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Modi is the only Indian mass leader after Gandhi who has used religious symbolism so well

Modi’s two Navratri addresses to the nation deserve closer attention. They were a complex amalgam of carefully crafted and thoughtfully arranged messaging, just like Brand Modi.

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Those who have followed the eventful six-plus years of Narendra Modi’s Prime Ministership know how much importance he attaches to the shravan Dussehra, better known as Durga Puja in eastern India. The 10-day autumn festival dedicated to the Divine Mother Goddess is celebrated all over India not only as the victory of good over evil, but, from a modern perspective, of feminine power over the arrogance of hypermasculinity.

Modi is known to observe a fast throughout this period to the extent that during his most austere observances, he has reportedly restricted his intake only to water. Certainly, in the navratras when he visited the US in September 2014, he made a public point of it. Blacklisted by the US immigration for almost a decade, Modi had been disallowed even an ordinary visitor’s visa.

But after his assumption of the office of the Prime Minister of India in 2014, he was extended an invitation as India’s head of state. It was sweet revenge. He addressed the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on 27 September, followed by a rockstar-like tumultuous reception at Madison Square Garden, New York, the following day. Even at the banquet in his honour in the White House, he made it a point not to eat a morsel, returning then-President Barack Obama’s toast with a glass of warm water.

No wonder Modi’s two recent Navratri addresses to the nation deserve closer attention. The first, on 20 October (chaturthi) and the next, on 22 October (shashti), offered contrasting but complimentary meanings and messages.


Also read: No crowds, no pandal-hopping, no adda — Kolkata gets ready for unusual Durga Puja


Covid fight is not over yet 

The push in the first address was cautionary. Modi, speaking as the white-bearded, aged patriarch, entreated the nation to guard themselves during the festive season against Covid-19, which he said wasn’t over yet.

He stressed how important it was not to let our guard down against this deadly but seemingly innocuous disease. Fully cognizant of ‘Covid fatigue,’ he warned us not to be careless or complacent. Simple measures such as strictly following the regime of hygiene, sanitisation, and social distancing, without neglecting the imperative of wearing masks, would save our loved ones and ourselves from great misfortune, even possible death.

Modi used the phrase ‘karbaddha’ in his appeal, which only those who know good Hindi would have recognised. It means ‘with folded hands’. He reminded us in the words of Ramcharitmanas that ‘रिपु रुज पावक पाप, प्रभु अहि गनिअ न छोट करि’. An enemy, disease, fire, sin, and master should never be considered insignificant.

Till a vaccine is ready, Covid-19 must not be allowed to snatch the joy of the season. The speech was a short but effective reminder of the grim reaper at our door during the worldwide pandemic. With close to 1,18,000 deaths due to the coronavirus, the time was ripe to invoke tapasya (austerity) and sankalp (determination) to fight the tiny but deadly virus.


Also read: Fish fries, Honey Singh at pandals, sound of dhaak — Durga Pujo in 2020 is a silent aching


Interweaving Bangla pride and Shakti

The second address was longer, more ambitious, carefully constructed and timed. Though aimed at winning the hearts of Bengalis with a view to the crucial assembly election in West Bengal next year, Modi was not overly or obviously politically aggressive. Nor did he openly attack Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress government.

Instead, his speech interwove two major thematic thrusts: Bengali pride and women’s empowerment. On the one hand, nearly half of Modi’s speech consisted of the enumeration of Bengali luminaries. Almost no notable spiritual, political, literary, or cultural icon of significance — from Ram Mohan Roy to Satyajit Ray — was left out. Regardless of political affiliations or ideological leanings, all great Bengalis were invoked and their contribution to the nation celebrated. Once again Modi, in a display of great humility, said that he offered his obeisance to all of them with folded hands.

