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.
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.
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.
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.