Prime Minister and master politician Narendra Modi is a man whose masks his voters wear with fawning devotion. But Modi is also a man who wears many masks himself. He transforms himself into varied roles – a fascinating and dizzying list of rebranding efforts – from crocodile rescuer to street sweeper to pilgrim to drummer to chowkidar. Each time he dons a new persona, a new mythology is created for the masses. He is Everyman. His latest was as a man of the wild in Discovery Channel’s show Man vs Wild with Bear Grylls.
Telecast Monday night, the show had Modi learning how to use a spear to protect himself against tigers and cross the river on a dodgy raft, all the while chatting with Grylls about his life, politics, the importance of protecting the environment, and, of course, commitment to the country. More entertaining than the ‘adventure’, or lack thereof, was the conversation between the PM and Grylls – the former talking in Hindi, and the latter nodding his head in complete comprehension.
As Grylls told Modi what a “hero” he was, the PM recited a Sanskrit verse to say how India believes the world is one family. Right at the end, Grylls asked Modi if his “underpants were dry”; Modi replied in Hindi saying he would “manage to pull through the day”.
As natural as he may have wanted to be around nature, the Modi that came across is the Modi that he mostly is – minutely orchestrated and carefully planned.
Even as we try to grapple with Modi’s latest avatar, his many personalities from the past present an eclectic, entertaining and even a tad perturbing, but by no means exhaustive, repertoire.
Once upon a time, when PM Modi was ‘bal‘ Modi, he was a ‘ fearless crocodile lover’. According to Bal Narendra: Childhood Stories of Narendra Modi, a comic book, Modi is said to have once taken home a baby crocodile much to his mother’s dislike. He finally had to take it back to the lake. The book also tells us about Modi swimming past the lake full of crocodiles to reach a temple to hoist a flag. Stranger than fiction? Well, choose your answer.
Bal Modi then grew up to carve for himself a steep rise in Indian politics. After over a decade as Gujarat chief minister, Modi finally managed to edge out all competition to become the prime minister. And it is then that his many avatars and makeovers became more of a hobby, a perfect blend for his PR-driven, histrionic-laden, and over-the-top, all-for-optics style of politics.
Born out of victories
All politicians love to talk, but Modi is a sermoniser, who also likes to refer to himself in third person. Election rallies are awash with such opportunities but Modi needed more. And so, very early on in his tenure in 2014, the prime minister decided to become the nation’s preacher – and his monthly radio show, Mann Ki Baat was born. He talks of the importance of water conservation, of the benefits of Yoga, the significance of festivals, on why children should keep out water for animals and birds in the heat, and how they should learn new skills in the summer holidays.
Modi figured out a year before 2019 election that India’s school children were in dire need of their prime minister’s help with the stress of the board exams – and so he had to be an ‘exam warrior’ too. Pat came out his book.
Several of Modi’s Mann Ki Baat episodes had him addressing children, as did grand events like the one he held on the first Teachers’ Day after becoming PM. A curated edition of ‘Pariksha Pe Charcha’ – an interaction with students, teachers and parents to talk about exam-related stress as well as other aspects of student life – was organised earlier this year, where he engaged with students and even displayed his knowledge of the online multiplayer video game, PUBG.
Despite consistently criticising India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, it is evident Modi wants to be this generation’s ‘Chacha‘ Nehru.
The sound of music
One day, the PM must have realised he didn’t have enough of a musical personality. A drummer then entered the scene. Ignoring the pull of a western guitar or the charm of a Hindustani sitar, Modi picked the drums to mark his public debut as a musician. In September 2014, he played the instrument with Japanese ceremonial drummers in Tokyo during an official visit.
He repeated the performance four years later in Rajasthan, this time seeking to regale the audience attending his election rally in Dausa.
Donning the ascetic’s role
A slice of Nehru here, and a dash of Gandhi there. Modi launched a massive cleanliness mission – Swachh Bharat – in the early part of his first term. Wielding a broom in his hand to launch the initiative, Modi took on the role of a ‘street cleaner’. He did that yet again last year to mark four years of the movement on 2 October.
Only Modi can wear exorbitant pinstriped monogrammed suit and yet portray himself as a fakir.
Weeks after the drastic decision to demonetise high value notes in November 2016, when people were still reeling under shock and inconvenience, Modi sprung into action and referred to himself as a fakir (ascetic). At a rally in December 2016 following demonetisation, ‘fakir‘ Modi claimed he was being targeted for cracking down against corruption.
Evidently satisfied with this moniker, Modi went on to use it several times. Bollywood songwriter Prasoon Joshi famously asked him where he got his ‘fakiri’ from. Then he added another feather to his cap – became a “kaamdaar (one who works)” among all the “naamdaars (the entitled).”
The politician’s pilgrim
And then of course came arguably the mother of all avatar – that of a pilgrim who diligently meditates in a solitary cave. This role came with a costume et al. Wrapped in a flowing saffron robe, Modi spent a night at the Kedarnath cave earlier this year, meditating, we are told – just before a crucial round of counting. He wanted to show that he had zenned out of the frenetic 272 game.
The ‘wild’ side of Modi seen Monday is a mere extension of an already fairly eclectic, multi-faceted personality. What remains common among all these, however, is Modi the politician. Make no mistake, when it comes to this drummer, crocodile-lover, exam warrior, and sweeper, nothing is ever apolitical. Behind each of these faces, the one constant is a masterful politician, whose unabashed objective in life is to be in power.