Prime Minister Modi seems to be aware of the risk that the ‘authoritarian’ tag could begin to hurt.
Speaking in Karnataka Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi coined yet another term to criticise the Congress.
“Naamdar vs kaamdar“, or dynasts vs industrious, is the new binary PM Modi is selling to Karnataka and India.
The idea is to project the Congress as undemocratic — they inherit power through birth, not by hard work like Modi, going from being a chaiwallah to prime ministership.
The Congress wants Karnataka voters to see this election as a battle between Yeddyurappa and Siddaramaiah, one in which the Congress CM is ahead by all accounts. The Prime Minister wants to make it a Modi-versus-Rahul battle — in that game, the BJP is ahead.
He tried to kill two birds with one stone. One bird is Siddaramaiah, but the other bird is the risk of being seen as undemocratic.
Modi painted the Congress as entitled, elite, rich dynasts, and himself as the humble class victim.
This is part of an ongoing narrative war between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, one in which they have been trying to paint each other as undemocratic.
There’s the old barb that Modi does his ‘Mann ki Baat’, speaks his mind, but doesn’t listen to what the people have to say. The effort is more than just banal over-use of the word undemocratic. For months now, Rahul Gandhi has been trying to paint Narendra Modi as authoritarian. He tries to make this point in virtually every speech he gives. Here are a few examples:
Speaking on data privacy issues with the Modi mobile app, he said the PM was the “‘Big Boss‘ who likes to spy on Indians”.
When asked a critical question about the Congress’ performance in power, Rahul replied, “Mr Narendra Modi would never do that. You would never have the ability to say in front of Modiji what you said to me. And I am absolutely blazingly proud of that.”
At the same event, he also said: “I am a person who has been taught to love even those people who dislike me. I feel no animosity towards anyone who opposes me. This is what makes me different from PM Modi.”
On Sunday, speaking at the ‘Jan Aakrosh’ rally in Delhi, Rahul drew the ‘satya-versus-satta‘ binary — truth versus power.
Last year, during the Gujarat elections, Rahul had presented Modi as Sholay’s evil dacoit, Gabbar Singh, by describing goods and sales tax as Gabbar Singh Tax.
At the Congress party’s plenary session, Rahul said, “Modiji thinks he is not human but an incarnation of God”. He added, “The BJP has spread fear. People from press are scared; for the first time we saw four Supreme Court judges running to the public for justice. There is a difference between RSS & Congress — we respect the country’s institutions whereas they want to finish them. They only want one institution, that is RSS.”
He continued with this theme of freedom and fear: “They told Gauri Lankesh and Kalburgi, question us and you will die. They tell our honest businessman to shut up and allow corrupt officers to extort their hard-earned money.”
He also took a dig at BJP president Amit Shah, “They (people) will accept a man accused of murder as the president of the BJP, but they will never ever accept the same in the Congress party because they hold the Congress in the highest regard.”
He even said he was not upset with the poor media coverage his party received. “But when the RSS comes for you (the media) the Congress hand will protect you,” he added.
The impeachment motion the Congress tried to bring was similarly aimed at portraying the Modi government as undemocratic and authoritarian. The party also launched a ‘Save the Constitution’ campaign.
It is in light of these efforts that we should read Modi’s jab at Rahul, calling him an entitled dynast in contrast to himself.
Just as the Congress has been portraying Modi as undemocratic, Modi has been trying, in his speeches, to show that he is a democrat. In the last few months, his speeches contain more than a perfunctory reference to democracy.
Modi is perhaps aware of the risk that he faces if the “authoritarian” narrative could succeed. The BJP’s incredulous election victories, the party’s ability to make coalition governments despite not being the single largest party, the government’s clear undermining of some institutions, and even Smriti Irani’s botched fake news circular — all of these things and then some more, are proof that the Modi government likes to have its way.
If the “authoritarian” narrative succeeds, it is one that could flip ‘Brand Modi’ upside down in no time. Indians have often shown love for rebellion, most recently in 2011-2013, the fruits of which PM Modi is still enjoying.
And that’s perhaps why the PM wants us to know he loves criticism. “If there is no opposition in a democracy, if there is no criticism, then how is it democracy?” he asked in an interaction with Prasoon Joshi in London. (Ironically, all the questions were clearly staged.) “These are not just my words but my conviction. I think the most beautiful thing about democracy is criticism.” He dwelled on the idea at great length.
He did complain, however, about how constructive criticism needed research, not baseless allegations. He went on to say he was often criticised for not responding to criticism. He said, “I take criticism so seriously that I try to understand it and act on it. My job is not to shut you up. That would be the wrong way… Your criticism is a treasure for me, a gold mine.”
Praising democracy, he also said it was only in a democracy that a chaiwallah could become PM and go to Buckingham Palace, and that he wakes up to consume 1-2 kg of abuse every morning.
The PM has also been returning Rahul’s compliment by calling the Congress undemocratic. He and his party went on a one-day fast accusing the Congress of “throttling democracy” by stalling Parliament, when it was the opposition that had accused the Modi government of not letting Parliament function.
In a famous speech, where he started counting the Congress’ mistakes right from Nehru’s Prime Ministership, he said the Congress should not think it gave India democracy. He said democracy “is in the blood of Indians”, citing the ‘golden age’ of Lichchavi rule in eastern India and Kannada social reformer Basava’s teachings.
As Modi went to Basava’s land Tuesday to make yet another election pitch, he presented himself as a commoner whom the elite, entitled Gandhis can’t bear to see in power: “How can I sit before you (Rahul)? Because you are a naamdaar and we are just kaamdaars (You are from a famous family and we are from the working class.) We are not even able to wear decent clothes. Can small people like us dream to sit before a big person like you?”
Rahul wants us to see Modi as a dictator. Modi wants us to see Rahul as a feudal lord. There’s another 12 months for them to have the coffee-toffee-coffee-toffee argument.