I eagerly look forward to Sunday mornings. Amidst the hectic daily news cycle, this is the only downtime a journalist like me can hope to get. But this Sunday was different. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was inaugurating the new parliament house that the government had built in less than three years.
Given the past record of showmanship and theatricality of Modi and the BJP, as well as the media frenzy created around it, nothing less than a high-voltage event was expected. To add to the drama was the call for a ‘Mahila Samman Mahapanchayat’ by the protesting wrestlers on the very day of the inauguration – and that too in front of the same building.
Minute by minute, as the event unfolded, it looked more like a religious ceremony than the inauguration of a building that is meant to symbolise the sovereignty of the people. The 1.4 billion people of India consist of persons belonging to different religions, regions, castes and ethnicities but that is not how things appeared on May 28, 2023.
‘Meri Sansad, Meri Shaan’ (My parliament, My pride), ‘Nayi Sansad mein Sengol’, ‘Sanatan Sanstriti ka hua udghosh’ (Sengol in the new parliament, Proclamation of Sanatan Sanstriki), ‘Hindu Yug ka aarambh, Sanatan ka Shankhnaad’ (Beginning of the Hindu Era, Declaration of Sanatan), were some of the headlines used by the big Hindi news channels. These channels were essentially telling us that India had left behind its secular democracy and entered a Hindu era. And that Prime Minister Modi, who was so far seen as the ‘Hindu Hridya Samrat’ was no longer just the king of Hindu hearts, but the samrat of India.
From top editors to junior reporters and anchors of popular news channels, Sunday’s ceremony registered the total capitulation of big media to the state agenda. The Indian Express, once the conscience of the opposition, ran Modi’s quote, ‘Some dates become indelible signatures of history on the forehead of time’ above the date, May 28, 2023, printed as a banner headline.
Screeching TV headlines and breathless commentary called the new parliament building a historical national accomplishment, telling viewers about the “ultimate glory of Hindu Dharma” brought by the greatest leader in Indian political history. They called the opposition, which had boycotted the event, the biggest enemy and a disgrace to the country. It was tough to distinguish many of these journalists, anchors and editors from BJP activists.
While Modi lay down in sashtanga pranam – the Hindu religious practice of paying obeisance while lying prostrate on the floor – before the Sengol, a major section of the national media lay supine before the saffron agenda.
In August 2020 we saw Modi, as prime minister, performing Hindu rituals when he laid the foundation of the Ram Temple in the ancient city of Ayodhya. When the foundation stone for the new parliament was laid, we again witnessed Modi accompanied by priests chanting mantras.
These public rituals, performed by Modi as prime minister and not a private devotee, were calculated to emphasise his primacy over the constitution and the primacy of his religion over those of others. They sent a message to Indians of other faiths and were also a clear violation of the constitutional principle that the state must privilege no faith.
At the same time, the pujas in Ayodhya and Delhi involved distinct political messaging. The Narendra Modi who laid the foundation for the temple in Ayodhya in 2020 was a confident man who had won a second election with a thumping majority. He was delivering an ideological promise made to his electorate which had rewarded him for his Hindu supremacist agenda by bringing him back to power.
However, the man who inaugurated the new parliament building in 2023 is an insecure leader who has just experienced a humiliating defeat in a crucial state election fought primarily in his name and with his face.
His defeat in Karnataka has not only led to a ‘BJP-mukt south India’ but also destroyed the myth of Modi’s invincibility and exposed the limitations of Hindutva politics. By making the ‘temple of democracy’ look like a ‘temple of Hindus’, an anxious Modi is desperately trying to consolidate his Hindutva vote bank. The Karnataka result has made Modi double down on what he does best: the politics of religious polarisation. May 28 has settled the debate – if ever there was one – over whether Modi will turn towards Hindutva or vikas (development) for the Lok Sabha elections next year.
After more than four weeks of turmoil, Manipur remains on a knife edge. The pictures of women wrestlers being manhandled, detained and forced to sit on hunger strike have shocked the people of India. Especially when juxtaposed with the image of a stubborn Brij Bhushan Singh in parliament casually smiling and participating in the new building’s inauguration.
Despite a pliant media, the narrative is going out of control for Prime Minister Modi. Each passing day of the wrestlers’ protest is deeply damaging to his ‘strong leader’ image. But he cannot concede. For a raja who now has the ‘divine right to rule’, the praja (citizens) do not matter.
From ‘We the people’ to ‘Me the people’, Narendra Modi has conveyed that he does not care. He did not care when the son of a Union minister was accused of running his vehicle over protesting farmers. He does not care now, when his MP is accused of sexually harassing women wrestlers. Modi is a prisoner of his own image.
It is important to remember that he was defeated once by the farmers of India when their historic protest forced him to withdraw his pro-corporate farm laws. The farmers leaders are now saying they will make common cause with the women wrestlers in their struggle for justice. Modi is counting on his capture of the media, his capture of the country’s institutions, and his use of religion to ride out the coming storm. But these may not be enough for him come 2024.