For Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vast demography of admirers, he cannot say anything that they wouldn’t agree with. Therefore, when he speaks, they do not pay sufficient attention. For his very wide circle of detractors, he cannot say anything that would rouse their cheer. Hence, memes of censure in their quiver are always ready to take aim.
Essentially, in this polarised ecosystem, nobody listens to Modi because they are pre-decided on his message. One wonders if this is a logjam or a paradox? There is a predictability to the reaction we see, but Modi himself is not so predictable at times in his communication. For instance, the May 12 lockdown address he delivered was the most layered of his speeches in recent times. Speeches may do nothing, they may just buy time until action, or the absence of it, begins to speak louder, but nevertheless it is important to grasp the intent of words since they navigate action.
Modi appeared to be advocating self-reliance all through his latest lockdown speech, but interestingly, he was creating a complicated global circuitry to his concept of ‘atmanirbhar.’ He kept emphasising that India’s self-reliance is not a self-centred game, but generously accommodates the happiness of the world. He imposed a kinship on the world when he borrowed the idea of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.’ He also spoke of ‘Jai Jagat’ and ‘Vishwa Kalyan’. He emphasised more than once that India was firm on its ‘global path.’ He said the world has begun to trust India’s ability to help mankind, and mentioned its recent medicine exports, and of course yoga and Y2K. He told us how much the world needs India. There was unabashed flair and zero circumspection in placing India at the centre of global action. Here, his facts may fall short, but he knows emotion and pride can never be fact-checked.
Modi always speaks with amazing certainty. He leaves no doubt in his words because to sound doubtful is to appear human. Speaking to his constituents in Varanasi, on March 25, after the first lockdown announcement, he had said ‘the Mahabharata battle was won in 18 days but the Covid one would take 21 days.’ There was no solution in sight to the pandemic nor was there a vaccine in production when he spoke of victory in 21 days, but that did not deter him from giving definite goals. When definite goals are a bulb of mythical layers then the discourse is not scientific or a rational one. It is always a satsang, a darshan, a vision in a very Indian sense. Time too is in a puranic cycle, not what is shown on the ultra-slim Movado wristwatch that he is said to wear. Therefore, the 21 days meant something else. More infinite than what an ordinary watch can measure. If one recalls his famous demonetisation address on November 8, 2016, then too he was sure of its consequences. In Ayodhya as well, his party was sure that Lord Ram was born at that very spot where the masjid stood.
Anyway, returning to Modi’s idea of self-reliance in his recent pandemic address, it does not emanate from 20th century economic thinking, either eastern or western, but comes from cultural thinking from a very distant past. A past that again escapes temporal calculations and is imagined to be in the spartan realms of the Vedic divine. To enhance this, there was a gentle sprinkling of Sanskrit to give a varnish of antiquity to his utterances. That appeared to be a deliberate act. That was a differentiator and a response to all those accusing him of not consulting ‘experts’ like Rahul Gandhi has been doing to improve his score. It was a more euphemistic way of saying that this ancient civilisation has known it all, like it has flown airplanes in the glorious past, conceived IVF babies, and has performed plastic surgeries. Again, he knows faith cannot be fact-checked.
Amidst this thread of glorious past, not unexpectedly, cropped up India’s subjugation in more tangible history. There was first glory, and then there was ‘ghulami,’ he said. But now, in the 21st century, glory was destined to return. It appeared he pictured himself as the chosen one, to transition India into that glorious amorphousness. What lay for him between the golden glory of the past, and what is magically shaping up in the present is stygian darkness. In this dark phase of his understanding, India had been subjugated because it neither had ‘atmanirbharta,’ ‘atmabal’ nor ‘atmashakti,’ he interpreted. Therefore that was the real stimulus he was now offering, bigger than the zeroes one could count after twenty. It was the most unusual address in a pandemic season. But Modi presented himself as an epoch maker who was seizing time to bend it to his needs.
Science and technology
In the past, his critics have weighed his COVID-19 addresses against that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel or Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for whom brevity and science make up communication. But Modi never speaks of science or deliberates through science. It is only technology that fascinates him. Science is a philosophy that clashes with all his training, but technology does not challenge anything. It will take the direction of the mind that deploys it. It can function outside reason. In the May 12 speech technology had a distinct velvet position.
Modi speaks like most Indians converse in their mother tongues. Every conversation is a faux spiritual discourse. It is like a retelling of the epics, where sub-plots are as riveting as the main plot. Where each narrator is allowed his own sub-plot, like it often happens with news on WhatsApp; the detours are more delectable. Hence, speaking only about the trajectory of COVID-19 in a lockdown address is boring, and unengaging. Not surprisingly, he took nearly 18 minutes to come to the point.
In line with this is state policy to replay the pop version of epics on television. It keeps people in a familiar loop in uncertain times. It constantly reminds them of their karma. That helps the state abdicate responsibility. The individual is responsible for his fate. That is ‘atmanirbharta’ too. The play on the word ‘atma’ is anyway an indirect invocation of fate. The anglophone liberal who follows the linearity of a beginning-middle-end narrative may scoff at the meandering, figurative, non-linearity of Modi’s narratives, but the majority identifies with it.
Any counter to Modi will need the superior skills of an M.K. Gandhi, who knew how to blend European Enlightenment with the enlightenment of India’s loaded past. In an essay by novelist Raja Rao, republished recently, Nehru says: “We’ve had enough of Rama and Krishna. Not that I do not admire these great figures of our traditions, but there’s work to be done. And not to clasp hands before idols while misery and slavery beleaguer us.” It may be honest and true, but Gandhi would never clinically segregate the two streams. Therein perhaps lies a clue to all those who intend to bait Modi.