On the other hand, quoting from the Durga Saptashati, he invoked the Goddess as the shakti (power) in all women. He drew attention to his government’s many schemes and initiatives aimed at ameliorating the lot of Indian women. From Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao to the striking down of triple talaq, he underlined his own and his party’s commitment to Nari Shakti. In addition to invoking the Goddess as an embodiment of power, Modi quoted a verse suggesting that daya or kindness also represented the Divine as Supreme Power, especially evident in her form as a compassionate and nurturing mother.


Also read: Stop outraging over ‘migrant’ Durga idol. Hinduism in Bengal doesn’t need rescuing


Reaching out to the masses

Modi joined the puja celebrations in Kolkata. Though greatly subdued and muted on account of Covid-19, he gave his Bengali admirers a festival to remember. As always, the event was planned to perfection with the PM’s virtual participation, expertly micromanaged by his professionally trained media team, beamed in real time across the country.

In this astute marriage of the particular and the universal, Modi demonstrated a combination of opposing but effective roles. The elder patriarch, above party lines or political considerations, exhorting his people, almost prophet-like, to save themselves from pestilence and disease. And the Devi Upasak, who like any ordinary devotee, worships the mother Goddess with the innocence and adoration of a child.

Indeed after Mahatma Gandhi, no mass leader in India has used religious symbolism as effectively as Modi. Brand Modi, it must be noted, is a complex amalgam of carefully crafted and thoughtfully arranged messaging. Modi makes it a point to separate himself from the Bharatiya Janata Party, his constituency, or even topical, political issues, to reach out to the people as an all-India leader.

Again, in this, he resembles Gandhi, who was careful to distance himself from not only the Congress but any special constituency identifiable by religion, region, community, language, caste, and so on, in order to be seen as the leader of all Indians. It is in this light that Modi’s two addresses to the nation during the Durga Puja season assume added significance.

The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe. Views are personal.

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23 COMMENTS

  1. Gandhi was like the bare feet which walked on hot and dirty Indian soil to remind the British that even the mighty empire can be eclipsed without fighting. He was a leader not a politician. It is amply clear what the world thought about him, including great people like Nelson Mandela and Albert Einstein. He may have had his faults but nobody is perfect.
    Gandhi was an explorer, he read about all religions. He wanted to be influenced by the winds from outside. There are many quotes attributed to him.

    Brand Modi is no comparison to the simplicity of Gandhi and his moral appeal across all kinds of people. Modiji is actually a political leader not a mass apolitical leader. His popularity is only within Hindus. His is a very carefully cultivated image . His followers are unnecessarily creating too much expectations out of him. He seems quite perfect to his supporters. What do truly great personalities of this century think of him? I haven’t heard anything yet from anyone other than compliments from a personality like Trump. He also seems to operate from his safe comfort zone ie Hinduism. Modiji should pen his autobiography soon so that we can know him better.

  2. Very little is known of what Modi thinks in his mind. All we the public know of him is through the symbolism he projects through his speeches and through media marketing. As an individual, what does he value most? His religion or humanity? He has a huge fan following but there is no insight into his core. We only can guess based on his actions.

    Gandhi spoke his mind, wrote books/articles and people could get an insight into the man’s core thoughts and values. No wonder history knows a lot about him through his words and actions. History respects him because he was for humanity first and not for religion first.

  3. Leftist websites like Print behaving like Morons…..they allow comments like Hindu fasists, but when Mulsims are global terrorists they are moderating it.

  4. Saintly Gandhi used religions for generating righteous traits (such as unity, brotherhood, peace, prosperity, self-respect etc), and ultimately sacrificed his life for this cause, uttering “Hey Ram”. While on the other hand we have a satanic Modi who has produced gangs of hooligans by using religion which go on killing innocents by shouting slogans of “Jai Shri Ram”. And you being a so-called educated person indulging in comparing a saint with a satan is so shameful and disgraceful. It is an insult to the knowledge and wisdom (“vidya aur vichaar”).

  5. Oh my god the author can admire Modi and can treat him as his God. Equating him with father of nation is nothing but hight of sychopancy. Here is man, who has taken oath with constitution has been speaking like religious monk. As for aa fast, for hundreds poor navrathri or otherwise, fasting is norm.

