcher recalls the 1984 IRA bombing of the Brighton Grand Hotel where she was staying, and notes that not only did she go ahead with her scheduled speech before the annual Conservative Party gathering but she also removed all the partisan sections from the draft: “This was not a time for Labour-bashing but for unity in defence of democracy.”
Contrast this Thatcherite gravitas and sobriety with the unworthy shot the prime minister took at the Punjab chief minister. In that single moment, Modi ended up re-agitating doubts among anyone who still believes the prime minister has finally matured into a responsible national leader. That this unsavoury partisanship came from a man whose acolytes want us to believe he is a statesman of highest global standing is all the more astonishing.
Beyond these individual revelations is the disquieting ploy to pit the “Sikh community” against the prime minister. Feverish attempts are on to detect a conspiracy hatched by some “Sikh” elements under instigation from familiar foreign elements, inimical to Hindu interests. We may perhaps understand Modi’s need to consolidate a very wobbly Hindu vote-bank in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. But this othering of the Sikhs has the making of a national calamity.
Harish Khare is a journalist who lives and works in Delhi.