For Modi, everything — from diplomacy to elections — is a grand spectacle, an opportunity to showcase a larger-than-life persona and dominate the news cycle.
With this personality, Narendra Modi has changed the behavioural paradigm and image projection of Indian prime ministers. The Indian voter now expects their PM to be everything grand, to be the superstar who would ‘entertain’ them at regular intervals. Modi now presides over India not as the prime minister, but like a king. For a democracy, this can be a burdensome legacy. Anybody who succeeds him may have to also enact the king-size performances that Modi has set as a template. If the Delhi election is any indication, it does look like Modi is writing the playbook for other politicians to follow. L. K. Advani may have said it disparagingly when he called Modi a good event manager. But Modi owned it and turned it into his political canvas.
US President Donald Trump’s visit is no different. Wrapped in a fancy and glitzy show with massive crowds, it brought a city to a standstill, with a mega event and a much-publicised roadshow.
Modi is the eternal showman — relentless in his pursuit for grandeur, untiring in his attempts to be the centre of attention and never shying away from shedding all semblance of subtlety. For him, even diplomacy is more about pomp and show and more pomp, than about substance. Thus, when Barack Obama comes calling, the PM decides to dress himself up in a suit monogrammed with his name, and when Trump visits, he decides to make a festival of it.
The ‘extraordinary’ out of the ordinary
It isn’t just diplomatic events where Modi turns into a showman. It’s his intrinsic nature which spills out on a daily basis and characterises the everyday aspects of his prime ministership, making him jump from one mega show to another.
The PM has instilled this belief in Indians that his role is not merely to win elections and govern, but to also make them ‘proud’ by projecting a larger-than-life personality. He believes winning elections is as much a factor of work and substance as of bluster, and thus, every development, diplomatic event, significant day or policy initiative becomes an opportunity to put up a grand show.
The constant urge to mount a spectacle is not just a personal trait but also a political need for Modi. As the head of first full-majority BJP government, his quest is always to signal a dramatic, disruptive shift from business-as-usual and from the way India thinks. And no amount of speeches can do that, it has to be conveyed visually as well.
The perennial showman
For Narendra Modi, elections are the ultimate platform to showcase his self. He turns most polls (except some like the recent ones in Delhi where he feels distancing himself is safer) to be around himself, referring to himself in third person, carpet bombing with rallies and fancy speeches. As he visits different states, his headgear ranges from the more ‘usual’ to dramatic, adding a dollop of drama to his presence.
For Modi, Yoga Day isn’t just about waking up at 5am, quietly practising his yoga and pushing out a tweet. It’s about making it one grand exhibition, and using the platform to grab headlines.
Modi’s birthday isn’t just about cutting a cake, meeting people, receiving wishes and returning the greetings. It is a carefully orchestrated performance — meal with his mother with cameras rolling, releasing butterflies and more such drama.
Remaining fit isn’t merely about a regimented lifestyle and work-outs, it’s showing-off his exercise routine and ensuring the visuals go viral. Cleanliness or swachhta requires the PM to theatrically pick up the broom himself because merely giving speeches and issuing directions to relevant authorities is passé.
Even something as personal and spiritual as meditation isn’t done quietly. Narendra Modi prays in the public eye, dons a saffron robe to meditate in front of clicking cameras and makes sure this becomes another grand event.
Can you imagine any other Indian prime minister unapologetically taking part in a show like Man vs Wild with Bear Grylls?
The constant need to remain in public memory and outdo everyone else, along with the unabashed desire to rule media and social media space has become an inherent part of Modi’s personality, getting more accentuated with time.
To be fair, there isn’t anything really wrong with this — except that the office of the PM comes with a degree of responsibility and grace. With Modi’s over-the-top drama and unashamed peddling of self, that gets blurred at some level.
Modi’s in-your-face diplomacy
For Modi, diplomacy is as much about the exhibition and glamour as it is about strategic talks and building relationships with countries. His version of diplomacy is often less international, and more focussed to cater to a domestic audience, ensures the news cycle revolves around him and is used as a platform for political/electoral posturing.
Narendra Modi’s diplomacy, therefore, is hardly the stuff subtlety is made of. He will try his hands at drumming in Tanzania, compete with a professional drummer in Japan, wear a monogrammed suit that makes it to the Guinness Book, enjoy a swing ride with China’s Xi Jinping at the Sabarmati riverfront and address a massive crowd at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
To boast of his close ties with the United States and its leadership, Modi will hold hands with Trump after the mega Howdy, Modi! event and take what can only be described as a victory lap.
The outcome of his visits often range from precious little to significant, but in terms of the selling point, the concrete stuff is never at the forefront, it is Modi, Modi and more Modi.
Given his six-year track record, it’s clear that Modi relishes playing the forever-showman. Narendra Modi, in fact, is not content being just that — the Indian prime minister wants to be a showstopper, and uses everything at his disposal to ensure he emerges as just that.