    • “Here is man, who has taken oath with constitution has been speaking like religious monk.”
      Constitution has come only in 1950. Navaratri has been around for thousand years. Constitution is for people and not other way around. India should have constitution which meets today’s requirements. First is equal rights. So there should be uniform civil code. Muslim women should not have less rights than Hindu women.
      Secus like you can barely stay without food for a day.

      • India’s territory was given to us by the British. Many of those lands did not have any influence of Hindu culture at all like Northeast, Ladakh, parts of Himachal Pradesh etc. Similarly many tribals in the forests who are not actually Hindus. So India is not a civilisational state. There were many kingdoms that fought against each other. It is the Constitution that holds this nation together, not Hinduism.

        • British did not manufactured territory in their factory. They captured it.

          India is multi-lingual country. The only thing common is Hindu religion, with all it’s variation from tribal to most advanced. But it is Hinduism. It is just like Sunni, Shia, Ismalis, Ahamediyas are all Muslims. it is only vested interests who want to divide them for their agenda. In case of India it is assorted secularists.

          Constitution is nothing more than [ written or unwritten, code by which it expects people to behave and it is only state’s coercive power that enforces it. it is people, through their elected representatives. decide what should be the code.

          Modi’s speaking like Monk is approved by majority of Indians and that is it If Nagrajan does not like it too bad, so sad.

  6. Weak and pretentious apologist by Paranjape, a well known articulator of Hindu fascism.

    The Hindu fascist appropriates people who would be opposed to them like Gandhi, Bose and Bhagat Singh and say he was one of us. I would say only Patel would have endorsed Modi.

    ‘Again, in this, he resembles Gandhi, who was careful to distance himself from not only the Congress but any special constituency identifiable by religion, region, community, language, caste, and so on, in order to be seen as the leader of all Indians.’

    The above is a suggestive fabrication. Gandhi might have done most of the above. However, it is a falsehood that Modi is not identifiable by religion and community. He shows of community blatantly. He shows off he is against some communities. The actual reality is he is a polarising figure and his support is based on that – worshipped by only Hindus, and hated by all non-Hindus.

    Gandhi was an internationally admired figure. You can cite many Muslims who admired him and accepted him. Same with Nehru. It is not so with Modi. Modi is admired by Hindus in India, and Hindus abroad only, hence don’t make false equivalences.

    Hindus claimed Patel was a world figure, and his statue would bring droves of tourists to India like the Statue of Liberty. Afterwards, the govt. took out adverts saying to justify the expense, by claiming tourists will bring money and the cost will be recouped. This article is in the same vein. It reads like a weak advert trying to project Modi’s piety because he fasts. Modi’s does all that as a pose for power.

    Modi has been a failure on four fronts : economy, Covid mismanagement, China, and tearing apart the social fabric. His fasting, beard and folded hands do not fool all. He is just another Hindu genocidist.

    • If Hindu are fascist Muslims are global terrorists. Gandhi, Patel or Nehru all were Hindus having different views unlike Muslims who lacks pluralism. It doesn’t change with Pichai or Nadella. Learn to rectify yourself first.

    • While other things of what you have written here make sense to me, but your stating that Sardar Patel would have endorsed Modi is far from true and misleading. His integrity towards all Indians was beyond doubt; Hindutvavadi people treating and identifying him in a different way for entertaining their own narrow beliefs, notwithstanding.

      • @Murtada
        I agree with you. Patel is misunderstood (to some extent) by both the right-wing and the left. A reading of ‘Indian Summer’ (Simon & Schuster. UK. 2007) by Alex Von Tunzelmann throw some light on this. Regards.

        • Thank you very much Mr Deb for providing me with a reference vis a vis the matter on hand. I will try to access to that reference in due course. I am hopeful that it would be an interesting and enlightening read. Best wishes.

