New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared in a new avatar Wednesday, attired in golden dhoti-kurta-gamchha and prostrated in front of the Ram Lalla idol before laying the foundation of the Ram temple.
It could be the nth time he was visiting a religious place. But the grandeur and symbolism of this occasion and his well-choreographed appearance suggested an attempt for the third image makeover in his political career. The construction of the Ram temple shows the “strong and decisive leadership” of the Prime Minister, Union Home Minister and chief BJP strategist Amit Shah tweeted.
Although this description of Modi is not new, it has rarely been used in the context of his Hindu identity.
Modi’s handling of the 2002 post-Godhra riots, as the then Gujarat chief minister, had drawn national attention to the emergence of a ‘Hindu’ leader. But Modi was soon working on an image makeover — his first — as a ‘vikas purush’ or ‘development man’ who would keep the Hindutva brigade under leash.
Although the then CM continued to carry the halo of a ‘Hindu’ leader, it was his “Gujarat model of development” that became his USP in the run-up to his prime ministerial bid in 2014. It was then that his “strong and decisive” image was crafted to draw a contrast with Dr Manmohan Singh, who was portrayed as a “weak” Prime Minister by the BJP.
Modi never spoke of Ram temple during the 2014 campaign or even five years later. The undercurrents of Hindu-Muslim politics in his speeches were always there but he never allowed it to dilute his USP — his credentials as a leader committed to the people’s welfare.
He never visited Ayodhya as CM or PM — until Wednesday.
Modi’s second image makeover came in the middle of his tenure as Prime Minister. The 2016 surgical strikes on terror launch pads across the Line of Control (LoC) and the 2019 Balakot air strikes across the border were successfully used to redefine his image as a strong and decisive leader in the context of national security.
Amit Shah’s description of Modi as a strong and decisive leader for starting the construction of the Ram temple indicated an endeavour to re-craft Modi’s image.
Third image makeover catches oppn leaders off balance
Some commentators draw a parallel between Modi’s visit to Ayodhya and that of Turkish president Recep Teyyip Erdogan’s to Hagia Sophia, a world heritage site in Istanbul that was converted into a mosque last month.
This came in the backdrop of Erdogan’s waning popularity due to his mishandling of the coronavirus crisis and the economy. But is there any substance in this comparison? PM Modi’s popularity ratings are still high, although some surveys have indicated a slight dip.
This may not be a reason for him to lose sleep yet. What might, however, necessitate another image makeover is the fact that the government is under intense public scrutiny on multiple fronts — Covid-19 management, the economy, and national security in the wake of Chinese intrusions in Ladakh. None of these issues seems to be going away any time soon.
On a lighter note, a Congress leader told ThePrint that the speeches after the foundation-laying ceremony in Ayodhya indicated everyone’s faith in Lord Ram to resolve all crises — “Ram bharose”.
The leader may be reading — or misreading — too much in those symbolic images and utterances in Ayodhya but there is no denying the fact that the Modi government is struggling to deal with a string of crises.
Every image makeover of Modi has got the opposition confused about its response — from Sonia Gandhi’s “merchant of death” comment in 2007, Mani Shankar Aiyer’s “chaiwala” jibe in 2014, and the Congress demanding proof of surgical strikes on terror launch pads. The third makeover has been no different, with the entire opposition either turning silent or supporting the bhoomi pujan in Ayodhya.
Rahul Gandhi’s great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru had unsuccessfully argued with the then President of India, Rajendra Prasad, against attending the inauguration of the Somnath temple in 1951, because state and religion had to be separate.
On Wednesday, as Modi was speaking in Ayodhya, Rahul Gandhi was evasive, effusively praising Lord Ram’s virtues without making any comment on the Ayodhya temple. A day before, his sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, had supported the ground-breaking ceremony in Ayodhya, saying it was a celebration of national unity. She signed off her statement with “Jai Siya Ram”, the chant Modi also used to start his speech Wednesday.
Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav seemed to be in the same dilemma as he put out a safe tweet: “Jai Mahadev, Jai Siya Ram, Jai Hare-Krishna, Jai Hanuman….” Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee also joined them with a tweet: “Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isai, aapas mein hai bhai, bhai.”
What does Modi’s new avatar mean to national politics?
Modi’s new avatar has the opposition leaders on the run. In their attempt to project themselves as ‘better Hindus’, they are likely to play into the BJP’s hands. And they don’t seem to have an alternative narrative to counter the ruling party. In the run-up to the completion of the Ram temple construction, by the end of 2023, their confusion is likely to be compounded as the RSS and its affiliated organisations look set to turn on the heat, playing up Hindutva sentiments while going door-to-door to collect donations and mobilise the people.
The BJP can bank on the credible track record of the opposition to react in a politically suicidal way.
On its part, the ruling party would like the Ram temple to become a cathartic image for the people to forget their day-to-day concerns. This may, however, be a dicey strategy. The so-called ‘Hindu votebank’ — or those who vote for the BJP for its religiosity — is unlikely to expand because of the Ram temple.
If the BJP’s voteshare increased to 22.9 crore in 2019 from 7.84 crore in 2009, it was not due to a consolidation or expansion of the ‘Hindu votebank’. It was because of Modi, the architect of the Gujarat model of development.
The 2019 election results were as much a reflection of the success of Modi’s development schemes as of his credentials on the national security front. While he may remain the icon of a section of hardcore Hindus, that’s not his USP. It’s his aspirational politics that enabled him to transcend caste considerations while the opposition remained frozen in its identity politics.
In his new avatar, Modi may stymie the opposition, but runs the risk of diluting his own USP. If he fails to deliver in the next couple of years in terms of the revival of the economy and Covid-19 management, even a confused opposition may not be of much help.
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