    • Number of times you are using Hindu Hindu it shows how much hatred you have for a community. If Hindus are fascist Muslims are global terrorists. All the names you are singing tune here were Hindus, Nehru or Patel. Unlike Global Terrorist Muslims.

    • When Islamic terror propaganda calls Hindu as fascist its a joke. Nehru or Paatel , all were Hindus having different views. Unlike islamist terrorists.

    • I think you are not slightly, but substantially off the mark, when you say (Modi)…..”worshipped by only Hindus”. This somehow rings like ‘all Hindus’ worship him, which I am sure you know that it is not true. Yes it does not reflect in the electoral battle, because of a hopelessly fragmented opposition, but that does not negate the fact that he is hated by a large section of Hindus. How large? May be a matter of conjecture depending on the quality of data captured.
      P.S. I am an admirer of your posts on different pages of Print on various issues, along with another gentleman by the name Kill Joshiyer. A friendly suggestion, avoid using words like ‘Hindus’, ‘Muslims’ unless the context makes it unavoidable, that puts everyone in that group in a compartment. With your sensitivity and scholarship you can do better, I am sure. Best of luck, keep posting.

    • Your posts sometimes make good sense, but understand that maybe only around half of Hindus voted for him , that too mostly in Hindi heartland and West India. So don’t put all Hindus in one bucket. There are many upper caste Hindus themselves who don’t like the BJP’S way of politics.

  7. Bhakti oozing out of every sentence, every word. What good is education, if it doesn’t teach you do differentiate between right and wrong ? What good it is if it produces sycophants and bootlickers? Feel sorry about the students where ever you teach, Professor Sahib!

    • Modi has proved himself to be higher calibre than all other leaders of India and rapidly approaching level of Mahatma Gandhi.

      What differentiated Modi from Patel is his handling of Vajpayee-Advani compared to Patel’s handling of Gandhi regarding Nehru. Vajpayee-Advani wanted to make Modi deputy chief minister of Gujarat in 2001 after Kesubhai’s poor performance in earthquake response. Modi refused deputy CM’s position and insisted to be either CM or not going to Gandhinagar. rest is history.

      In case of Patel, in spite of backing most Congressmen for PM’s position, Patel accepted Gandhi’s decision to be deputy PM, instead of refusing it and taking political Sanyasa. If he had done that Nehru would have totally failed like Keshubhai and leave for England. Gandhi then would have been forced to ask Patel to be PM. It was Patel’s failure to stand up to Gandhi cost India dearly, in terms of Pakistan & China.

      • You assume Patel would have saved India better than Nehru. We can never know for sure since Patel was not the prime minister.

        One man could not have made that much of a difference to our armed forces at that time. The Chinese would have taken our territory even if Patel was prime minister. The Chinese would not have been easy to us like Goa or Hyderabad. And note we lost part of Kashmir and whole of Gilgit Baltistan in 1948 itself.

        • And note we lost part of Kashmir and whole of Gilgit Baltistan in 1948 itself.

          that was only due to Nehru. Once Maharaja signed accession Nehru went to UN instead of sending army to recapture the area.

          In case of Tibet issue was that there was no need to recognize Communist China without securing Tibet’s Independence. US in it’s crusade against Communism indicated it would help India against China and so India should have send troops to defend Tibet in 1949 after Communist took power, but had not taken Tibet. Even if India was defeated it would have hold defense line far further than what is now.

          It was Nehru’s anti-Imperialism mind set, which was the problem., as he was against any alliance with so called Imperialists. He failed to realize that world had changed after Chinese revolution.

          • Nehru bashing or Modi bashing…it is difficult to know how much is the truth and how much is propaganda. But in this country propaganda surely works far more effectively than scientific or historical academic work.

        • Sivaswami, issue is not Nehru bashing or Modi bashing. Issue is ground reality. That is where I have problem with Nehru. He either actively or passively allowed ground reality to shift in a way that was / is unfavorable to India.

          Problem in India is Nehru dynasty ruled for so long rather than one to three terms. So India was not able to reap dividend of democracy in correcting the policies.

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